Get the inside track on the nation's most tempting low-cost locations

Our mortgages have shot up, and prices are still rising. Yet we all compete over the same old postcodes. Isn't it time we found some new hotspots?Graham Norwood pinpoints the most affordable – and attractive – places to live
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The Independent Online

BEST FOR FIRST-TIME BUYERS

Aylesbury

Average starter flat: £136,173

So how come Aylesbury, the unassuming county town of leafy Buckinghamshire, is high on the list of desirable, affordable locations? The Halifax bank has compiled a national directory of towns that are cheap, and towns that are nice, and Aylesbury has scored well on both counts.

There's plenty of property bling in the shape of large detached mansions just outside its boundaries, but inside, the town's 70,000 residents are mostly middle-income commuters. It's just more than an hour to London Marylebone, while Birmingham is 70 minutes by road, and there are plenty of modern housing estates with good starter and family homes.

Despite the efforts of planners in the 1960s, who demolished much of the centre, there is still a large number of well-preserved 16th- to 18th-century buildings to give the place a market-town feel, especially at weekends.

The latest town-centre redevelopment is the Waterside, which has a theatre, local entertainment base, more than 300,000 sq ft of shops, plus new upmarket flats near a canal basin that is being spruced up to become the scheme's centrepiece.

Waterside will top up the town's two existing retail centres, Hale Leys and Friar's Square, which provide everything you need.

Yet while Aylesbury is effectively a dormitory town, it's beginning to show economic independence. The government has declared it a jobs and housing growth area, and it's attracted distribution and accountancy firms relocating from elsewhere.

It even has a few motor racing companies – Silverstone is half an hour away.

Basingstoke

Average starter flat: £146,642

Basingstoke has an image problem. It's called The Buffer by some locals as it's squeezed between the M3 on the south and the South West Trains mainline to London. But while it's clearly great for commuting (the fastest train into Waterloo is 45 minutes), it's not bad in its own right, either.

There is green-belt land to the north and there is easy road access to quiet Hampshire villages like Cliddesden, Sherborne St John and Oakley. In Basingstoke itself the big attraction is the shopping, with three big retail centres.

Basingstoke was recorded as a market town in the Domesday Book and still has a regular Wednesday market. There's a little historic housing on London Street but otherwise the town is dominated by clusters of post-war homes in well-designed suburbs .

The 82,000 residents have an interesting demographic profile – fewer older people and far more young professionals than average. They will all have been boosted by the Halifax bank's quality of life survey, which looked at jobs, housing quality, hospital and school standards and the local environment. Basingstoke came 12th out of 549 places across the UK – not bad for a place often regarded as a London overspill town.

BEST FOR SMALL FAMILIES

Gloucester

Average family-sized terrace: £140,443

If Harry Potter needs a small family home when he grows up, this is where he'll come – after all, Gloucester Cathedral has featured in all of his films so far. Gloucester's relatively low prices apparently contrast with the wealth of the town and its 110,000 inhabitants. It has long been a centre for aerospace firms and is the base for the TSB building society subsidiary, the Cheltenham and Gloucester.

The town boasts below-average unemployment and above-average wages, and there is a high degree of new housebuilding near the docks and on the city edges. There is a pleasing maritime feel to the place – the wharf, warehouses and docks that once constituted a thriving port are now tourist shops and flats, and the National Waterways Museum (itself housed in a former warehouse) is a big draw.

The go-ahead has just been given to a £200m scheme involving shops, including a factory outlet centre, plus a hotel, leisure facilities, 1,000 new homes and a bridge crossing the Gloucester to Sharpness leisure canal.

But it's not all regeneration and housing – Gloucester is in the final of this year's Heart of England in Bloom competition and this week judges will be inspecting the landscaping on housing estates and nature reserves to see if it keeps the Gold award won last year. Harry Potter would be proud.

Stowmarket

Average family-sized terrace: £133,331

This is the quintessential small East Anglian market town, with 16,500 residents and a strong community life – this week is its annual carnival, for example, with concerts, a funfair and competitions throughout the area.

Stowmarket sits on the A14 corridor midway between Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds, and is an hour's drive away from Norwich, the regional capital.

But it has a healthy local economy of its own; firms like ICI and Bosch are in Stowmarket, which has below-average unemployment as a result. It's also on the main Norwich to London railway link although the lengthy journey time to the capital (90 minutes or more into Liverpool Street) prevents it being a commuter hotspot.

If you want a quiet life, Stowmarket is ideal – and that's how the locals like it. There is a real country feel to the place with a weekly street market from Thursday to Saturday, regular farmers' markets and now a council-run car boot sale each week, too.

There are few claims to national fame, although radio star John Peel lived on the edge of the town for 30 years and Mrs Beeton, the cook, was a resident here in the 19th century.

New homes are being built, mostly at the northern end of the town, with most buyers being young professional families seeking a lower-cost alternative to the nearby big towns. Stowmarket's centre remains pleasingly unspoilt with many Suffolk-vernacular listed buildings.

BEST FOR GROWING FAMILIES

Bridlington

Average large family-sized semi: £128,754

It's probably little surprise that this seaside resort, population 35,000, on the North Sea coast is officially one of England's top low-cost locations to buy in, but Bridlington and inland to Brough is one of the few northern locations on the Halifax list of attractive, affordable areas.

Bridlington really is a town of two halves. The ancient market town is inland, and has a relatively stable year-round population. Bridlington Quay is the seafront area – at one time there was a lung of green countryside between them, but that has now been developed. The coastal streets are full of B&Bs and small hotels, and thrive in the summer months – but some have now been snapped up by households who want the larger seven-bedroom properties overlooking the seafront.

The town is relatively quiet in winter and there are plans to beef up its conference facilities and its small marina to encourage more visitors, provide extra income and reduce reliance on what some consider to be the fading British seaside tourism industry. The theory is that these changes will also bring in younger residents – Bridlington's population has a well above-average number of retired people.

The town now boasts the Bridlington Eye, its equivalent of the pioneering London big wheel. For £4 you can slowly move up to see Flamborough Head and across to the Yorkshire Wolds.

Burntwood

Average large family-sized semi: £145,114

The Staffordshire town of Burntwood proves it's possible to be within commuting distance of Birmingham, Wolverhampton and other major employment centres like Walsall, Tamworth and Cannock, and still get a large house for a modest sum.

There are only 29,000 residents, but six major schools make it family-friendly. Although the town dates back to the 13th century it really grew up in the 1920s around the coal mining industry.

It's now dominated by commuter homes dating from the 1950s with newer properties in the Chasetown and Chase Terrace areas, mostly in classic Staffordshire red brick.

Burntwood is in a maze of built-up areas in the west Midlands but it's not lacking in charm – on Farewell Lane there is Princess Park, Britain's smallest park, while the Nag's Head on Rugeley Road is claimed by some locals to be England's oldest pub.

Last month a town centre regeneration plan got the go-ahead with 16 new shops and open spaces near the existing Morrison's.

But Burntwood's biggest asset is its road links – it is just four miles from Lichfield on the A5190, six miles from junction 11 of the M6 and eight miles from junction 1 of the M54. The M6 toll road is less than one mile away and the A5 is one and a half miles.

Lichfield is the nearest mainline railway station, with services taking 35 minutes to Birmingham.

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