Demand is once again high for cottages in the Home Counties but, as Penny Jackson discovers, quality, location and amenities are key factors in successful sales, and the second-home/commuting lifestyle is not to everyone's taste

A Home Counties estate agent the other day was lamenting the fact that he had to turn down a cash buyer for his own house because he could find nothing he liked. In his frustration, he said, he could understand why someone would pay well over the asking price when the right house finally came along.

But these inflated prices are not typical of the country market as a whole but rather an extension of the demand from London for period family homes.

They go for high prices because there aren't many of them and the competing buyers are probably using the proceeds of a London sale or can even afford to buy out of their salaries. If you are selling a Georgian rectory you could be excused from believing that there's a property boom. Other people see a rather more cautious market.

Take an area like the South Hams in Devon, for instance. Normally October is a busy period as people return after the summer having decided to move there permanently or to buy a second home.

However, Madeline Marchand of Marchand Petit, is seeing a great deal of activity but not many deals. The story is familiar - nobody, it seems, wants to take second best. "If the market were really buoyant and strong, they would," she says. "Whether it's roses round the door, a lovely apartment, or simply good parking, virtually no one will compromise whether it is a second or main home. Only the waterside properties have really jumped ahead. Generally Devon has not returned to its Eighties peak."

So what has happened to the fortunes of the small country cottage, the second homes that were snapped up like trophies during the Eighties? In the Cotswolds, traditionally prime territory for the second home-owner, Diane Mearns of Hamptons International, sees pounds 100,000 to pounds 150,000 as still the maximum most want to pay.

"If people pay a lot for a second home, you usually find they spend a great deal more time there than just weekends and they may only have a flat in London," she says. "Families are not as keen, though, as they were on second homes and would rather spend more on their main house."

Sue Bond bought her 18th-century weaver's cottage in Sheepscombe, Gloucestershire when she was single. Now, 10 years on and with two children she is selling.

"You have to be regimented if you are to get the most out of the weekend, but it was always worth it. A local girl looked after my horse which she would hand to me as I gave her the baby." Her cottage, on the market with Hamptons for pounds 125,000, earlier became the target of a fantasy buyer.

"Surveys were done, time dragged on, but he never came up with the money." Every summer estate agents are inundated with holiday-makers who say they want a permanent bolthole. Many fall by the wayside, but those who remain enamoured with the idea could do worse than buy now.

John D Wood's Newbury office finds commutability at the top of a buyer's wish list. "They know exactly where they want to be," says Nick Hole-Jones.

"Second home owners often use a small cottage as a toy for five years to test the water. They then might be somewhere larger or move into the country permanently. But they are very specific - quiet lanes, a pub, preferably a free house with decent food, and a small store."

Indeed, a two-bedroom thatched cottage with a small kitchen and inglenook fireplace is a romantic retreat until babies have to be accommodated. Mary Humphries and her husband have had their listed cottage in Kingston Lisle, Oxfordshire for 11 years, but now can't face the upheaval at weekends. "We tend to be more home-based these days. We will miss the walks and the village life but there does come a time with children when packing up the car on a Friday becomes more fraught even though it's an easy journey."

Perhaps the area that has seen the sharpest recovery in demand for cottages is Norfolk, specifically along the north coast. It has long been regarded as good value for money and since London prices have shot up, so has the competition hotted up for the limited supply of traditional brick and flint cottages.

Michael Bedford, from the Burnham Market office of Bedfords, has an unprecedented nil supply on his books. "The last small cottage we had for sale had three people fighting over it. We have seen some crazy prices. A cottage on the market for pounds 95,000 went well over the asking price in the end. People will wait for years for the right kind of cottage in a good location."

Generally, though, cottages which have risen in price by a modest 8 to 10 per cent in the last year have not kept pace with the increases of country houses of at least 20 per cent. Estate agents witnessing the inflated prices paid for family homes believe the potential of cottages with land are being overlooked. "If I were moving to the country that is exactly where I would be buying now," says Nick Hole-Jones.

Mary Humphries' cottage is for sale through John D Wood, Newbury office at a guide price of pounds 130,000.