Property: Take a step up to Scotland: The North-South divide is not what it was, but you can still find a splendid house in rural Scotland for the price of a South-east semi, says Anne Spackman

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The Independent Online
Apart from inheriting or winning large sums of money, moving to another region is often the only way of improving your choice of house. The rule of thumb used to be that the farther north you went, the more you got for your money. By the time you got to Scotland you could, by that reckoning, swap your semi for a castle.

Today things are not so simple. The recession has all but wiped out this aspect of the North-South divide: house prices today are remarkably similar for desirable areas throughout Britain. Only London stands out, being more expensive than any other city. And its closest challengers are Edinburgh and

Aberdeen, where prices have risen consistently from their low base in the Seventies.

Scotland has barely experienced a recession in the housing market. A survey by the Edinburgh Solicitors' Property Centre, which accounts for 85 per cent of the property sold in and around Scotland's capital, shows that prices rose by between 22 and 45 per cent from September 1988 to September 1993. But as soon as you leave the cities, prices become more affordable. So it is still possible to exchange the cramped life of the South-east of England for a bigger, greener slice of Scotland. It just depends where you look.

If you fancy a stone-built bothy 50 miles from the nearest neighbour, it can be yours from about pounds 8,000. The rural specialists, In the Sticks (0434 381404), are advertising a habitable but unrenovated stone cottage near Kyle of Lochalsh for pounds 40,000. And Finlayson Hughes in Inverness (0463 224343) has a strong foothold in the rural Highlands market.

If, however, your aspirations are more conventional, it is better to look in areas which, to a Southerner, are within easy commuting distance of a city centre, though many Scots would regard them as being too far from their workplace.

Toni Marlow, of the public relations company, Barkers, in Edinburgh, and her colleague Simon Fairclough, based in Glasgow, have done just this. Both used to live in small London terraces. Now Ms Marlow and her family have a large family house in Perthshire, one hour's drive from work, and Mr Fairclough has bought a similar property in Stirling, about 30 miles from Glasgow.

Tim Hailey, the marketing director of Invergordon Distillers, made a longer move from the South to the North - in 1977, when the price advantage was clear. He recalls his feelings about Scotland when his then employer, Unilever, offered him a job there. 'It was a place I went on holiday, where it rained,' he said. 'Somewhere beautiful, somewhere where the schools were supposed to be good, but definitely somewhere miles away, a strange land.'

At the time, the Haileys were living in Shoreham-by-Sea, Sussex, with one daughter and another child on the way, in a tiny modern semi with two bedrooms, one living room and a minute garden. Tim Hailey had to travel one hour each way to work in Burgess Hill.

'Housing was one of the main things that attracted us to Scotland,' says Mr Hailey, now 46. 'We knew property was cheaper and that you got more for your money.' They sold their semi for pounds 15,000 and bought a three-storey 1870s stone-built house in Kirkcaldy, Fife, with a big garden and views across the Firth of Forth to Edinburgh. It cost them pounds 16,000.

'We left the South looking for a bigger, better house, and that's what we achieved,' Mr Hailey says. 'In property terms this was the best thing I ever did.'

One problem for househunters moving to Scotland, as Mr Hailey recalls, is that the quality of homes available there is often poorer than south of the border. No doubt this remark will infuriate many Scottish readers, but it still holds generally true.

Scotland converted to home- ownership much later than England, and still has far higher levels of rented property. The new-homes market lags behind, and some firms still build characterless boxes that look bleak and out-of-date.

The architectural character of the grander Scottish houses is also more austere than that of their English counterparts. It is a country for those who like simplicity and symmetry, rather than the cute cottage styles of many English villages.

On a more positive note, properties known as 'steadings' have been a great success on the market over recent years. These are houses normally created out of farm buildings, which keep their original character outside and are rebuilt to modern standards inside.

One good example sold recently was near Longniddry, 12 miles east of Edinburgh. This steading, comprising two large reception rooms, a large kitchen/breakfast room, four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a sitting room/fifth bedroom and double garage, went for about pounds 145,000.

Barbara Duffner looked at a lot of steadings when she was offered the job of director of personnel for the Royal Mail in Scotland and Northern Ireland. She had worked temporarily in Edinburgh a few years earlier, and was delighted to have the chance to move North on a permanent basis. Her husband, Chris, had, however, always harboured an ambition to build his own house. After months of looking at properties in the pounds 200,000- pounds 300,000 range and not finding quite what they wanted, he was to have his way.

The Duffners had been living in a modern four-bedroom, three-reception house in Chipperfield, Hertfordshire, from which it took Barbara Duffner up to an hour- and-a-half to get to work each day. 'One of my main concerns was not to be stuck in traffic jams any more,' she says.

After being outbid for various building plots, the Duffners found a site with stunning views, 45 minutes' drive south of Edinburgh. Now, with their architects, McFarlane Curran, they have built a large family house sitting in a couple of acres of garden.

'We saw it as an opportunity to rethink our lifestyle,' Mrs Duffner says, 'and we love it. Here you can really escape into the countryside and there is no one there. In Hertfordshire, you meet half of London at the weekends.'

And it is not just home that can be more idyllic in Scotland. Mrs Duffner's office looks out across the Firth of Forth to the hills of Fife; the view from her previous workplace was of a primary school and a dilapidated office block. 'I have a capital-city life here without the problems of London,' she says. 'I'd thoroughly recommend it.'

(Photograph omitted)