Property: Sea air? Take a deep breath - The price of seaside houses may make you gasp, but the West Country still has bargains, says Anne Spackman

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When I think of Devon and Cornwall it is always summer and the sun is shining, whatever experience or the weatherman might tell me to the contrary. Devon is beaches and bare legs; Cornwall is a fringe of cliffs and coves and Celtic names.

I am not the only one to indulge in romantic self-delusion. Thousands of West Country devotees prefer to forget about the wind and rain. Only one burst of sunshine is needed to persuade them that the place where they spent so many happy holidays is the place where they want to live.

The holiday-maker perspective has a significant impact on the housing market in the two counties. Where good schools, pretty roads and good access to jobs are normally the priorities, here everything is secondary to the sea.

Just a view puts pounds 10,000- pounds 20,000 on the price of the average house. Direct access to the beach doubles it. After the sea come Exmoor and Dartmoor, where, again, tourist potential racks up the prices.

High prices mean few locals can buy in the most desirable areas - such places as St Mawes, the Roseland peninsula, Rock and the Helford estuary in Cornwall, Dartmoor, Branscombe and the South Hams in Devon.

Instead, the buyers are outsiders (or 'emmetts' as they are known in Cornwall) mainly early retireds or second-home owners, now returning to the market after a four-year absence. Some are very rich, and neither group is dependent on finding jobs.

Martin Lamb runs Knight Frank & Rutley's Exeter office. In the boom years of the late Eighties, 90 per cent of his customers were from outside the region. Eighteen months ago, most were local. Now he is back to 50-50, with the up- country market still growing. He says: 'There are certain bits of Cornwall where wealthy people who don't have to commute, simply decide they would like to live - places like St Mawes, Rock and Padstow. These are the places of value.

'In Devon, you would have to pay pounds 200,000 to pounds 300,000 for a pretty four-bedroom cottage on the river Dart. Prices are so high that only outsiders can afford to buy.'

Mr Lamb is selling one of the most stunning properties to come on the market this year: a pink- washed house with gardens stretching down to the beach, and a swimming pool in the rocks below. The Moult at Salcombe is the place that is said to have inspired Tennyson's 'Crossing The Bar'. If you sit in its thatched summerhouse, you can easily see why.

It is a large family house with five main reception rooms, most with views across the water, six main bedrooms, three bathrooms and a separate guest wing. Next to the house is a large, walled kitchen garden, and behind it a belt of woodland, making it invisible from the cliff road. Knight Frank & Rutley has set a loose guide price of pounds 500,000- pounds 750,000.

At the other end of the price scale, but still in 'emmett' territory, is Poppy Cottage in Padstow on the north Cornwall coast. For this tiny one-up, two-down cottage 300 yards from the harbour, Miller's Wadebridge office is asking pounds 49,950.

On Dartmoor, Jackson-Stops & Staff has just sold an unmodernised three-bedroom cottage at Lustleugh for more than its pounds 90,000 asking price as a result of competitive bidding.

But outside the prime areas agents tell a different story. In the less touristy parts of Devon and Cornwall the ripple of recovery has yet to arrive. In the pounds 80,000-and-under market, prices for some properties are still falling, according to Ian Lillicrap, of Miller, which has 17 offices across the area.

'The bargains have not dried up,' Mr Lillicrap says. 'Some houses are selling for less than they would have done a year ago. In Redruth and Camborne, you can still buy a house for under pounds 20,000.'

For pounds 49,950 - the same price as the tiny Poppy cottage - you could have a four-bedroom, semi- detached cottage in a village near Penzance. Or you could buy a three- bedroom, stone cottage in a town such as Truro. As in almost all parts of rural England, the town is much cheaper than the countryside.

Outsiders go west to get out of the towns, and the best place for bargains is inland, particularly north and west Devon. Strutt & Parker is selling Little Westcott, a four-bedroom house with 2.5 acres of land, 11 miles from Exeter, for pounds 135,000.

Exeter has a two-hour train service to Paddington, which puts it within striking distance of London. As you go beyond commuter range, prices fall again. At Rackenford, west of Tiverton, Stags has just agreed the sale of a two-bedroom cottage in need of renovation for about pounds 30,000. The agency also has a converted barn with five bedrooms and three acres of land in a nearby village for pounds 120,000. A former rectory in a village near Barnstaple, north Devon, with six bedrooms, four reception rooms and 13 acres, was recently sold for about pounds 230,000 by Strutt & Parker's Exeter office.

According to the most recent figures on property prices from the Halifax Building Society, Cornwall ranks with Leicestershire and Staffordshire as one of the cheapest counties in England to buy a house. Devon ranks about halfway up the league table.

If you cannot afford the slightest whiff of sea air, beautiful countryside still comes cheaper here than in most parts of Britain.

Knight Frank & Rutley, Exeter (0392 433033); Miller, Truro (0872 74211/225225); Strutt & Parker, Exeter (0392 215631); Stags, Tiverton (0884 256331); Jackson-Stops & Staff, Exeter (0392 214222).

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