Property: Second homes go through the roof

As weekend retreats become more and more expensive, Jeff Howell shows how to get your foot in the door

MANY city dwellers dream of owning a country cottage. It will have wild roses around the door and a thatched roof, and be just a short walk from a welcoming village pub.

That will cost you around pounds 185,000 in the West Country because the value of a prime cottage has rocketed. FPD Savills, the estate agent, says that an average country cottage is worth 38 per cent more than it was five years ago. That compares with a typical rise of 25 per cent for the average UK home.

The rural locations straddling the M4 corridor west from London were snapped up years ago. Prime cottages there now sell for pounds 300,000 plus. Anyone in search of a run-down place for pounds 30,000 won't have much luck, although there are a few bargains if you are prepared to travel further away from London.

Unfortunately, this pushes prices up for second-home buyers who don't live in London. Wales, traditionally the cheap weekend retreat for the Birmingham conurbation, now has more than its share of weekenders from London. The average price for Welsh cottages is pounds 145,000.

Many of today's would-be cottage buyers work in the City and can afford to pay cash for country homes. For those whose resources are more limited, the best bet is East Anglia, although you'll have to look in unfashionable places.

Victorian two-up-two-downs in small market towns in East Anglia and Lincolnshire, for example, are on offer for under pounds 30,000. Prices further north can be half that. You won't get a thatched roof, and the back yard will hardly lend itself to organic self-sufficiency, but if your primary objective is a weekend base for outdoor pursuits then this could be all you need.

If you can't bear to be too far from the M11, you'll have to pay more. Motorway access has hiked up prices in well-known villages like Southwold ("NW3 on sea"), which is just two hours' driving time from London. The picturesque north Norfolk coast is further from London but remains a "honeypot" for wealthy buyers. This area of the "heritage coast" offers salt marshes, sailing and bird-watching.

Louis de Soissons, head of country house sales at FPD Savills' Norwich office, says there is better value in some lovely unspoilt areas just south of Norwich. "We've just sold a house near Dereham, which is pretty and unspoilt. It's got three bedrooms, half an acre of ground and went for pounds 110,000. It's two to two and a half hours from London." The area hasn't been colonised by the second-home brigade because it isn't near the coast.

Mr de Soissons recommends that would-be cottage owners register with a national chain of estate agents and compare properties from their national database. This gives you more choice. If you can't find an affordable home in the area you like best, a national chain may be able to show you details of better-value property elsewhere in the country. Make sure you call agents regularly to let them know you are still looking.

The National Association of Estate Agents runs an internet site called Property Live, which displays homes for sale around the country. It's still in its infancy but this is likely to become a vital tool for any second-home buyer. Find it at www.propertylive.co.uk. It's worth doing a general property search on the net to see what's on offer from local agents with their own web sites.

Desirable but run-down cottages anywhere in the country often get snapped up by local builders before far-flung buyers have even heard they are on the market. The problem with this is often one of taste. Local builders may renovate with uPVC replacement windows and a cheap kitchen. Don't rule out buying a freshly modernised house from a builder, even though you may have to spend thousands on renovating it for a second time.

For those prepared to buy a wreck, there are still some unmodernised cottages available if you know how to beat the builders to the good properties.

There is no substitute for local contacts, which means renting a cottage in your chosen area for holidays, talking to local people, introducing yourself in the village pub, and generally letting it be known that you are looking for somewhere to buy.

And it might be worth considering that real bargains come with economies of scale. In Suffolk pounds 350,000 will buy a large country house with eight bedrooms, outbuildings, tennis court and swimming pool - all set in 10 acres of parkland. If you can pool resources with a few friends, you could all live in style.

Anyone who intends to look for a weekend retreat should be aware that the Government may introduce full council tax for second-home owners. At the moment, owners only pay 50 per cent of the full rate on their second property. According to officials, this is still just a proposal "under consideration".

Extra tax is unlikely to put off the seriously rich. But for those who are struggling to find an affordable cottage, it would force up the cost of an already expensive luxury.

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