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15 November 2021

What is sheltered housing?

How do you choose suitable sheltered housing, and what facilities does it offer? Our guide to sheltered accommodation explains your options.
W
Which?Editorial team

What is sheltered housing accommodation?

Sheltered housing is accommodation specifically designed for older or disabled people to allow them to live independently. It usually consists of self-contained flats with communal facilities.

Schemes vary in size, but most offer a range of self-contained apartments or bungalows on one site. Properties usually have their own front door, kitchen and bathroom, so residents can continue to live independently and have the freedom to come and go as they please.

The main advantage of sheltered housing is that residents have help at hand if they need it. Most offer additional support, such as:

  • A 24-hour emergency alarm system within each property, so that residents can call for help if they have a fall, for example.
  • A scheme manager (or warden) living on- or off-site, who gives advice to residents, ensures that communal areas are clean, and arranges maintenance and repairs.
  • Regular social activities and communal areas where residents can meet together.

Sheltered housing schemes don’t usually provide help with personal care, and they require residents to have a certain level of independence. However, some schemes – known as ‘extra care’ housing – do provide support for people with greater care needs.

When should I consider sheltered housing?

You might want to consider sheltered housing if any of the following is true:

  • your home no longer meets your needs
  • you have reduced mobility
  • you’re feeling lonely
  • you no longer feel safe living alone.

In most cases, sheltered housing schemes are available to people aged over 60, although some schemes are open to those over 55. When used exclusively for older people, it’s sometimes called ‘retirement housing’. And where the accommodation is in the grounds of a care home, it may be described as ‘close care’ housing.

How to find sheltered housing

The majority of sheltered housing schemes are operated by local councils and housing associations. Some charities and landlords registered with the social housing regulator (known as social landlords) also offer sheltered accommodation. 

There is also a smaller private rental market, with properties available to buy or to rent on a private basis at market rates.

How to apply for council or housing association sheltered housing

Properties are generally allocated to those who need them most, so applicants will have their needs assessed against a list of criteria. Different councils and housing associations have their own eligibility criteria. Here are some of the questions they may ask when assessing you:

  • Are you unintentionally homeless?
  • What is the condition of your current home? For example, is it unsuitable for your needs due to stairs or difficulties with using the bathroom?
  • Is the property you currently live in considered to be ‘overcrowded’?
  • Do you have a medical or social need to move, such as an illness or disability?
  • Do you need to move to be nearer family in order to receive or provide care?
  • Are you unable to buy a property or afford a private rent, and need to rent from a social landlord instead?
  • Are you an existing council or housing association tenant? (If so, you’ll need to speak to your housing officer about transferring to sheltered accommodation.)

Your local council can refer you to a housing association, or you can contact one directly to express an interest in a place. Each association will have its own eligibility criteria.

  • In England and Wales: gov.uk offers a search facility to find your local housing department by postcode.
  • In Northern Ireland: the Housing Executive has information about sheltered housing on its website.
  • In Scotland: contact your local authority to find sheltered housing schemes in your area.

You can also search for sheltered housing schemes across the UK on the HousingCare website.

Almshouses 

Almshouses offer low-cost sheltered housing to people of retirement age who have limited financial resources and live in the local community. This type of accommodation is a British tradition dating back to the 10th century and is mainly run by local volunteers.

Each almshouse is run as an independent charity, and they often have unique eligibility criteria when assessing you, such as:

  • living in the area for a certain length of time
  • having worked for a particular profession during your working life
  • being a single, older woman
  • identifying with a particular religious faith.

The Almshouse Association provides information about how to find an almshouse charity in your area. HousingCare also has lists of almshouses on its accommodation directory.

How to buy or privately rent sheltered housing

You can buy a sheltered housing property as you would a normal leasehold property. 

Just over 20% of retirement homes are bought, most of which are sold on a leasehold basis. This means that a freeholder owns the actual building and is responsible for the structure, exterior and communal areas. 

Some shared ownership schemes exist, which help people who can’t otherwise afford the full market price of a property. Residents buy a share of the equity of the property and pay rent on the remainder.

HousingCare lists sheltered and retirement housing available to buy across the UK. Many properties are also advertised with local estate agents, as well as on property websites, such as Rightmove.

Find out more about buying a leasehold property.

To rent sheltered housing on a private basis you can:

  • make enquiries with Elderly Accommodation Counsel (EAC), which can advise on sheltered housing schemes in your area that are for rent on a private basis
  • search for retirement properties that are available to rent privately from an individual; owners may have vacated the property but don’t wish to sell and are therefore letting out the property to help cover the service charges
  • check with local estate agents, who are likely to have details of such vacancies. There is also a national company called Girlings Retirement Rentals that offers age-exclusive properties for private rental.

Renting a home for the first time can be confusing. Read our step-by-step guide to rentals - from tenancy agreements to deposits.

How much does sheltered housing cost?

How much it will cost depends on what type of arrangement you opt for. Local councils and housing associations provide social housing schemes for those who are eligible, which are more affordable than private renting. Private sheltered accommodation is sold or rented at standard market rates.

But whichever option you choose, it’s important to be aware that there are often various additional costs involved - from ground rents and service charges to transfer fees and household bills. Find out more in our guide to the additional costs of sheltered housing 

The pros and cons of sheltered housing

The benefits of sheltered housing

  • Independence: the freedom to live independently in a safe environment. 
  • Reassurance: an alarm system in case of emergencies; some schemes also offer daily checks on residents. 
  • Support: help and advice is available if needed.
  • Safety and security: residents in sheltered housing often feel safer than living alone.
  • Financial help: if you’re on a low income, Housing Benefit may cover some or all of the rent. For those eligible for Pension Credit, some support with meeting the cost of service charges may also be available. 
  • Living with a partner: the option to remain living with a spouse or partner, which might not be possible with other care options. 
  • Making friends: opportunities to socialise with other residents of a similar age. 
  • Fewer worries about upkeep: if you’re renting, your landlord is likely to be responsible for repairs to your property and the maintenance of communal areas. If you’ve purchased your property, your lease will specify what your maintenance responsibilities are, but it’s likely that the scheme manager will be responsible for repairs and maintenance to the exterior of your property and communal areas. 
  • Legal protection: if renting, you usually have the protection of tenants’ rights, as you would with any rental property. Read more about the legal issues around tenancy agreements
  • Resale value: if you purchase a retirement property, then your home can be resold, inherited by family or, if necessary, used to pay for care.

The drawbacks of sheltered housing

  • Bills and service charges: residents still have to pay the bills for their own properties (such as council tax and utility charges), which might make it more difficult to budget. And if you’ve bought a property, you’ll have to pay service charges on top of the usual ongoing housing costs.
  • No medical care: most schemes won’t take people who require regular nursing care or who have demanding needs. They may also refuse to accept new residents who have existing personal care needs.
  • Limited choice: there may be a limited choice of schemes in your preferred area, particularly if you’re on a social housing list. 
  • Rules: residents have to live by the rules of the scheme, which may, for example, restrict noise or forbid pets. 
  • Reduced space: if residents are downsizing from a larger property, there may not be space for all their possessions and furniture.
  • Variations in services: scheme managers (wardens) rarely live on site; some might only be there part-time. It’s important to check what’s on offer.

Checklist for choosing sheltered housing

Here are some practicalities to consider before choosing sheltered housing.

  • Location: Is the property close to local transport links, shops and a GP? Will it be convenient for friends or family to visit?
  • Size: Moving to sheltered housing might mean downsizing to a smaller home. You may not be able to take all your furniture and possessions with you. Read our guide on the pros and cons of downsizing.
  • Facilities: does the accommodation have all the facilities that you need? For example, a laundry service and a 24-hour alarm system?
  • Scheme manager: does the manager live on or off-site? What are the scheme manager’s responsibilities, and at what times are they available to residents? How often do they check up on residents?
  • Emergencies: how does the alarm system work? Who will respond to alarm calls? What happens when the scheme manager isn’t on the premises?
  • Additional care: Consider your needs carefully. What will happen if you require extra support in the future? Will you be able to arrange care on-site or will it be necessary to move?
  • Parking: is there an allocated parking space with the property, and what parking charges apply? If you own a mobility scooter, are there storage facilities available?
  • Pets: if you have pets, will you be able to take them with you? Some properties allow pets but have a policy that if your pet dies, you’re not allowed to replace them.
  • Visitors: Can you have guests to stay in your apartment? Some schemes offer guest rooms that can be rented to visitors.
  • Communications: is there a phone line, internet/wi-fi, or satellite or cable TV if you want it, and what are the costs?
  • Management: is the scheme registered with the Association of Retirement Housing Managers (ARHM)? ARHM-registered companies should follow its code of practice. Some managing agents are members of the Association of Residential Managing Agents (ARMA), which also has a charter that members must follow.

Extra-care housing and additional care

Sheltered housing schemes usually don’t offer any medical or nursing care, so if you require specific medical care, you may find that a care home is a better option.

However, there are ‘extra care’ sheltered housing schemes that can provide care and support for those who need it, such as help with daily personal care, for example. This type of accommodation is sometimes called ‘housing with care’, ‘very sheltered housing’, ‘assisted living’ or ‘close care’.

Residents live in self-contained homes – often a flat or bungalow – but care staff are available to help with getting into and out of bed, washing and dressing. They might also help with cleaning or provide meals. Care staff are sometimes based on site, but they can also be community based, and are typically available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

If you’re not sure what level of care you require, read our guidance on getting a needs assessment. This is a review of your care needs that’s carried out by the local authority and defines what support you need. It’s free of charge.

Unlike regular sheltered housing, extra-care housing is regulated by the Care Quality Commission (CQC). You can search for inspection reports and ratings for ‘supported housing’ providers on the CQC website.