Ageing in place is a key policy response to population ageing, but this begs the question: ageing in what kind of place? It is well established that a significant majority of older Australians live in detached suburban dwellings of three or more bedrooms which are often regarded by policy-makers as under-utilised. Much urban policy is premised on the assumption that an ageing population will require more diverse (implying smaller) housing stock into which older people will (or should) downsize.

So the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURi) of the University of NSW set out to better understand what downsizing in the Australian context means, including:

  • the extent of downsizing amongst older Australians;
  • who downsizes and why;
  • what is involved in the process;
  • what are the outcomes;
  • what obstacles discourage downsizing; and
  • what policies could facilitate downsizing where appropriate and desired by older people.

The subsequent report "Downsizing Amongst Older Australians" was published in January 2014.

An outline of findings and excerpts from the report are set out below, and you can use the links (above and below) to visit the AHURi website and access an online copy of the full report.


The research regarded older people as those aged 50 years or over, in order to capture the pre-retirement cohort who may be making decisions about their housing futures. ‘Older Downsizers’ are those who have moved to a dwelling with fewer bedrooms since turning 50 years of age.  ‘Other Movers’ are those who changed their dwelling without reducing the number of bedrooms. Both homeowners and tenants are included in the study, along with residents of retirement villages under loan/lease tenure.

The research included consideration of relevant data from the ABS Census of Population and Housing (ABS Census) for the years 2001, 2006 and 2011, and the 2003 and 2009 Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC).  It is based on a national questionnaire survey of 2819 older people who had moved since turning 50 years of age, and in-depth interviews with 60 survey respondents, 20 each in New South Wales (NSW), Victoria and South Australia (SA), as well as three Policy Forums using the World Café method in NSW, Victoria and SA.

Australians aged 65 and over continue to be more likely to be living in larger dwellings (three or more bedrooms) than their younger counterparts, with a higher percentage share of older Australians living in larger dwellings in 2011 than in 2001. By contrast, the proportion of older Australians living in flat/apartment dwellings (i.e. likely to be smaller dwellings) remains low, with the percentage share decreasing since 2001. Australians aged 65 and over are increasingly likely to be living in detached dwellings, though the percentage share of the younger population (aged 0–54) living in detached dwellings was comparatively higher still. The pre-retirement age group of 55-64 was the most likely to live in detached dwellings in 2011.

Full home ownership continued to be the dominant tenure type for older Australians (i.e. people aged 55 or over). While the percentage share of older Australians living in mortgaged dwellings or in private rental accommodation remained relatively low in 2011 (less than 10%), this has increased since 2001, with the percentage share of older Australians aged 65 and over living in mortgaged dwellings having doubled in most states/territories.

Older Australians were less likely to have moved home in the period 2006–11 than 2001–06. Their likelihood of moving also decreased with age except for those aged 85 years and over, a life stage where the most significant decline in the ability to self-care was most likely.

A common thread among these findings is the influence of the proportion of Downsizers moving into retirement villages. Although still a minority (around 21%) of Downsizers, this is likely to explain many of the differences in dwelling form compared to Other Movers including number of storeys, number of bedrooms, floor area and forms of tenure. While separate houses in the private market remain the main housing type for both Downsizers and Other Movers, retirement villages appear to be the primary alternate means of downsizing for many older Australians

The study/questionnaire survey identified a number of key drivers:



  • The most common factor contributing to downsizing for older Australians was a desire for a change in lifestyle.
  • The second most important factor contributing to downsizing was inability to maintain the home and/or garden.
  • Children leaving home and retirement were also important factors.
  • Relationship breakdown, health and disability were important only for a smaller percentage of older people.
  • Financial motivations were of importance to relatively few Downsizers and, amongst these, financial gain was a more common motivation than financial difficulty.

Key drivers that were of similar importance for housing moves by Downsizers and Other Movers included:





  • Lifestyle preference as the primary driver.
  • Retirement and financial reasons (both positive and negative) as somewhat important drivers for both groups.

A number of differences in the motivations for moving were also identified between the two groups. Eg:





  • Maintenance was a much more important driver for Downsizers than for Other Movers.
  • Demographic changes (children leaving home, relationship breakdown and death of a partner) were more important drivers for Downsizers than for Other Movers.
  • Illness and disability were more important drivers for Downsizers than for Other Movers.

Age was an important factor for a number of circumstances identified by this study which influenced and ultimately led to downsizing or other moves, for example:





  • Maintenance as a factor increased in importance with age, particularly for Downsizers.
  • Children leaving home was a prominent factor only for the 55–64 and 65–74 age groups.
  • Relationship breakdown decreased markedly with age as a factor for Downsizers.
  • Death of a partner, as might be expected, increased in importance with age for both groups, but much more so for Downsizers.
  • Financial gain as a factor decreased with age, similarly for both Downsizers and Other Movers.
  • Health and disability generally increased in importance with age, particularly for Downsizers.

However, a number of other issues were emphasised including the importance of:





  • A dwelling that was on one level (without stairs).
  • A small and manageable garden.
  • Good neighbours.
  • Moving back to an area to which they had a history and emotional attachment.
  • Moving to a better climate for health reasons.
  • Deciding against retirement villages because of concern about the costs and financial arrangements.

Information and advice informing the moving process were sought from a variety of sources:





  • Both Downsizers and Other Movers sought their advice primarily from family, and slightly more so for Downsizers.
  • Secondary sources of information and advice (e.g. friends and real estate agents) were utilised by both groups. Downsizers, more commonly consulted friends, while Other Movers more commonly consulted real estate agents.
  • Financial advisors appeared to be the only other source of any significance for both groups, but an equal proportion of Downsizers and Other Movers said they relied on no one and had made their own decisions.
  • There was very little reliance by either group on government information services, seniors peak organisations, lawyers or the popular media for information, advice or guidance.

Other issues raised by interviewees in respect to the moving process that were not identified in the questionnaire survey included:





  • The importance of emotional attachment to the existing home and neighbourhood and the difficulty this presented in the process of moving.
  • The difficulties associated with the actual move and the importance of support and assistance from family and friends during this process.
  • The importance and difficulty of ‘downsizing’ belongings in order to move into a smaller property, often being a practically difficult, time consuming and emotional experience.
  • The importance of not leaving the move too late but rather moving while still young and healthy enough to cope with the process.

Overall, levels of satisfaction among Downsizers and Other Movers who participated in the survey were very high (around 90%) and there was little variation with age. The interviews revealed that satisfaction with the dwelling was often related to:





  • Lower maintenance of a smaller house and/or garden.
  • Having enough space to entertain/accommodate family and friends.
  • Where space was limited, having access to shared common spaces.
  • The layout and accessible design of the dwelling.
  • Having adequate storage.
  • Having a good owner’s corporation (strata title) and/or residents’ committee (retirement village).
  • Close proximity of shops, transport and other services.
  • Living in a safe area, and having good security.

The availability of care services featured as an important outcome for many interviewees, especially for those in retirement villages. Key elements of importance included:





  • Call buttons in retirement villages.
  • On-site/on-call management and nurse in some retirement villages.
  • Community care from non-government organisations (NGOs) and local councils.
  • Emergency transport to medical care from remote locations.


You can read more and access an online copy of the report on the AHURi website.