Out of town, into four bedrooms

Ready to trade cafe society for a house with a garden? Then consider Hertfordshire, says Felicity Cannell

PEOPLE WHO LIVE in London divide into two groups: those who love it and those who are simply biding their time until they can move out to the green belt.

For many families in search of a "better quality of life", St Albans and its surrounding towns and villages are the first targets. Everyone knows someone who has "moved out" and raved about St Albans' rail links and its excellent schools. Agents are equally enthusiastic: "St Albans has an identity in its own right," explains Jonathan Allden, at Strutt & Parker. "You are not buying into a suburb, but a city with its own cultural attractions, yet just over 20 minutes' from central London."

If you are going to househunt in the area, a good tip is to look at the roads around the station. They are packed with large Victorian houses which appeal to ex-Londoners and are cheaper than the smaller, older homes around the park where the station is a taxi ride away.

Don't bother with St Albans if you want a huge garden - local agents say almost all of its homes have little outside space. Nick Masters of Black Horse Agency in nearby Harpenden says, "People from London move out to a cottage in St Albans, then move to Harpenden to start a family." Of the 10,000 homes in Harpenden, over half are detached. The original village spread out to a town in the Seventies, so much of the property is relatively new and within walking distance of the station. Around pounds 200,000 will buy a four-bedroom semi-detached house.

Neighbouring villages Redbourn and Wheathamstead are some 20 per cent cheaper as you have to drive to the station.

Check the catchment area for local schools before you buy a house. Hertfordshire has seen such a huge influx of families over the last 10 years that the secondary schools struggle to cope with the number of pupils. So catchment areas for the most popular schools have been considerably tightened. Buckinghamshire also scores high in the education stakes because of the large number of grammar schools. But you can pay London prices for a family-sized house. Clarissa Hale and her family lived in Seer Green, between Gerrards Cross and Beaconsfield, in a two-bedroom house. When her third child was due, they needed to move. "The huge jump in price to a bigger property was beyond us. The sort of home we wanted was nearing pounds 400,000, double the price of the house we sold."

Damian Gray, at agent Knight Frank says: "In Beaconsfield, Great Missenden or Amersham, the best roads within 15 minutes walk of the station and local facilities have around 20 per cent premium."

You'll get a lot more for your money in the Hertfordshire and Essex borderlands, where the downturn in fortunes in the City has already started to drive down local prices. As one parent outside a prep school near Bishop Stortford explained, "No one asks what you do for a living round here. It's simply 'which brokerage do you work for?'" Or not. Current predictions are that the City is in for a short, sharp shock, with pessimists forecasting up to 30,000 redundancies next year.

Andrew Clack, from Centurion Properties, sees the factors which inflated the commuter market as the same ones which will bring it down. "For the past couple of years, City workers have been paying silly money for large country homes. This has a knock-on effect down through the market, but demand is now easing off, and properties in the pounds 200,000-400,000 bracket have already been affected."

Hertford has excellent road and rail links and schooling. Phillip Godfrey, at Churchills estate agents, says "People don't move here just to work in the City, so values are reasonably safe. The market has been constant for the past two years." A three-bedroom semi with a garage, near Hertford station, goes for pounds 155,000. Godfrey says buyers can get more for their cash in the new towns like Kings Langley or Stevenage.

All this sounds appealing for Londoners doomed to live in cramped flats. But I grew up in the Buckinghamshire sticks and now love London. The schools in Buckinghamshire may be great but I don't want to inflict the boredom of green-belt life on my kids. I spent my teenage years swilling cider, and hanging around the phone box. Give me cyber cafes and Soho coffee bars any day. Think about that before you move to bloody St Albans.

Black Horse, Harpenden, tel: 01582 769966; Centurion Properties, Braintree and Harlow; tel: 01376 550010; tel: Churchills, Hertford 01992 500151.

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