Londoners, it’s time to head to the country
Selling your city home and moving to a rural retreat is increasingly profitable, as author Jessica Fellowes has discovered.
By Graham Norwood6:30AM GMT 14 Jan 2013
To many city slickers, the thought of swapping traffic and a coffee shop on every corner for the sound of cockerels and the whiff of fertiliser is a nightmare. But for increasing numbers of people, it is a dream that is coming true.
One of its latest converts is Jessica Fellowes, niece of Lord Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey. She recently quit her one-bedroom flat in Notting Hill, west London, and moved to a five-bedroom retreat in rural Oxfordshire.
“My son George is two-and-a-half, and needs space to do what toddlers do. That forced me to realise I had to move,” says Jessica, author of Mud and the City: Dos and Don’ts for Townies in the Country, published as an eBook this month.
“I have always lived in one-bedroom flats in London. Suddenly having five bedrooms makes me feel like I’m running a hotel. It is exciting preparing for people to stay. That’s a luxury I have never had before.”
The exodus from the city to the shires is gathering pace. According to the insurance company NFU Mutual, more than 100,000 people are leaving UK cities for the countryside each year. The fastest-moving group consists of those selling expensive London properties that have soared in value over recent years. They buy country piles that have become cheaper since the downturn.
Data from Knight Frank shows that house prices in prime central London – from the West End to Notting Hill, as well as Canary Wharf – rose by 9.4 per cent in 2012. Country houses, by comparison, fell in price by 4.3 per cent over the same period.
It looks as if the picture will be repeated in 2013. According to Halifax, only London and a few pockets of the South East will see house price rises. Most rural areas will, at best, hold their own, and plenty will fall.
But some experts believe that London’s continuing robustness cannot last. A change in the European economy, or in British building regulations, and prices in the capital could start to tumble. Homeowners anxious about what the next few years hold might do well to get out now.
Regardless of what happens in the capital over the short term, it is clear that you can get more for your money by leaving the smoke behind.
For example, in Islington, north London, £650,000 buys a two-bedroom ground-floor flat on a busy road. Move to Loxton, a hamlet in Somerset, and you get a four-bedroom barn conversion with an acre of land, and still have £30,000 left over.
“There has been a surge in buyers looking to sell up and cash in on their equity. This could well be the year that sees the exodus to the country gaining momentum,” says Crispin Holborow of Savills.
While the time might be ideal, this kind of upheaval takes meticulous planning. Jessica Fellowes has four tips for anyone thinking of taking the plunge.
First, avoid huge projects. “Most people make it in the country, but if they don’t, it is down to being too ambitious with a renovation. Stay in your depth,” she warns.
Second, budget cautiously. “Cities are warm and city homes are small, so they don’t cost much to heat. In the country, heating costs a fortune, so calculate the bills before you start.”
Third, use local services. “Don’t buy everything at Waitrose and John Lewis, then unpack it when you get to the country. Use local builders, cleaners and shops. You must get local people on your side.”
Finally, it is crucial to become part of the social scene. “Do the same thing at the same time on the same day each week and you will quickly be recognised as part of the scenery.”
She has quickly come to appreciate the charms of her new life. “In London you’d go to the park on a Sunday and think that’s as good as it’s going to get – but the country is a million times better. When I first came here I thought my husband knew so many people because they all said hello. Now I realise that’s just what life is like.”
Yet Jessica’s yearning for rural peace and quiet is no guarantee that she will be in glorious solitude. A flood of townies is following in her muddy bootsteps.
These refugees cite space, money, and quality of life as the reasons for upping sticks. Another couple revelling in rural delights are Clare and Ian Myers-Shaw, who moved from south London to Pilham in rural Lincolnshire with their two daughters.
They sold a modest three-bedroom terrace house in Wandsworth, with its snug 1,300 sq ft of internal space and small garden, for £975,000. Then they bought a vast 9,000 sq ft Edwardian country manor house with two acres of land. They still had £150,000 change.
“It’s a cliché but we’re living the dream,” says Clare. “I had to watch the girls all the time before, but now they play hide-and- seek in the grounds. They have treehouses and there is a great feeling of safety. The local state schools are fantastic, too, so we don’t have to contemplate paying private school fees.”
Clare, who runs a business from home, still misses Starbucks and admits: “You have to get in the car to go anywhere.” But she insists this is a price worth paying for being able to afford a large house and the freedom it gives your family.
As far as Clare is concerned, moving to the country was the right thing to do. The next move up the ladder in London would have cost an extra £1 million. Money that few have to hand and which few banks are lending.
That sentiment lies behind almost every move from the city to the hedgerow according to Bea Aspinall, a mother of three who runs the free website lifeafterlondon.com. Her site is essential reading for those moving from the city to the countryside.
“People nearly always move for more space, so property is at the centre of their decision,” she says. “They use our site to find answers to the next questions: what are the catchment areas for the best schools? And how do you make new friends?
“For me it is a matter of ‘when’ people move from city to country – not ‘if’. I have only run the website for a matter of months, but it is already proving popular.”
For those lucky urban homeowners who like the idea of country life, and who have enjoyed price rises over the past few decades, the current climate presents a real opportunity. Fearful of further price falls, many rural owners will be prepared to negotiate on deals.
The countryside is a buyer’s market, while London – as far as many are concerned – remains a seller’s. It is easy to see why plenty of people are looking to take the money and run.
“I’m embarrassed, in retrospect, to admit that I fell for the dream: I thought it would be like The Archers,” said Hannah. “Instead, we find we’re isolated, bored and not physically strong enough to live this life. We’re putting our cottage back on the market next month and moving back to the city. I can’t wait to get back to everything I thought I was so desperate to leave behind me.”
James Arthur – Impossible