'Leaving London meant I could buy a house'

More and more young professionals are choosing to buy a rural and affordable home, even if they plan to go on working in the city, says Kate Hilpern
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The Independent Online

Disillusioned city-dwellers are increasingly chasing the rural dream. Following spiralling property prices and costs of living, as well as the success of television programmes such as Escape To The Country and Location, Location, Location many home-owners see an opportunity to abandon the urban jungle for a fresh start in the country.

Disillusioned city-dwellers are increasingly chasing the rural dream. Following spiralling property prices and costs of living, as well as the success of television programmes such as Escape To The Country and Location, Location, Location many home-owners see an opportunity to abandon the urban jungle for a fresh start in the country.

And while selling up and moving out is a phenomenon most usually associated with families and older people, this is no longer the reality. According to Alliance and Leicester, people fleeing the city today are just as likely to include people in their twenties and thirties, many of whom do not have children or partners.

But while swapping your minute cosmopolitan flat for a thatched cottage or barn conversion out in the sticks can be the easy bit, cutting ties with cities and towns altogether tends to be more troublesome, if for no other reason than work. Employment, particularly for high-flyers and high-earners, is more difficult to come by in the countryside. And in any case, some people would not dream of abandoning all links with the sophistication of their previous lives.

Lucy Crawford's decision to move away from London was related to a combination of needing more space and the fact that city house prices had got "out of control". The 30-year-old estate agent explains: "My partner and I were both living in a flat in west London and ready to make the next step up the property ladder. If we'd stayed in London, that would have meant a tiny terraced cottage with a patio, not big enough for us, let alone our two big dogs.

"So we moved out to near Newbury, where we now have a three-bedrooom detached house, with a driveway and a decent garden. It's a chocolate-box village, with a river at the end of the street and plenty of fields and animals, and we love our new lives."

Since working from home is not an option for Ms Crawford, she does what most people who have "gone rural" do: commutes. "When it comes to pounds signs, this is by far the biggest disadvantage," she admits. "It can be stressful, time-consuming and extremely expensive. And since the last fast train home to where we live is at 8.30pm, it has also meant missing out on a social life, except when I'm willing to pay out huge sums on cabs."

Lisanne Mealing, an independent financial adviser at Howard MDM Associates, believes the costs of commuting should be the biggest consideration for anyone attracted to rural living. "So many people get carried away in their dream and don't think about the price of petrol or a season ticket, which can quite easily reach several thousand pounds a year. In addition, there may be smaller charges which soon mount up: car park charges at the station or near work, congestion charges in cities, cabs home when the trains don¿t work," she says.

However, she points out, some employers, ranging from the Metropolitan Police right through to blue-chips and some smaller companies, contribute towards commuting costs. "One London-based firm I know does this and one of its employees recently moved from Essex out to Dorset, quadrupling the costs," she says. "But the employer still agreed to pay because they didn't want to lose that employee."

Don't forget that time can be money too, says John Turton, an independent financial adviser at Best Invest. "Commuting is time you could be working and if the travelling takes several hours out of your day, that can mean a significant loss of earnings," he says.

He should know - he commutes daily from Wokingham to London. "It takes me an hour-and-a-half to get into work and two hours to get back," he says. "And because it's a broken train journey, I can't sit and work continuously on a laptop, which is certainly one way of avoiding financially losing out from a commute."

Of course, you could take advantage of the growing number of hotel deals or serviced apartments, although Mr Turton points out that these cost anything from £40 to several hundred pounds per night. "Therefore, it's only the high-earners or those who live a considerable distance from work that don't lose out as a result of doing this," he says.

Despite the financial downsides of commuting, Mr Turton wouldn't swap his home for one nearer London. "Every night I get home and remember why I live here: the peace and tranquillity, the fields and streams surrounding me are wonderful. It's a trade-off and for me, it's worth it."

Francesca Buck, a business psychologist at Kaisen Consulting, even believes commuting can be good for you. "It can create psychological distance between your work and home life and allow you to really unwind and relax on the way home," she says.

"This is useful in reducing stress because there's less likelihood of taking work home with you. Consequently, you're ready to enjoy the evening at home." For others, she admits, the reduction in free time can have a negative effect on work-life balance. "Commuting can also have a potentially damaging impact on an individual's reputation at work," she says. "Even if they put the hours in on the train, they may be viewed as less committed or even a part-timer."

Aside from commuting, she believes another chief consideration for families going rural should be school: ensuring that there ¿s one near enough and that it meets your needs. Social support is equally important, she says.

"City folks who move to a rural environment are not always welcomed with open arms by the local community and it may take some time before making new friends - which can put a strain even on strong relationships."

For Alistair Reed, a 29-year-old trainee barrister, this feeling of social isolation is one of the reasons he and his wife and 16-month-old son are moving back to London. "We moved out to Essex in February, not because we had any connections with the area, but because we both love the countryside," he says. "But the commute is a complete nightmare and my wife just hasn't found the people friendly. If we didn't have a year's lease on the house we're currently in, we may well have moved back already."

Other potential downsides include the cost of home maintenance, cautions the City and Country Group, which assists many city-dwellers moving to the countryside. Spokeswoman Jo Ridehalgh reports that people often forget that the more rural you go, the less likely you are to have access to general utilities. "You may have to pay out for things such as a septic tank," she says.

Rhodri Ellis Owen, 34-year old chairman of a communications company, adds that home improvements can be costly. "I moved to a 17th-century derelict thatched cottage in a small village in the Vale of Glamorgan, after living for a number of years in modern flats in Cardiff, where I still work," he says. "Some of the work that's been needed on the house has been really expensive, but it's also been exciting and a great challenge. You need patience, money to fork out for when things go wrong and a willingness to learn about DIY yourself."

He is also quick to point out that property prices aren't necessarily cheaper in the countryside. "I moved here in 2002, but prices have rocketed in this area since then and they're not dissimilar to Cardiff now." Likewise, estate agents report that in many of the Home Counties, as well as northern counties, including Cheshire, rural living may not be as cheap as you thought.

According to Julian Ferguson, 45, who works for a management consultancy in Richmond and moved to a hamlet in Wiltshire three weeks ago, the best news for his family's purse strings is the cost of living out in the sticks. "Electricians, plumbers, gardeners, cleaners, childcare... I'm finding they're all much less expensive," he says. "The food's cheaper too, not just in restaurants but in shops. By using local farm shops, you avoid supermarket prices."

Lucy Crawford says that leisure is cheaper too. "Things such as walking and fishing are free, whereas in London I'd have to pay for a day out, say, to look round Kew Gardens or go shopping," she says. "And I save money on clothes, too. I'm more likely to be wearing old clothes and wellies here than gladrags."

'We were fed up with traffic hassles'

Kathleen Travers, 44, is a manager at learndirect Scotland. Six months ago, she and her partner moved from Glasgow's West End to the little village of Kinbuck, just north of Dumblane.

"I've worked in Glasgow for most of my life and recently, at weekends, my partner and I found we were increasingly escaping to the countryside," she says. "As a result of getting more and more fed up with having to use the car to get there, we decided to move out. We were also fed up with the traffic problems in the city"

Their new home is about 35 miles from where they used to live and work. "It was a good deal. We sold our one-bedroom flat in Glasgow for £100,000 and got a detached bungalow with a large piece of land for £140,000. We also save money on leisure. We don't feel the need to eat out as much because it's not part of countryside living, and we tend to stay home at the weekends, looking after the garden or entertaining visitors.

"The commuting costs are the biggest downside. We each pay £130 per month for a train ticket and I have added two hours onto my working day through travelling. That said, I do get to work from home sometimes, and if I plan my journey at the best time, I can reduce the time it takes."

Catherine Johnson, 27, is a senior PR consultant for Trimedia Communications. She moved out of her rented flat in Shepherd's Bush, west London, in July last year to buy a house with her partner in Shrewsbury, Shropshire.

"I wanted out of London, but still loved my work and going out on the town with the girls occasionally. I made no secret of this at work and one day my employer asked me just how serious I was about moving to the countryside. I said it would become a certainty at some point and the firm offered to keep me on, with the agreement that I could work from home at least a couple of days a week. Now, when I fancy a night out or I'm working in London for two days in a row, I stay over at a friend's house in the city.

"My chief motivation for moving was that my partner was living in Shrewsbury and we had decided to move in together. But I also felt London was becoming increasingly oppressive. There was also a far more basic reason, too. There was no other way that I could have afforded to buy a house. London prices are ridiculous."

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