A recent study in the U.K.[2] reported that people aged 60 and over own £1.28 trillion in housing stock.  The report goes on to discuss the desire on the part of many older people, especially those in houses with three or more bedrooms, to downsize to a more manageable property.  Older people are living in homes with more space than they need – referred to as living in an under-occupied property.

There have been both positive and negative responses to the study, mainly from older adults.  Some are seeking manageable housing to reduce or eliminate property maintenance.  Others are seeking a less expensive property, liberating some money to assist family and to decrease their own monthly expenses.  Naysayers feel the costs of moving, the challenges of downsizing and the fear of the unknown new living arrangement are obstacles they are unable to overcome.   Although these are U.K. results, many of the study outcomes also apply to Canada.

The Problem with Under-occupied Properties

Comfort and safety issues arise in housing that is too large for older adults:

  1.  Individuals will narrow their living to a subset of rooms in the house.  The other rooms are often closed off by shut doors and curtained windows.  This can create a depressing environment minimizing the natural light entering the house and creating a sense of isolation due to limited views to the outside.
  2. As utilities increase, the desire to stop heating or cooling certain rooms is appealing to the home owner.  However, the home does not always respond well to these temperature variations between rooms.  Damage can occur such as increased mold and mildew.  This can devalue a house or even make it unsalable unless fixed.
  3. Key rooms such as bathrooms and kitchens may become inconvenient or even unsafe in the under-occupied home.  A main floor bathroom may be too small or unsuitable for the aging homeowner.  However, a more comfortable bathroom, with safety grips and guard rails and better lighting may be in the unoccupied part of the home, possibly on an upper level, decreasing access.

Canadian housing has been a hot-topic for the past decade – mainly due to substantial price increases in many areas and the hotly-debated possibility of a housing bubble.  More recent buying opportunities in warm U.S. climates have also resulted in more Canadians investing in real estate.  The U.K. is well ahead of Canada in terms of population aging and the challenges faced by communities and service providers.  Although different local and national taxation systems results in unique disincentives for downsizing, their challenges and solutions are worth watching.  Suitable housing for older adults is bound to become the focus of future housing discussions in Canada.  There are many stakeholders including developers, municipalities, social services and citizens.  Each is hoping to protect their investments and manage their costs and revenue-streams.   My fear is that these discussions will be delayed until a housing crisis affects the quality of life of many older Canadians.


[1] HRH Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip

[2] Home Builders Federation  www.hbf.co.uk

*photo from PublicDomainPictures via pixabay