Property Survey / East Anglia and Lincolnshire: Recovery beckons from a distance: The return of the long-range buyer is a hopeful sign for the market, reports David Lawson

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The Independent Online
AROUND a third of the people Howard Jones sold homes to last year were from the London area. That might not seem unusual, except that he is based 100 miles away in Lincolnshire. Mark Stewart is even more distant in Norwich, but most of his customers are also trekking up from the south nowadays.

The return of the long-distance buyer might be simply put down to the pulling power of television. Mr Jones is sales director for Allison Homes, which builds around 140 houses a year in country towns like Stamford. This just happens to be the location for Middlemarch, which has been drawing millions of viewers each week. Mr Stewart would also admit that a previous favourite, Lovejoy, attracted many a potential buyer into East Anglia, where his firm, Bidwells, is a leading agent.

A more likely reason for this surge of outsiders, however, is that the market is gathering for recovery. The last time it happened London prices were exploding, sending out shock waves which helped push up values and sales wherever commuters could gather.

It is too early to be sure of a new boom, however. 'Things have certainly picked up since the beginning of January,' says Mr Jones. 'But we saw a similar rise last year and it faded.' In fact, Mr Stewart's colleague Jock Lloyd-Jones makes a point of talking down the idea of big price rises. 'My instincts are that values will increase by around 5 per cent this year,' he says, despite the fact sales are almost a third higher than last year in the area he covers around Cambridge.

The important fact is that owners around London can now sell their homes again. That gives them the chance to move out - even if they now go with less bulky wallets - adding to the gradual recovery in demand from locals.

The attractions were strong long before Middlemarch hit the screens. Property in Lincolnshire, for instance, is among the cheapest in the country: Allison's prices start at pounds 37,000 for a two-bed terrace. Even its top-of-the-range detached house is only pounds 132,500, which can more than compensate for the price of a 55-minute rail trip from Peterborough each day.

City folks are heading more in Mr Stewart's direction now they have bonuses in their pocket, as he mainly handles up-market country homes. 'Many of the homes which went on the books a year or so ago are now selling - but at the same asking price,' he says.

Builders have placed their bets on a strong recovery. Almost 3,000 homes were started in Lincolnshire last year, a third more than 1992, according to the National House Building Council. 'I think I have seen every major firm's board in Sleaford,' says Tony Snarey, the new owner and chairman of Cornerstone estate agents. 'I suppose this is no wonder when land was being sold at pounds 50,000 per acre.' Peter Mills of Humberts sees pretty much the same thing in Grantham, where up to 10 developments are under way, perhaps because property prices are now back to 1987 levels.

That sort of money would buy little around Cambridge, however, where Bidwells say some sites have soared 60 per cent in the last year as firms scramble for land. It did not stop builders raising output across the county by almost 50 per cent to more than 2,500 last year, however.

Prices are generally stable according to local agents, although the Halifax Building Society quotes rises in its latest survey. The average home in East Anglia cost just under pounds 59,000 in December - 1.5 per cent more than a year before - and the uplift in the East Midlands region covering Lincolnshire was almost twice this rate.

That is having a major impact on one of the biggest problems left over from the boom: negative equity. Prices rose so fast - and subsequently fell so far - that up to half new buyers found their homes worth less than the mortgage by last summer, according to a study for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. But a more recent investigation by the Household Mortgage Corporation shows that rising prices will clear this problem for Lincolnshire buyers by the middle of next year, although in East Anglia it will hang around until 1996.

In the meantime those without such a burden are grabbing the chance to buy relatively cheaply. Gerry Pople of Beazer Homes says sales are moving quickly on the latest phase of its scheme at Kesgrave, on the outskirts of Ipswich, where prices start at less than pounds 50,000 for a two-bedroom home and range up to pounds 100,000 for a four- bedder.

Many buyers are moving into the area following relocations. For instance, BT has a new local headquarters, keeping not just Beazer busy but also another half-dozen developers on this massive new township, which is planned to provide around 2,000 homes.

Mr Pople admits that sales across the region have been hit by the slump but insists that Beazer has protected itself by choosing locations people like - such as those near good roads - and maintaining high standards.

'We won a couple of awards for our designs recently. This quality helps a great deal, especially when buyers have so much to choose from,' he says.

One impact of the price crash is that people are not being forced to move so far out of London to get a better home they can afford, adds Mr Pople. At Wickford, for instance, 28 miles from the city, Beazer is selling two-bed homes for pounds 56,000.

But Mr Jones still thinks he can get buyers up into his part of the world, particularly those retiring to a quieter life. They just need to be told such a place exists. A sales caravan which travels around the shows and shopping centres of the South-east has been his major weapon in the past. Now, however, he has a powerful new ally. An early repeat for Middlemarch and he might have to give up the travelling show and start beating people away from his door.

(Photograph omitted)