Looking for pastures new?

Robert Nurden reports on how to move home from the city
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The Independent Online
ALMOST 2,000 people are deserting English cities every week in search of the rural good life. Urban decay, poor schools, security concerns and general disenchantment with city life are the main reasons they give for quitting.

The findings come from a study by the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) and the University of Newcastle. The researchers found that 1,700 people are moving from town to country each week, with Greater London losing almost twice as many residents as the other major urban areas combined.

The Government is doing its best to stop the exodus. It's trying to increase new housing developments in urban areas, while reducing the amount of rural land lost to developers.

The recent march of shire-dwellers on London reflected concerns that the city is encroaching on rural areas, but the CPRE report concludes that the future is not too bleak if the right kind of incentives are provided to persuade people to stay in cities. These include better education, improved health care and public safety, and regeneration schemes.

The irony is that the places most likely to lose residents are also those with the biggest number of incoming housebuyers, with Kingston-upon-Thames topping both lists.

Despite this movement in both directions, the balance is skewed towards an outflow from city to countryside. Having made your decision to leave town, research is the key to making the right move. John Pring, an estate agent with three offices in south Essex, says the biggest mistake newcomers make is not doing enough research before they leap into buying a new home. It takes time to get to know the new location: "It's very difficult to take a broad view of the market in any area. Buyers need to talk to agents and develop a relationship with them. It's very tempting to go to a new area, especially if you are under pressure, and snatch the first thing available."

Many people who want to move to the country struggle to find a property: buyers who live at a distance face stiff competition from locals for whatever is available. Most people, after all, only move within a few miles of their home.

Local buyers can also act more quickly. The latest monthly report from the National Association of Estate Agents (NAEA) reveals that demand for property outstrips supply in 75 per cent of the offices surveyed.

One strategy is to give up the search and rent first. Paul Johnson, an estate agent in Stamford, Lincolnshire, has seen a marked increase in the number of people who are moving up from the South-east. He says: "About a quarter of them will rent a property in the first instance and use that as a strategy for getting to know the region, before buying a house in the right catchment area so their children can go to the best school."

This is a sensible idea, but adding an extra move increases the cost and stress of relocating from one place to another. You can maximise your chances of finding a place to move into right away by calling into any estate agent in your current area that is a member of the NAEA. The association runs the Homelink network, which matches your requirements up with a local agent in the area where you want to buy. John Pring, who is chairman of the Homelink project, says it takes some of the legwork out of househunting: "There's a lot of research that buyers have to do. Through Homelink they can have house details sent and do some exploratory work."

Obviously the local agent and the office in your new area have something to gain from the process as they share commission on buying and selling, for example. But it's a useful service and will get you a fast response - vital if you are to beat local interest in a desirable property.

If the prospect of spending all your spare time trailing around in search of a new home isn't attractive, think about paying relocation agents to do it all for you. For a fee they will look for a new home, and even help to sort out your children's schooling.

It's easy to get caught up in planning the big move out of town, but don't forget that leaving the city will have a massive impact on your social life. You should be prepared for it to take some time to make friends and become established. Alan and Jane Brien moved from London to Northamptonshire in a bid to find peace and quiet so they could pursue writing careers. In the early days they found themselves being drawn back to literary events in London, but have now found plenty to do locally.

"In a city you know roughly where to go when you need something, but in the country things are hidden away and you have to search them out. It takes time before you feel at home," says Mrs Brian.