Haven or hell?

If you're thinking of retreating to an island, then think again, says Graham Norwood. It all sounds very romantic, but your wind-swept and rain-lashed home may cost a fortune to upkeep
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The Independent Online

Living on an island off the coast of the UK may be appealing in many ways, but in today's housing market, affordability is no longer one of them. It doesn't help that several popular islands are tax havens. But even clumps of land with nothing but remoteness and simplicity on offer feel obliged to add a premium.

Living on an island off the coast of the UK may be appealing in many ways, but in today's housing market, affordability is no longer one of them. It doesn't help that several popular islands are tax havens. But even clumps of land with nothing but remoteness and simplicity on offer feel obliged to add a premium.

"You love islands or hate them. Those who love them think the advantages are the slower lifestyle and a lack of crime. They're happy to pay for the general feeling that an island has a sort of British seaside holiday atmosphere even if you live and work there full time," says Richard Gaynor of estate agency Savills. Values rise higher still because islands have a habit of boasting period properties with unusual designs and stunning sea views - a triple whammy for prices.

Take the extraordinary Fort Quesnard, one of 12 mainly granite forts dotted around the coast of beautiful Alderney, the third largest Channel Island. Dating back to the 1840s the fort boasts 14-inch walls, is surrounded by a moat and has more than 5,000sq ft of contemporary living space thanks to a restoration by its German owners. At £3.175m, it is a record for the island (Cluttons, 020 7408 1010 and Mitchell & Partners, 01481 823277). "We expect two types of potential buyer," says Robert Bartlett of Cluttons. "One is a 40-something City man wanting a unique house in a private location, possibly with a private aircraft. The other is a 60-ish, retiring couple with money."

Alderney has financial advantages - 20 per cent income tax, no VAT and no stamp duty - but it is difficult to reach. On my flight from Jersey on a tiny island-hopping aircraft, I sat next to a consignment of vegetables destined for a local shop. "We know we won't get celebrity buyers. Why would they come here?" asks John Postlethwaite, who heads estate agency Mitchell & Partners and is one of 10 MPs running Alderney's affairs. "This is an intentionally quiet island that is modernising slowly and sympathetically. It attracts a discreet and affluent type of buyer," he says.

The Isles of Scilly also lie off the south-west coast. With no fewer than 23 per cent of the islands' residences now second homes, and with the likes of Jude Law, Anneka Rice and Jenny Agutter spotted holidaying there, house prices have boomed.

As a result Pier House, a Grade II-listed 17th century granite building on St Mary's which would have been amongst the cheapest homes in Britain when Sir Harold Wilson holidayed nearby in the 1960s, now fetches a cool £485,000 (Stags 01872 264488).

Another tax haven is the Isle of Man where The Groves, a restored detached house with five bedrooms and five acres of grounds, is on sale (through Knight Frank, 020 7629 8171) for £1.8m, even though you cannot even see the sea from its sumptuous rooms.

Prices are cheaper in Scotland, although to buy the single-storey Lurabus House, on the Isle of Islay, you must still fork out £320,000, almost three times the price of a typical house in Glasgow, the nearest mainland city.

But you do get 150 acres of moorland on the eastern side of the Mull of Oa, the southernmost part of the island. Islay is quintessential island living - only 3,500 residents but 60,000 geese. This property offers spectacular views, fierce weather for some of the year and ownership of water-level coves accessible only by boat. Meanwhile, on the Isle of Skye for £350,000 you get the splendidly named Orde of Greshornish, a four-bedroom country house on the western side of Loch Greshornish (Strutt & Parker, 0141 225 3880).

Homes on the Orkneys and Western Isles are much more difficult to access and are consequently cheaper. Even so "a small cottage costing £100,000 four years ago would be difficult to get for £200,000 now, and it would need work doing to it," warns Archie Leslie-Melville of County Homesearch, a relocation agent in Kinross.

"But demand is low. A year ago I had a client who bought a manse on Barra, five hours by ferry from the mainland. She really wanted remoteness and that's what she's got. But most want something not too many miles from an airport," he says.

Even once you have bought your island idyll, the costs continue. "You've got a lot to consider depending on the size and position of a house. If you're on an island with a lot of bad weather off the Scottish coast it could cost a fortune in maintenance," cautions Steve Potter, an Edinburgh chartered surveyor.

"Does the wind risk blowing off tiles so you need a new roof every other winter? Any exposed metalwork may need replacing every few years. Cracks in walls need filling or you'll end up with ice widening them and damaging the structure. It all adds up," he warns.

The practical issue of travelling can also be a challenge. The cheapest return flights from Exeter and Bristol to the Isles of Scilly are more than £240 during the summer season; Islay is a two-hour ferry journey from Glasgow; a return ticket for a car and two passengers by boat from Southampton to the Isle of Wight - one of the closest islands off the UK coast - can set you back almost £78.

But if you are cut out for island life, there's plenty on offer. There are 200 habitable islands off the UK with anything from a handful to 75,000 residents. Take your choice... but save up first.

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