Half the fascination in househunting, like leafing through Country Life, is in comparing like with like. What can you buy where, and for how much? In every attractive possibility there lies the 'what if' factor - playing around with the opening and shutting of life's doors.
A few years ago, if someone came to me saying they had just inherited pounds 100,000 and wanted to buy the most ordinary of country cottages, I would have had to tell them to keep well away from London and the Home Counties. 'Start in Herefordshire, or Lincolnshire.' Their eyes would widen in wonder at the lofty prices commanded by humblest abodes, once virtually slum dwellings to agricultural workers, now prized as live-in antiques by high-earning couples.
No longer is this so. According to the Halifax Building Society, the average price of a house in recession- ravaged Britain is now pounds 63,144, though in London, the average price of a first purchase is higher, at pounds 66,075. Such absurdities have by no means been erased by the slump, just softened around the edges. But it should be a comfort to know that there are now any number of average semis that can be bought for our pounds 65,000, and a good many that come in at less, though it may be necessary to uproot and travel to find them.
But there is romance, too, in the bargain basement, and this is the season to find enchantment and oddity. Islands and castles (places which, frankly, you may not be able to reach at other times of year) and ruins come on the market to taunt us with their eccentric appeal.
The cheapest item for sale at the moment must be the Roundhouse in Bedfordshire, priced by Knight Frank & Rutley at pounds 1 - less than a second-hand T-shirt from a charity shop. It was built for Colonel John Okey, who fought in Parliament's New Model Army at Naseby and put his signature to the warrant for the execution of Charles I. The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner admired its mid-17th-century doll's house style.
The pricing is clever. It attracts publicity for the sale, it signals that a great deal of money needs to be spent on it, and it implies that the new owner will be chosen by the London Brick Company, which owns it. The pounds 1 price tag is more of an invitation to spend pounds 200,000 to pounds 300,000 on repairs, it seems. English Heritage and Bedfordshire County Council will be breathing good advice down the necks of whoever takes it on.
In the same category, but rather more expensive, is Edwinsford, a Grade II listed mansion in a state of magnificent collapse in 49 acres of Welsh woodland in Dyfed. Perhaps the woodland, or the remnants of exquisite Italian plaster ceilings beneath the green sward on the roof tiles, have pushed the price of this one up to pounds 50,000, also with Knight Frank & Rutley.
You don't even have to pick up a bottle that says DRINK ME to shrink like Alice from derelict grandeur to perfectly restored miniature on this shopping expedition. Knight Frank & Rutley, together with Hurley Lloyd Thorpe, are also selling a tiny one-bedroom cottage in the honey-stone village of Broadwell in the Cotswolds at just on pounds 65,000. You get one bedroom, one sitting room, one kitchen/breakfast room and one bathroom.
The route you take around the country is not a problem. Everywhere there are finds within our range. Close to Bath, a cosy one-bedroom stone cottage at Winsley is offered at pounds 50,000. Or, right on the estuary at Axmouth in Devon, there is a pretty, thatched and whitewashed cottage with three bedrooms being sold through Gribble Booth & Taylor at pounds 65,000. In the orchards of Kent you'll find a little three-bedroom semi-detached cottage with a pretty garden at Selling, priced at around pounds 55,000 through Strutt & Parker. Or, at Ninfield in East Sussex, a 19th-century wisteria-clad school house with four bedrooms and needing repairs, being offered at pounds 65,000. Near Great Waltham in Essex, the same agents have another semi-detached cottage, also needing modernisation, for pounds 60,000.
Barns have come down in price too. Strutt & Parker have a set at West Bergholt in Essex, including one that is 18th-century and Grade II-listed, together with about eight acres, selling at a pounds 75,000, a little over our benchmark price. These upmarket estate agents are no longer too proud to take on properties in the lower price bands.
Perhaps the most romantic of buys in this range at the moment is Lick Bla, a former mill with five bedrooms, a mill race, stabling and stone outbuildings, and two walled gardens. It stands with the River Gore dividing around it, at Castlepollard in County Westmeath, Ireland, and is to be auctioned by Glanly Walters and O'Reilly Taylor & Tweedy in Dublin on 10 June, with a guide price of pounds 65,000 to pounds 75,000.
Even London these days yields to the purchaser with pounds 65,000 in his pocket. Winkworth estate agents say this would buy you a two-bedroom flat in Hackney, Catford or Hammersmith, or a one-bedroom flat on the Battersea borders. They even have a whole house - a two-bedroom cottage in Hammersmith - offered at pounds 69,950 to anyone who doesn't mind being close to a railway line. The last Winkworth auction (on 1 June) had a plethora of flats in the pounds 10,000 to pounds 30,000 range. The cheapest was a maisonette with garden in Hackney, with a guide price of pounds 7,000 to pounds 8,000. -
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