After the lockdown, the exodus. Estate agents are reporting a surge in the numbers of would-be homebuyers plotting a move out of the city to a rural area or smaller town as people conclude that home working is here to stay.
Firms said that during the last few weeks they had seen a big increase in enquiries about well-connected countryside and “out of city” locations – ranging from English market towns to Scottish fishing villages – where people could split their working week between home and office once life starts to return to normal.
The upmarket estate agent Savills said locations that had seen a rise in buyer registrations included the areas in and around Winchester in Hampshire, Newbury in Berkshire, Canford Cliffs in Dorset and the East Neuk of Fife on the east coast of Scotland.
Lockdown appears to be prompting many people to reassess what is important to them, whether that is a desire to continue working from home for part of the week once normal service resumes or wanting a bigger garden for their children to play in.
The pandemic has effectively pushed the UK housing market into a temporary deep freeze, with people being told by the government to postpone moving until a later date, and there have been claims that several hundred thousand home sales will be abandoned this year.
However, Rightmove has revealed that visits to its site during the last three days of April were up more than 20% compared with the first few days of lockdown, as more people stuck at home started to think about a new life in the country.
Andrew Perratt, the head of country residential at Savills, said it might be easy to dismiss an increase in web visits as largely being down to “bored dreamers” sitting at home surfing the internet, but he added: “What is most significant for me is the jump in new buyer registrations.”
Perratt said the big demand was for properties in “the country markets around the major cities,” which included villages and market towns.
The mass switch to working from home had proved that “you don’t need to be in London, or another city, five days a week,” he said. “I think there are lessons to be learned for all of us in terms of the number of times we need to visit a city during a working week.”
Savills surveyed nearly 700 registered buyers and sellers in the so-called prime property market between 21 April and 27 April to find out how their attitudes to moving had changed during the coronavirus crisis. It found 49% expected increased home working to continue post-lockdown, while about four in 10 said they would now find a village or countryside location more appealing than previously, with the latter figure higher for those with school-age children.
This prompted the firm to talk about a potential “rural renaissance”. Winchester has reasonably good rail links with London, with a journey time of just over an hour, and lies at the western end of the South Downs national park. The average house price there is £419,000, compared with £477,000 in London, according to the most recent official Land Registry data.
Newbury is well known for its strong transport links, lies on the edge of the Berkshire Downs and is surrounded by attractive villages such as Highclere and Hermitage.
Perratt said his theory was that Canford Cliffs, an affluent suburb of Poole in Dorset, was an area where some wealthy Londoners were lucky enough to already own a bolthole to escape to, and that some may be looking to “flip” their life so that this becomes their principal residence instead of London.
Similarly with the East Neuk of Fife, which includes picturesque fishing towns such as Anstruther, people might be looking to swap their Edinburgh townhouse for a smaller flat and use the proceeds to buy a bigger home on the coast, he added.
At the Douglas Allen branch in Brentwood, Essex, manager Reece Giles said interest from potential buyers in nearby London boroughs looking to relocate to the area “has kind of gone through the roof”. The Brentwood area includes villages such as Navestock that offer the benefits of rural life but are within an easy commute of London.
The Savills research also found that one in six respondents were ready for a longer commute, with the firm saying it believed some people would be prepared to put up with a two-hour journey to work if they were only going into the office for a couple of days a week.
The latest Rightmove data, meanwhile, named Inverness in the Scottish Highlands as the location seeing the biggest year-on-year increase in searches – up 167%.