Home Life: Things can only get better

Will your area come up, or is it stuck fast at the bottom? Isabel Berwick investigates
FEW people want to buy a house, however cheap, in a run-down area with no decent shops. But few can afford to buy in the most fashionable areas. The happy compromise? Find the next hot area before all London joins the stampede.

Estate agent David Salvi, a partner at Clerkenwell's Hurford Salvi Carr, has seen EC1 change massively in the two years he's been trading. The area is the original "crunchy" success story (crunchy meaning an inner- city area on the verge of next-big-thingdom).

Clerkenwell was a run-down district (without a single estate agent) dominated by old commercial premises and local authority housing. Now many old buildings are loft conversions, St John Street has become an established "restaurant row" and Safeway is planning a new store. The residents can also walk to work in the West End or the City.

Mr Salvi advises anyone looking for the next Clerkenwell to search out an area that satisfies the basic needs of city dwellers. "Identify an area that is either centrally located or well-located for transport. There are areas which meet one or both of those needs but for whatever reason are out of fashion. It must be close to the commercial hub of the city centre. The further into the centre you get, the greater the opportunity of surviving without a car and living and working in the same area."

Estate agents suggest Camberwell, Walworth and Dalston as crunchy areas with potential. They are still cheap: you can buy a four-bedroomed, terraced house between Brixton and Camberwell, less than three miles from the Houses of Parliament, for pounds 160,000.

Newcomers to crunchy areas have to accept that this in-your-face urban living, with run-down shops and few pubs, cafes and restaurants where new residents would feel at home. (Not to mention a deserted, scary walk home from the bus stop). And there's no guarantee the area will ever make it.

But Andrew Frood, an architect who seeks out property across London for commercial and residential clients, is confident there is enough demand to force more crunchy areas to regenerate - whether or not we have another recession. "There are now plenty of people who are in 'middle youth' - hardworking professionals who are spurning traditional housing types and areas and opting for a more urban 'New York' lifestyle," he says. Mr Frood lives in Camberwell with his partner and their baby, and describes the mix of pubs, shops and restaurants on Coldharbour Lane as "like Clapham 10 years ago". The area has a Thameslink station at Loughborough junction with a frequent service to Blackfriars and King's Cross. Thameslink is one of the best-kept secrets in London and is to receive pounds 600 million to double the number of its. Many of the most-fancied crunchy areas are in Southwark, where the council is improving transport. The hottest tip of all is Borough, SE1. The best-known part of the area is Bankside, a short riverside walk from the South Bank complex. Bankside Power Station is home to the Tate Gallery of Modern Art, opening in 2000.The new Jubilee Line extension will pass through London Bridge station (already served by the Northern Line, Thameslink and trains to Kent). A new footbridge across the Thames will link Bankside with the City.

The surrounding area has been discovered, but property is still cheap and attracting young professionals who want lots of space for less cash. Lucy and Richard Townsend are moving from a two-bedroomed flat in Tooting to a pounds 170,000 "shell" in a listed Victorian warehouse in Borough. Lucy, says: "We wanted a place we could do up ourselves, but couldn't afford the prices in Clapham and Wandsworth. We were looking round SE1 out of interest. Then we found that when the Jubilee Line opens I can get to work in Docklands within 15 minutes and Richard can walk to work."

What happens if you just can't bear to walk on the wild side? There are still pockets of cheapness in gentrified areas. Jacob Papineau, estate agent, says: "Look at places near run-down secondary shopping streets with useful shops - junk shops, laundrettes, an old Greek taverna." If the area improves, your property will be in the desirable hub of local life. Mr Papineau lives near Abbeville Road in Clapham, which 10 years ago was a local shopping street. The launderette is now Seattle Coffee Company. And the taverna? A Cafe Rouge, of course.