.id Housing series Part 2 | Downsizing to the good life

.id Housing series Part 2 | Downsizing to the good life

Victor Fisher 14 Aug, 2018

As you grow older, do you want to stay in the suburb you’re familiar with? Through our work with the City of Moonee Valley, we found that many residents would like to age in place, but some struggle to find suitable housing options as they reach retirement age. Providing options for older residents to downsize is a challenge in a number of local areas, but it also presents an opportunity to free up larger houses for families.

Discussions about housing in Australian cities often focus on younger households and families. However, in any comprehensive housing strategy, it is equally important to provide for the evolving needs of older people.

Catch up: Read the first blog in the series on medium and high-density housing for families

In the second article in our blog series on housing, which uses case studies to explore the relationship between dwellings and demographic change, we turn our attention to the mature end of the age structure – the age groups we often refer to as empty-nesters and retirees.

One of the trends having the greatest impact on our major cities is the ageing of the baby boomer generation. As this large group of people grows older, we are seeing a significant increase in the share of the total population reaching the retirement age groups.

The impact of this trend on the age structure of capital city populations is shown in Chart 1.


Click to expand – Chart 1: Age structure of Greater Capital Cities, 2006-2016 | Source: ABS Census of Population and Housing, 2016, 2006

Housing preferences change with age

More important, perhaps, is what this process means for the household composition of urban communities.

Ageing is naturally followed by changes in household formation; as a family moves through the household lifecycle, its children will eventually leave home to form new households, either as lone persons, in couples, or as a group. In effect, their empty-nester parents are also becoming a new household – an older couple without children.

In the future, this couple will evolve into a lone person household as one partner dies or moves to care accommodation.

As shown by the example of Margaret, our second case study from Melbourne’s Moonee Valley region, an older lone person is likely to have very different housing preferences compared to a young couple or family.

Despite this, many older residents will continue to occupy larger format homes that do not suit their lifestyles as they age. Chart 2 shows that around 42% of older lone person households across Metropolitan Melbourne live in separate houses with three or more bedrooms. In contrast, Margaret swapped her detached home for a two-bedroom apartment in her local area, and she hasn’t looked back since.

Case study: Downsizing to the good life
At the ‘empty nester’ stage of life, retired school teacher Margaret moved from her family-size home to a manageable two-bedroom apartment in Essendon.

At the age of 72, it was becoming increasingly difficult to take care of a large detached house. “As soon as you start work on one bit, you find that everything else needs fixing”, Margaret told us. As her backyard also required a lot of attention, Margaret was quite happy moving to an apartment with only a balcony to relax outside on. The apartment even offers more security than her old house. With under-cover parking, Margaret knows her car will be safe when she goes away on holiday.

For Margaret, the decision to move from a house to an apartment seemed like an obvious one. Downsizing within Essendon had a range of benefits, but above all it allowed her to stay close to her grandchildren, the local community centre and her beloved Essendon Bombers. As residents grow older, maintaining connections to family and other support networks has a greater influence on their choice of housing.

Of course, promoting downsizing among older residents largely depends on increasing the supply of appropriate medium and high-density housing. Margaret says that several of her friends would like to move to a lower-maintenance place, but they have struggled to find suitable smaller housing options in the local area.

That is not to say that a scarcity of dwellings is the only factor preventing older residents from downsizing. Understandably, many are put off by the financial costs of moving, or have significant emotional attachments to their family home. Others might be passionate gardeners or want to keep the spare bedrooms for when their grandchildren come to stay. For some, apartment living is simply not an attractive option late in life.

Nevertheless, it is important that older household types have adequate opportunities to downsize. Dedicated retirement living facilities certainly help to address this need, while medium and high-density dwellings with supportive features for ageing residents might encourage more people to follow Margaret’s lead.

Why is this so important?


With a focus on the impact of ageing, Margaret’s story clearly highlights the importance of housing diversity in supporting a changing population.

Increasing the supply of smaller format dwellings suitable for older household types fosters two key demographic processes in urban communities:

  • Ageing in place

At the retirement stage of life, it is important for many older residents to remain close to their family, friends and the community services they are familiar with. The availability of smaller dwelling types that are accessible and secure enables older residents to stay connected, without the excessive maintenance associated with a large detached home.

  • Suburban regeneration

A sustainable suburb lifecycle depends on the access of younger households and families to suitable dwelling types that are close to employment opportunities. When empty nesters leave the home in which they raised their children, this creates a housing opportunity for a new young couple hoping to build a family in the suburb.

What does this mean for housing policy?

While ageing is always a talking point, the arrival of the baby boomer generation to retirement age is having a profound impact on the age structure of our capital city populations. Local housing policies must respond to this by considering the diverse housing preferences of residents as they age.

Providing options for older households to downsize can improve the quality of life of empty nesters and retirees, by reducing home maintenance and improving security. This depends on ensuring a share of new medium and high-density dwellings is designed specifically for the needs of older people, with accessible entranceways and secure parking facilities.

Housing diversity helps to address the scarcity of options for older residents who do not want to move to retirement accommodation. Crucially, it also organically frees up three and four-bedroom housing options suitable for younger couples and families.

Is this you?

If you’ve lived in the same suburb for a number of years, and are now considering downsizing, is there a suitable new home for you in your neighbourhood? Share your experience in the comments – we would love to hear from you.

Are you a planner?

If you work with council, read our case study Planning for future housing in Victoria Park.

Or, learn more about our free report on demand, diversity, affordability and supply in your area.

Tags: Housing
Victor Fisher

Victor comes to us as an outstanding graduate via .id's Graduate Development Programme after completing his Master of International Urban and Environmental Management at RMIT University. He is particularly interested in how population dynamics are used to inform planning processes and understanding the importance of place.

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