Catchment-22 for house-hunters

Your child's got a place at the right school, so it's time for the family to move up a class.
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The Independent Online

All over the country, anxious parents and children will by now have been put out of their misery. School entrance results have been posted and places allocated for September. But for many, whether in triumph or disappointment, as the search for a school ends so the hunt for a house begins.

All over the country, anxious parents and children will by now have been put out of their misery. School entrance results have been posted and places allocated for September. But for many, whether in triumph or disappointment, as the search for a school ends so the hunt for a house begins.

This annual education frenzy coincides with the start of the spring market and estate agents are well versed in the demands of parents who want everything tied up by late summer. The reality, though, can be somewhat different. The shortage of good family houses in popular areas, particularly those close to London, puts further pressure on an already tight schedule. Speed is of the essence.

Until a week ago, Amanda and Nick Wood were certain only that they would have to move from their cottage near Basingstoke, Hampshire for their sons' schooling. Exactly where, depended on their 11-year-old son's exam results. Only when the letter dropped finally through their door, informing them of his success in his first choice of school, did they know they would be house-hunting in Abingdon rather than Reading.

"This was the obvious time to look for a bigger house, and after a lot of deliberation we decided to get the school first and then the area. It does now put us under a lot of pressure because we can't move until the end of the summer term,'' says Amanda Wood. "In theory, we are prepared to rent, but we would be worried about getting off the ladder at a time when prices are rising."

If this seems like the moment to settle on their ideal family home, they are not alone in thinking this. "I know we will probably have to make huge compromises. It's hard enough finding the right school, let alone the right house,'' she adds.

In the Basingstoke office of Lane Fox, the estate agents, they have a pecking order of popular villages. Take Monk Sherborne, five miles away, which has all the critical features of pub, church and strong community, but the added value of an excellent state school. "Prices there are 20 per cent more than other villages. People are prepared to pay to be close to it, even though other village are in the catchment area," says Lane Fox's Mark Potter. "Commuters also find it a convenient run to the station which further adds to values. There are always buyers waiting, and generally, even those properties that are blighted by something like a busy road are now selling well."

The chronic shortage in some areas around London is leading more than a few sellers to ask inflated prices. In Pangbourne, Berkshire, where the range of good schools is a magnet, Mark Jamieson of Lane Fox is seeing what he calls "a laughing stock of houses that are pretenders to the highest price range." Many imagine that buyers from London will pay anything. "There is an element of greed slipping in that is only adding to the short supply. Well-off buyers are not mugs and won't pay over the odds."

The perfect Home Counties' spec, of period house with a couple of acres, a view and outbuildings, can never meet demand which leaves potential buyers in this £750,000 to £1m price kicking their heels. Those properties that come close, are achieving prices beyond agents' expectations.

But buying a pig in the poke, for the sake of owning something, can be a big mistake, believes Jamieson. "It is better to rent than buy an overvalued property which you will have to go to the expense of reselling."

The renting game is a familiar one around the education hot-spots in Kent. Sevenoaks, Tunbridge Wells, Cranbrook have popular schools across all sectors and will be the battlefield for the next grammar school ballot. Gavin Selby of Knight Frank and chairman of the Support Kent Schools Campaign in the west of the county, is in no doubt that its diversity keeps a balance in house prices. "Selection will become a function of the depth of people's pocket. We are already seeing a 15 per cent premium in key catchment areas.''

He is though encouraged by the number of houses about to come on to the market. "In Tunbridge Wells at the moment, we have 426 buyers looking to spend between £500,000 to £1m and can only offer them eight houses."

This would be no surprise to Victoria Burch, who moved out of London when her son won a place at Sevenoaks School. Two years on, the family is still renting. "We found a house to move into in the summer but it fell through at the last minute, so we rented in the middle of Sevenoaks. It turned out to be an advantage because you cannot do house-hunting long distance. Living here for a while at least means you know where you don't want to live and which village is in line for development."

The house they did buy along the way (seven out of 10 on their ideal house scale ) is too far from schools and they are letting it . This double act as both landlord and tenant is not, apparently, so unusual. But even good rental properties are hard to find, with little in the middle price range. A family house in Sevenoaks is around £4,000 a month. A couple currently faced with the dilemma of whether to lose the sale of their house or rent for a while have opted to sell. Nothing, they reason, could be worse than starting all over again - not even the wait for exam results.

The Woods's cottage is for sale at £255,000 through Lane Fox, Basingstoke: 01256 474647

Knight Frank, Tunbridge Wells: 01892 515035

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