Live in the city and dream of a retreat? Then join the back of the queue

The weekend home is back. If you live in London and want to buy one within reach, don't expect a bargain. By William Raynor
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Indy Lifestyle Online
At the end of the holiday season, with the weather on the turn and the prospect of nothing but work until Christmas, the thought of somewhere to get away from it all seems particularly appealing. Freedom from noisy neighbours and traffic fumes; the cutting of logs and any other form of exercise disguised as a bucolic pursuit or valiant attempt to tame a small patch of nature; the muddy boots afterwards left in the porch and the feet warmed by an open fire - that is the sort of thing I have in mind.

What Peter Fox has to say therefore comes as a bit of a surprise, the more so because he is not only manager of the sales department of the Hillreed estate agency in Canterbury, but treasurer of the East Kent branch of the National Association of Estate Agents, and would seem to speak with more than usual authority.

"When they're down from London looking for weekend retreats, a lot of people want low maintenance, which means a one or two bedroom flat without a garden," he says. A flat? Nowhere to bury a daffodil or parsnip? It gets worse. Such people don't want their flats in beautiful old houses, tastefully converted, but, he goes on, they want them modern, and purpose- built.

And, he adds, he's got just the ticket - a one-bedder, within the city walls, a short walk from the cathedral, and yours for a snip at pounds 60,000.

"The attraction of Canterbury is historical," he says, "and that being near to the Channel Tunnel and only 20 minutes drive from Dover, it is, as it always was, a good staging post." As a result French and Belgians buy there and again they prefer purpose-built flats to use en vacances and let on six-month assured short-holds.

It begins to seem as though, in his 1960s song "Get Away" which did so much to shape our perceptions about second homes not far from town, Georgie Fame may have been a bit wide of the mark. But then, Mr Fox admits, there is still demand - and plenty of it - for more conventional sorts of retreat: cottages with roses round the door and an apple orchard out the back.

If you are a London-dweller and taken with the idea of indulging yourself in this way, perhaps on the proceeds of some of that equity your town home has accrued in the last few giddy months - be warned. Everyone else has the same idea. After several years in the doldrums, the weekend home is firmly back in fashion. Demand in many rural areas in reach of London is far outstripping supply, and prices reflect this.

The answer, according to Mr Fox, could be a bungalow in a seaside town like Whitstable or Herne Bay. "They're getting in short supply though," he warns. If you can find one, a two-bedroom bungalow which needs some work can still be bought for less than pounds 60,000. Expect to pay an extra pounds 10,000-pounds 15,000 for a sea view.

This is rather less, according to Timothy Sims-Williams, proprietor of an eponymous estate agency with three offices in West Sussex, than the average range of pounds 120,000-200,000 which sailing and surfing applicants are prepared to pay for properties near the water in places like Bosham. And a great deal less, curiously, as it's somewhat harder to get to from London, than they are willing to pay in just-commutable Seaview across the water on the Isle of Wight.

According to Charles Smallman, of local estate agents Christie Matthews, the attraction of "relatively picturesque and unspoilt Victorian charm" is such that "there are people queuing to pay pounds 500,000 for any house here which is on the water's edge or has access to the beach."

Of the properties his firm sells in the village, he reckons 95 per cent go to prospective second-homers who are predominantly London-based.

Although at the bottom end of the scale you can still get a small converted flat without glimpse of Solent for as little as pounds 40,000, and although the lower and middle ranges the market remain disappointing according to some, Mr Smallman says that in the last year, prices have stabilised and started to improve.

But whereas in nearby Ryde - more easily commutable - prices have remained perhaps 30 per cent lower because of limitations on resident income, those in Seaview have - in spite of earlier local difficulties experienced by semi-resident "names" at Lloyd's - been generally cushioned by what he calls the "vast mainland salaries" of many of its property owners, existing or aspiring. Seaview remains, he emphasises, "a very exclusive area for holiday homes" - so exclusive indeed, that many of the more desirable houses change hands privately, without him or other agents knowing until later.

If this presents eager would-be buyers with a problem, those faced elsewhere on the supposedly open second-home market are almost as challenging.

Take parts of Berkshire, along the M4 corridor. "Our Newbury office has just put a small cottage out to tender and had 36 offers," says Christopher Saint, of agents Drewett Neate. "And another, not far away, with a guide price of pounds 160,000, attracted similar interest and fetched in excess of pounds 200,000.

Of course, it was in the "right sort of location", south of Newbury and just far enough from the controversial by-pass. But even so, he says, "things are getting a bit hairy. There's so little available that what does come onto the market is either snapped up, or put out to sealed bid or public auction. This can lead to some very satisfactory prices - perhaps beyond what's realistic today, if not tomorrow - and it's one way to stop gazumping."

With the kind of informal tender which invites prospective buyers to set out their conditions and put in their offers by a given time on a given day there is, however, a snag: unlike the Scottish system of "sale by private treaty", which in method is not dissimilar, it is not binding.

So, says Mr Saint, there is a move towards overcoming the problem by creating a form of "lock-out" agreement which each party signs and, for a specified period of three weeks or whatever, forbids either to deal unilaterally with anyone else or drop out without forfeiting the costs.

Even in counties like Suffolk, geographically more cut-off and often slower to catch up, they have this year, says Michael Simpson of Framlingham agents Clarke & Simpson, "suddenly started to see more competitive bidding" - in the period rather than modern sector. While, on his books, he has one period two bedder without garden near Snape Maltings, home of the Aldeburgh Festival, at a mere pounds 45,000, he estimates that at more stereotypical weekend cottage level, between 70 and 80 per cent of his applicants are second-homers.

At farmhouse level, above pounds 300,000, their interest drops - "and nine times out of 10," he says, "local money seems to hold its own."

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