Flora Watkins

Why there’s never been a worse time to move to the country

Why there's never been a worse time to move to the country
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It began with a sourdough starter. Then we dabbled with home delivery cocktails. This time round, I watched The Dig and bought a Fair Isle tank top and a blouse with a big collar to wear for Zoom calls. Then, when my husband’s company announced they’d be hiring remotely, we embraced the biggest lockdown cliché of them all: moving to the country.

Mentally, we checked out of London and started rubbing our hands in expectation of what we could get in exchange for our terraced house in Zone 2. Outdoor space, a couple more bedrooms - the trade-off many Londoners have come to expect in exchange for enduring the years of a ruinous mortgage and the Northern Line during rush hour.

Alas, the reality was as disappointing as the must-watch of Lockdown 1.0, Normal People. Rural homes, it became apparent, are as scarce and as coveted as loo paper was this time last year. And the supply chain is unlikely to improve. Country-dwellers, who’ve generally had a far better lockdown than city types, are staying put. And the surge of Londoners who’ve decided — after months of being denied their usual diversions — to leave, has reached tsunami-like proportions.

There are now 16 buyers chasing every newly-listed house, according to research for national estate agent Jackson-Stops. The South-East is the most saturated market, with 20 buyers for every house. That’s an increase of 23 per cent on six months ago. 'A year ago we were seeing 3.5 proceedable buyers for every house - now it’s seven,' says one of the big national agents.

Meanwhile, the property portal Zoopla reports there are 6 per cent fewer homes available compared with this time last year.

'Unless you’re a cash buyer, you might as well b**er off,' as one property finder covering the South-West tells me. 'There are agents down here refusing to do viewings unless you can prove you’ve got the funds to show you’re proceedable,' she explains. And if you’re in a chain? 'You can pretty much forget it.'

Competing cash buyers mean that even quite ordinary properties are going to best and final offers — and 10 to 15 per cent over the asking price is fairly standard. Lodestone, an agency covering Somerset and Dorset, boasted of 30 viewings last week on a very ordinary four-bedroom house near Gillingham. One agent I spoke to in Devon launched a house a couple of weeks ago at £850,000. It went for £1.15 million within a couple of days.

I had my eye on a pretty, pink-brick Dorset farmhouse. Some light Googling revealed that a 19th century maid had hanged herself behind a door that was later bricked-up — it’s clearly visible in the Georgian facade. Her ghost has been seen sitting on the gate. Surely this would put people off? By the time I rang to arrange a viewing, there were four cash offers on the table in excess of the guide price and it was going to sealed bids.  Blame the Bridgerton effect (apparently we all want to live in Georgian houses now) and the desire for an irresistibly Instagrammable home.

How else could you justify the £1.7m price tag for Great Treverran, near Fowey? It’s a pretty Queen Anne doll’s house that features in the architectural historian Marcus Binney’s book In Search of the Perfect House. But it’s just that — a doll’s house (or bijou as estate agents say) with just three proper bedrooms. And the London to Penzance express rattles past three times an hour. It was last on the market a few years ago — for £900,000. That’s a mark-up of 89 per cent.

'With supply and demand being what they are, I don’t think anything will change soon,' says one agent. But when London starts opening up again and people who’ve moved to Cornwall or the Cotswolds find they’re expected back in Canary Wharf four days a week, we may see them creeping back.

In the aftermath of 9/11, thousands left Lower Manhattan. But within a few years the population not only rebounded but grew by a quarter. Like the pandemic pups consigned to dog shelters once the novelty wears off, Georgian rectories and Devonshire long houses could be abandoned as urban buyers discover that they are the only Remainer in the village and mud is A Thing in the country, whereas Uber is not. At least, I hope that’s the case. Or else we might be stuck here for good.