Looking back it seems extraordinary to estate agents who first moved into London's Docklands that they had to entice buyers out to places like Wapping and the Isle of Dogs. But what at first seemed outlandish locations quickly became fashionable haunts. Now, as they tempt people even further east into the Royal Docks, history is beginning to repeat itself.
This time though there is a difference, because for every person who asks, "which docks?" there is another who has seen the success of London's spread eastwards and wants to be part of the next stage. More than a few have already decamped to the one of the largest hand-dug expanses of water in the country.
The immediate focus is on Royal Victoria Dock, south of Canning Town and east of Royal Albert Dock and City airport. Already home to the ExCel exhibition centre and with four hotels planned for this year, developers are moving in with smart schemes designed to attract the essential first stream of buyers. Russell Taylor of FPDSavills, estate agents, knows how difficult it can be to urge buyers into an area that has a good few years of regeneration work ahead. "They do have to think long-term. After all, it has taken Wapping 15 years or more to establish itself. But those who want to push out the boundaries and invest in some exciting plans for an old industrial area will definitely see values go up."
At present, he says that anyone looking to buy in Canary Wharf under £400,000 will be pushed outwards by price. As the migration of people to this one small spot continues, so they will have to look further afield for homes they can afford. At Eastern Quay, prices for a two-bedroom apartment in the George Wimpey development on the south of Victoria Dock start at £250,000 and will be ready in November. It adjoins Britannia village, which is well established and sold off-plan six years ago. The same developers built the Western Beach scheme at the water's edge and near the watersport centre.
Counting cranes on the skyline will keep new residents busy for a while, and living on a vast building site is one of the drawbacks of watching an area take shape. Another is being under the airport flightpath. But transport links, the one asset that was so badly missing from the first wave of docklands development, is very much in evidence here: the Docklands light railway is starting on an extension to the south of the docks, running out to the airport and eventually, by 2007, across the river to Woolwich.
Along the way, a new stop will be created at Silvertown, an area undergoing transformation, close to the Thames flood barrier. One of the most successful buildings along this stretch of river has proved to be Barratt's Barrier Point, an 18-storey tower which has won 10 national awards. It adjoins a public park designed for the site and has spectacular views over the Thames. Three years ago, when west London agents were prone to dismissing Silvertown as out on a limb, apartments at Barrier Point were selling from under £90,000. Today, those same flats change hands for between £250,000 and £300,000.
A few hundred yards downstream, Tradewinds, a new development of 250 apartments, is taking shape and 180 have already sold off-plan. Prices there start at £369,995 for a two-bedroom apartment in the riverside tower and from £189,995 for a one-bed in a block behind. With a fair wind behind it, Barratt has also turned its attention to Victoria Dock, where one of the largest single redevelopment projects in Docklands is coming out of the ground. Capital East, an 18-storey glass-walled building, will cover more than three acres of dockside, with 700 apartments, restaurants, offices and shops. The first apartments available, priced from £209,995, are being sold from a floating sales centre on a Thames barge.
Richard Donnell, head of FPDSavills residential research department, identifies the potential of the area over the next 10 to 15 years: "It is a blank sheet for exciting mixed-use schemes. It takes time for markets to mature and a crucial factor is transport. It is a commercial area with massive scope for new building since there is only the odd old building here and there." One of the few warehouses left suitable for converting into homes is about to be launched by Savills, with prices starting at £227,500.
Beyond the clearly defined area of the Royal Docks lurks the Thames Gateway Initiative stretching out to the Medway towns and involving plans for 200,000 new homes.
South of the Thames, Woolwich has already been given a boost with Berkeley's redevelopment of the Royal Arsenal. The old buildings that survived the heavy bombing of the last war are part of the mixed scheme underway. Apartments, townhouses, commercial and leisure facilities are being planned for the Thames site, with a central park and courtyards.
Purchasers who were drawn there by the character and history of the military storage depot founded in the 17th century also know that the arrival of the Docklands railway is a crucial link with central London. In four years, the £250,000 they are currently paying today for a two-bedroom apartment should look very attractive. Like Victorian England, little can go wrong if we follow the transport links, and most of those are heading east.
FPDSavills, 020-7531 2500; Barratt marketing suite, 020-7476 7163; Berkeley Homes, 020-8331 7272.