Property: Dreams of thatch and roses . . . and the hard reality: Bargain cottages are disappearing fast as townies colonise village England, reports David Lawson

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DURING the long, dark years of recession, one dream has survived: a little place in the country, preferably with thatched roof, roses round the door and a ludicrously low price tag. Now, with a sniff of recovery in the air, dreamers are swarming like locusts across the countryside again.

Deals are running 50 per cent higher than this time last year, according to Dowell Conning of Allen & Harris, who covers some of the most popular hunting grounds, ranging from the Thames Valley to the West Country. 'The London buyer is back with a vengeance,' he says. 'We sold six homes in Devizes last week, all to people from the South-east.'

Jaded townies looking for a better quality of life, even just for weekends, have been frustrated for the past couple of years because they could not sell existing homes, or were put off by the cost of remortgaging to pay for a second home. Now the shackles are easing.

Some will be in for a shock, however. In the South, values have fallen between 30 and 40 per cent since the boom but the cheap chocolate-box cottage has long disappeared. You can still get the thatch and roses, but only at a price close to that of a city semi.

'People will learn very quickly they have to compromise,' says Simon Arnes of William H Brown in East Anglia. 'They have to settle for something in a pleasant setting and plant their own roses.'

Some mental adjustment may also be necessary over what village life is like in reality. 'It is not always as cosy as some believe,' says Ed Waterson of Carter Jonas, who has outsiders baying for country retreats around York. 'Very often there is nothing much to do there.' In Norfolk you may be lucky even to find a pub.

Prices in Norfolk and Suffolk range from pounds 65,000 to pounds 100,000 for a three-bedroom detached cottage in a quarter-acre garden. Below pounds 50,000 you have to get away from the popular coastline, and usually this will be for a terrace or semi.

Values have always been lower in the North but the gap has narrowed substantially since the boom petered out. 'People have continued to be sucked into the West Riding area because we suffered much less badly during the recession,' says Mr Waterson. 'Two-thirds of the property we sell is to outsiders.' These are people more used to long commuting trips and higher prices, so they accept village cottages in the Dales or the North York Moors for around pounds 65,000, compared with around pounds 40,000 paid by locals in the towns.

Homes are available at this lower level in some villages: 'But only when the roof has fallen in,' says Mr Waterson. Wrecks are harder to find in East Anglia: 'They were all bought up in the boom,' says Mr Arnes.

In the Cotswolds, perhaps the most popular escape from the rat race, prices still start as low as pounds 60,000 for sound property, but

this is usually restricted to homes big enough only for weekenders, says Richard Hurley, of Hurley Lloyd Thorpe in Stow-on-the-Wold.

'Prices may have crashed in the slump, but there has always been a steady flow of buyers,' he says. They are likely to pay between pounds 85,000 and pounds 150,000 for a home. The tempo of inquiries has increased this year with the return of buyers from the South-east and Birmingham. A five-bedroom farmhouse in half-a-dozen acres near Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, attracted 235 replies after a few advertisements were printed, despite the price of pounds 385,000.

Buyers still have plenty of choice - even if that may not include a thatched retreat at a rock-bottom price. 'I have never seen so much property available in 25 years in the business,' says Dowell Conning. 'We have more than 1,000 homes on the books in an area stretching from Reading to Cornwall.

'But there is one special factor about village property: they are not making it any more.' This means demand is bound to catch up with supply. 'People have sensed that the market is on the turn and are trying to get in quickly,' he says. Until stocks are depleted, prices are unlikely to rise - but nor should they fall. 'A house that might have gone for pounds 175,000 in 1988 fell to pounds 145,000 during the slump but we are now getting more than pounds 170,000.'

One major problem for buyers is sorting the wheat from the chaff. 'They are well served for what you could call first-class country property at more than pounds 250,000. But this is more like club class. To find a West Country cottage you may have to work through 250 agents and sift through all that paperwork,' says Mr Conning.

A specialised service called Village Property was set up last year, which pulls together hundreds of cottages handled by Allen & Harris and its sister firm Gribble Booth & Taylor. The response has been so strong that plans are being laid for a national network bringing in other members of the Royal Life Estates chain to which they both belong.

But early buyers in places such as the Cotswolds have not missed out despite the recent slump, according to Richard Hurley. A two-bed cottage in Naunton, near Cheltenham, bought for pounds 7,000 in 1976 sold at pounds 34,000 in 1986 and has just been resold for the full asking price of pounds 76,000.

(Photographs omitted)