realestate

Is now the right time to move to the country?


Traci Slatton is sick of New York. The novelist, who has lived with her family in the same apartment since 1995, wants to move out of the city. Since lockdown, she and her husband, the sculptor Sabin Howard, have been staying in an Airbnb rental in Englewood, New Jersey, to be close to her husband’s studio. Slatton’s time there has opened her eyes.

“My husband and I started saying: ‘Why are we in Manhattan? Why are we drinking the Manhattan Kool-Aid?”

Her disillusionment has been building for some time. Slatton is unhappy with the way New York authorities handled the outbreak of Covid-19. As of Wednesday morning, despite having a population less than a quarter of the size of California’s, New York City had more than five times the number of coronavirus-related deaths.

On recent trips to Manhattan to pick up her mail and run errands, Slatton has observed how the pandemic has changed the city. “With everything at a standstill, that kind of dynamic energy that people love in New York is just gone,” she says.

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 20: A person crosses the street at very quiet Times Square on April 20, 2020, in New York City. During his daily coronavirus (COVID-19) briefing, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the death toll dropped below 500 in a 24 hour period for the first time since the peak of the pandemic. (Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)
A very quiet Times Square in lockdown New York © Getty

Now, the family is planning a move to the country, and has found a home on a few acres in rural Connecticut. She intends to sell her Manhattan apartment. “You get out into the countryside, you can put your feet on the earth, and you feel a lot more grounded,” she says, “more realistic.”

Around the world, urbanites of all ages are considering doing the same — many for the first time. Exacerbated by the pressures of lockdown, city dwellers have been forced to confront the shortcomings in undersized, overpriced accommodation and are tempted by more space, greenery and lower prices.

But after a decade of growth in megacities such as New York, London and Hong Kong — which have seen property prices rise and developers race to build lavish but space-limited accommodation — will homeowners turn rural dreams into reality?

The West Cornwall Covered Bridge (1864) is a wooden lattice truss one lane bridge built over the Housatonic River in the towns of Cornwall and Sharon, Connecticut.
A covered bridge in rural Connecticut, where some New Yorkers contemplate relocating © Getty Images/iStockphoto

Dreams of escape

In the UK, potential buyers are definitely pining for the countryside. Online searches for homes in rural and coastal locations have increased since the country went into lockdown 10 weeks ago. In the first week of May, the number of searches for homes in rural locations on Zoopla was up 68 per cent compared with the first week of March. 

Searches for homes close to the quaint coastal town of Dartmouth in Devon increased 126 per cent. Around Monmouth in Wales, on the edge of the bucolic Wye Valley, they rose 136 per cent. Near Godalming, a smart, historic market town in Surrey surrounded by countryside, interest increased 78 per cent.

Other popular places were the rugged environs of Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight, and the diminutive city of Truro in Cornwall. 

Yachts Moored at the Marina at Kingswear Opposite Dartmouth on the Dart Estuary, Devon, United Kingdom
Online searches for homes close to the coastal town of Dartmouth, in Devon, England, increased 126 per cent in May © Getty

Londoners especially say they want to get out of the city. In April, according to Hamptons International, 15 per cent of buyer registrations recorded in branches outside the capital were made by Londoners, up from 8 per cent in March. 

Gemma Shah, a 35-year-old Londoner, wants to move out of Brixton, a bustling district in Zone 2. She has lived there since 2008, and bought a two-bedroom flat in 2012. However, since lockdown, she has been staying with her sister in a house near the 5,000-acre Bushy Park in Teddington, a quieter suburb of south-west London.

The sudden contrast of such verdant surroundings was striking: “When I first came to Bushy Park,” she says, “I thought I had come to the Yorkshire Dales.” 

ACC06N A group of deer in Bushey Park.
Suburbs can offer an alternative to congested cities, such as the verdant Bushy Park, on the outskirts of London © Alamy

Now she wants to sell up and move to Teddington, or nearby Surbiton or Hampton Hill. “I used to think that you would only ever move to somewhere like here if you had kids, but I’m seeing it through a whole different lens now,” says Shah. “This period has cast a spotlight on lifestyle and priorities and what home means. [Now] I’m looking for something different.”

The great WFH experiment

Ireland holds particular appeal. Rural property specialist Sherry Fitzgerald Country Homes has reported a 27 per cent increase in web traffic from the UK, and a 12 per cent rise from the US, compared with the beginning of the month.

“The great social experiment of working remotely has been a success,” says agent Roseanne De Vere Hunt. “Buyers are looking for a lifestyle change, given that they can now work from home.”

In Paris, a survey conducted this month by estate agents Belles Demeures de France and Daniel Féau found that a third of buyers with budgets between €500,000 and €1.5m say outside space and the ability to work from home will influence their search. 

PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 10: View of empty Avenue de La Grande Armée next to the Arc de Triomphe on the last day of confinement as the lockdown continues due to the epidemic of coronavirus (COVID 19) on May 10, 2020 in Paris, France. The deconfinement plan drawn up by the government will take effect this Monday, May 11. The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has spread to many countries across the world, claiming over 280,000 lives and infecting over 4 million people. (Photo by Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)
An empty Paris during lockdown; Parisians, too, are looking to move to the suburbs and further © Corbis via Getty Images

Marie-Hélène Lundgreen, a director at Daniel Féau, reports increased demand in Paris’s wealthy western suburbs, such as Saint-Cloud, which is nicknamed “Le Village” and boasts large family homes with gardens about a 15-minute commute from the financial district, La Défense, or a little longer to central Paris. 

In the UK, Andrew Perratt, head of Savills country homes, is not expecting a large-scale exodus from cities. But people wealthy enough to own two homes are changing their priorities, spurred by the assumption that they will be spending fewer days in the office. 

“The trend has been for people to have their main base in the city and a holiday home in the country,” he says. “Now that’s slipping, and people are saying: ‘Let’s keep a bolt-hole in the city but move our principal residence to the country.’” 

03/04/2020 The new normal photo essay. Westminster Bridge. A photo essay around scenes of central London 10 days into lockdown.
Central London in April resembled a ghost town © Charlie Bibby

That means more people are searching for homes with longer commutes. Perratt’s office has seen rising interest in villages surrounding the ancient city of Winchester in Hampshire, more than an hour’s journey from London Waterloo station — a reasonable commute one or two days a week.

Air quality matters increasingly to buyers, too. This month, London property portal SearchSmartly included air pollution scores for all its listings for the first time.

A luxury three-bedroom apartment at Centre Point in central London costs £7.225m, but the air pollution rating is high. At the property, the annual average level of nitrogen dioxide is 49.85 micrograms per cubic metre; according to guidelines set by the World Health Organization, the average annual limit is 40 micrograms per cubic metre. 

Londoners can check the air quality of their own address at Addresspollution.org, run by campaign group the Central Office of Public Interest.

Map of England and Wales showing Nitrogen dioxide levels ease outside London

The drawbacks

Will browsers’ rural fantasies lead to a rush in sales? UK buying agent Roarie Scarisbrick is not convinced. “Traffic on the website goes up when people are stuck at home,” he says — a phenomenon evident every Christmas. But the desire tends to fade once browsers get back to their usual routines.

“A lot of people like Instagram pictures of people cradling chickens, but the reality is often a lot less glamorous and a lot less fun,” says Bertie Hoskyns-Abrahall, a solicitor with Withersworldwide who specialises in buying and selling rural properties. 

Where there will be a change, he says, is among the very wealthy, who can afford a second home in the countryside. “The consensus will be: I’m not going to go through another one of these lockdowns without a place to get away to.”

While a move to the country may mean more space and cleaner air, there are drawbacks. In the UK, some rural areas lag towns and cities for broadband and mobile coverage, according to an Ofcom report in December — though, since March, all homes have been legally entitled to request adequate broadband under the Universal Service Obligation.

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City dwellers are reluctant to surrender access to culture, restaurants and nightlife, as well as public transport and food delivery apps such as Uber and Deliveroo. 

Then there is the expense. While the average price for a rural home appears to be cheap compared with London prices, attractive period homes in good locations are not.

Last year, the average property price around the Surrey town of Haslemere was more than £602,000, according to Hamptons; in Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire, it is just below £865,000. Anyone hoping to trade a small London flat for a smart home with a large garden here would be disappointed.

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A £3m budget will not go far in prime commuting spots such as Henley-on-Thames, says Mark Parkinson, a director at buying agents Middleton Advisors. It would likely buy a house of 4,000 sq ft and a couple of acres — “in a good location, not exceptional”, he adds. 

Running costs must be considered, too. That £3m house with cleaners, a gardener and other staff could cost up to £30,000 a year, says Parkinson. For comparison, the annual service charge on a £5.5m, two-bedroom flat at the Mansion, a new luxury development in Marylebone — with concierge services that include the use of a chauffeur-driven Bentley — is about £24,200, including ground rent. 

And if buyers do not like living in the countryside after all, will they be able to buy back into London? If, after the 2008 financial crisis, a homeowner in a prime part of London had sold up and moved to a prime part of the countryside, they would have gained £180,000 after trading like-for-like.

If last year they had wanted to move back, accounting for the different speeds of house price growth in the country and the capital, that same buyer would have had to find an extra £419,000 to fund the move.

No room for creativity

For many, rising property prices in cities such as London and New York is part of a wider discontent with urban life, making housing unaffordable to all but the wealthiest.

Parisians fed up with cramped apartments and the high cost of living have been leaving the French capital for years — often taking advantage of cheaper homes in Lyon, Nantes and Bordeaux.

Parisians moving to Bordeaux were blamed for pushing up property prices when a high-speed train line opened in 2017. Signs popped up reading: “Parisien, rentre chez toi” — Parisian, go home. 

Those who work in the creative industries are often priced out of Manhattan. Traci Slatton says the parents at her child’s school tend to be financial or legal professionals. “Most artists no longer live in Manhattan nor even close to it, because it’s become so very expensive,” she says.

“Manhattan has become such a wealthy place. And there are some great things about that: it’s fun to be ambitious, and to want to accomplish and achieve,” says Slatton. 

“But at the same time you pay a human toll in terms of the soulful depth of your life. Now we’re looking for a change.”

Rural properties available to buy now

The Garden House, Kent, UK £1.5m

UK

Where In Cranbrook, a small town in Kent, south-east England. The property is a short walk from the local high street and is 49 miles from Gatwick Airport.

What A modern four-bedroom house with more than 3,630 sq ft of internal living space. Built on a curve, and with an abundance of floor-to-ceiling windows, it ensures great views of the garden and its green surroundings.

Why The home is near the High Weald area of outstanding natural beauty and has a large garden designed by Chelsea Flower Show gold medallist Andy Sturgeon.

Who Jackson Stops.

Chateau, Provence, France €2.2m

France

Where About 30 minutes from Avignon, south-east France. The property is 24 miles from Nîmes Garons airport.

What A 14-bedroom, 400 sq m castle dating back to the 16th century and renovated in the early 2000s.

Why The property also includes a vineyard, a four-bedroom house, a converted barn and other outbuildings and gardens in 1.2 acres of grounds.

Who HomeHunts.

Farmhouse, Tuscany, Italy €1m

Tuscany

Where In the village of Sarteano in Tuscany, central Italy. Perugia airport is about 60 miles away.

What A three-bedroom farmhouse with a separate apartment in need of renovation. The property is arranged over two levels and has about 230 sq m of living space.

Why The property could become a source of income, with an opportunity to renovate the apartment.

Who Casa Tuscany.

Ondine Lakefront Estate, US $2.95m

USA

Where The estate is 6 miles from Morrisville, a town in northern Vermont. The Stowe Morrisville Airport is a 20-minute drive away.

What A seven-bedroom, six-bathroom property with spa facilities, a wine cellar and gym. Additional dwellings include a two-bedroom guest house, a one-bedroom apartment and a studio apartment.

Why The property includes a skating pond, and a boat house on Green River Reservoir. The main house comes fully furnished with custom-designed cherry wood furniture built by local craftsmen.

Who The Viewing estate agency.

By Hanna-Johara Dokal

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