Buy to let: Plenty of potential in undervalued locations

They may be lacking in glamour, but the new towns make up for it in rental returns, says Chris Partridge
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The new towns established in a ring round London in the optimistic years after the War are looking distinctly middle-aged now. Bracknell, Stevenage, Brentwood, Crawley - all are looked down on as tired old left-overs from the future of the past.

But they may be the next buy-to-let hotspots, according to analysts. According to Richard Donnell, head of research at Savills, property in the new towns is cheap to buy and there is a shortage of rental accommodation. "Places like Stevenage were built for owner-occupiers and social tenants, so there are no flats over shops and so on," he says. "When you do a survey of places with a low supply of rented accommodation the new towns jump out at you. And property in the new towns is very affordable - prices are below the regional average."

The main objection to investing in new towns is the lack of social cachet, but Donnell points out that investors buy to make money, not as a place to live or as a status symbol.

"The best investments are not necessarily those you would consider buying as your own home," he says. "Other than corporates, the typical tenant is not as choosy as an owner-occupier when it comes to specification. This means you can buy an average priced property and still get a decent rent."

New towns have many under-rated advantages, mainly their good rail and road links with London and large local employers attracted there by tax breaks when the towns were originally established.

"The key thing about the private rental market is that it has to be accessible to local employment - you have to be careful of sleepy satellite towns," Donnell says.

Liam Bailey of Knight Frank also sees the original new towns as potential investment opportunities because of a shortage of private rented housing. "Those towns that had an awful lot of council house stock are now short of rented accommodation because it was sold to sitting tenants under the right-to-buy legislation," he says.

Bailey suspects that capital gains may be hard to come by, however. "There is usually a reason why places are seen as cheap - usually because they are not as attractive as their surrounding areas," he says. "Most investors are looking for capital gains and prices are held back by drab surroundings."

All the new towns have plans for regeneration, which could help prices catch up. "The new towns had an awful lot of employment land, which has potential for redevelopment," Bailey says.

One of the new towns, Peterborough, has even launched its own website to demonstrate what good value its houses are. Called www.moreforyourmoney. org, the site features a calculator that compares average house prices in any town in England and Wales (provided by the Land Registry) with equivalent properties in Peterborough.

The results are illuminating. A detached house in Cambridge, for example, costs on average £373,475, and a similar house in Peterborough will set you back a much more modest £218,894. A flat in Rugby costs £119,018, compared with one for sale for £92,283 in Peterborough.

The other new towns look very similar, however. The decaying former steel town of Corby, for example, has semi-detached houses going for £110,511, making Peterborough look relatively pricey at £127,883.

The key to investing in a new town is, as always, research. "Get a property half way between the station and a regeneration project and you should make money," says Richard Donnell.

Buy-to-let potential
Harlow, Essex, is one new town with possibilities. Only 4 per cent of housing is privately rented. It has good rail and road links but has some large employers. Yet is one of the most deprived in the region - so what is going wrong?

Stevenage, Herts, suffered a slump but is now expanding west of the M1 and to the north. Aerospace engineering is being replaced by pharmaceuticals as the main employer. A good prospect.

Bracknell, Berkshire, is an architectural nonentity but has built up a lot of community spirit. It has a lot of local employment, benefiting from its position in the M4 corridor. Expansion to the west is planned, and the centre is to be completely renewed.

Crawley, Sussex, has become the regional shopping centre, but still has areas of deprivation. Major regeneration is set for completion by 2011. Transport links to London and Brighton are good, and, of course, it is right next to Gatwick Airport.

Basildon, Essex, has lots of long-term potential as John Prescott's big plans for the Thames Gateway begin to regenerate the area. However, the place is currently struggling to upgrade its huge stock of jerry-built 1970s boxes.