Goodbye to the city

There's nothing to stop you leaving the rat race and starting a new rural life and career. You just need to find the right property, says Graham Norwood
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The Independent Online

If you started today feeling unhappy at having to swap the warm duvet for the cold misery of a commute to the office, you probably don't want to know about green-shifting.

This is the name given by estate agents to the growing trend of urban dwellers who, after 15 or 20 years near the front of their career rat race, decide they have had enough of city life and flee to the country. They swap Victorian terraces for renovated farmhouses, hot-desking for home-working, and grid-locked school runs in off-road 4x4s for... well, driving off-road.

"There are executives from the likes of Vidal Sassoon and Laura Ashley who've moved to the South-west for country jobs. Since Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall put Dorset on the map, about 15 have moved in from London to run smallholdings and live completely different lifestyles," says Simon Childs, of RSJ Property Search, a buying agency in the South-west.

They are not alone. Research by a property website shows 12 per cent of Birmingham homeowners, 10.4 per cent of those in London, and 8.3 per cent of Glaswegians want to up-sticks for a more relaxed lifestyle in the country.

These people are typically in their forties, have above-average incomes, and sell their city houses at £750,000 and above. They want to be self-employed and work from home in small businesses that allow them to see their families - that usually means running holiday cottages, bed and breakfasts, or tea shops.

"These properties come on sale each year about this time. These businesses often close for the year at autumn half-term, and some owners decide either to retire or they've just had enough of the work," says Justin James, of Stags estate agency, in Devon. His department solely handles enquiries from green-shifters, usually from the Midlands, the urban North or London, who want a radical lifestyle change.

James is just about to market a house with 17 holiday cottages near the Cornish tourist haven of Looe. "That one's £2m and is best-suited for more experienced people, but you can buy a country house with three cottages - a good number to start a business - for £700,000 to £750,000," he says. "But it's unlikely that three cottages could provide more than a secondary income. If they each clear £10,000 a year, that would be only £30,000, which for most people moving into this business wouldn't be enough by itself. If you work only in holiday cottages, you may need to have half a dozen or more."

Green-shifting is common to rural Scotland and Wales and those areas of England popular with tourists, chiefly the West Country, East Anglia, Yorkshire and Cumbria. But there are several factors to take into account before you take the plunge.

First, getting a mortgage - lenders normally want proven track records, so it may be more difficult than you expect to get a loan, unless you take over a business as a going concern with certified accounts showing strong and reliable trade. In some circumstances, you may have to get a commercial mortgage at a slightly higher rate of interest.

Second, find the right property - there is no shortage available, and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors recommends buying one already being used for the kind of business you have in mind. "That means if it's a tea shop, there will already be loos installed, or if it's a bed and breakfast, there should be the right fire precautions.," says a RICS spokesman.

Third, judge your likely income - for holiday lets and bed and breakfasts, the main season in the South-west and East Anglia is only the 16-week summer with weekend and Christmas breaks at other times of the year. But if you have a holiday cottage to let in the Dales or Peaks, the holiday season can easily extend over 30 weeks.

"You often find one member of the family will work from home at their original job, while another develops the lettings business or the bed and breakfast. When they're more experienced with the new work, they can phase out the old job," says Rod Tabor, of Garrington Home Finders.

Fourth, consider finding locals to help - if you run even the smallest two-cottage business, you may need a stand-in if you are away on changeover days between tenants. You will also need to forge good relationships with tradesmen.

Chris and Jonquil Boyes moved from Yorkshire to Devon this year, buying a house with cottages at South Coombe. Chris says: "A holiday complex gives us the choice to put in as much or as little effort as we wish. It's about the lifestyle, not the money. We're adding a pool, gym and sauna, and we know this is something for us as much as our guests." That's something to think about on the train or in the traffic jam.

Nice little earners:

North Devon: Glebe House, holiday cottages, £1.55m, Strutt & Parker (01392 286900)

North Wales: Tremeirchion, tearooms, £645,000, Jackson Stops (01244 328361)

Isle of Skye: Corry Lodge, B&B in 75 acres, £600,000, Strutt & Parker (0131 226 2500)

Cotswolds: Townend Cottage, B&B and tearooms, £850,000, Strutt & Parker (01608 650502)