Sea change

The tide of buyers looking at Norfolk for a second home is giving way to a flow of people actually wanting to live there, says Katherine Eadie
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The Independent Online

North Norfolk's 19th-century brick-and-flint cottages were originally built for the fishing folk, and farm workers lived in similar homes, sheltering in the lee of low, spreading, farmsteads with their huge Norfolk barns.

North Norfolk's 19th-century brick-and-flint cottages were originally built for the fishing folk, and farm workers lived in similar homes, sheltering in the lee of low, spreading, farmsteads with their huge Norfolk barns.

Inevitably, the two industries ceased to be significant employers as the 20th century progressed, but this lovely, peaceful county, on the way to nowhere except the North Sea, blossomed as a place where you could get away and find some real peace, with just redshanks and oystercatchers wheeling the marshes for company.

What began as a quiet backwater turned into a holiday honeypot in the 1980s and 1990s. Tourism took its toll on housing stock as those very same cottages, freshly painted and seagrassed, became weekend homes for urbanites keen to chill out within a two-hour drive of north London; prices soared and second-home prices became just as out of reach as first ones for many younger locals.

But the area's estate agents have noticed a distinct change recently in the winds which keep Norfolk's air bracing: more and more potential purchasers are looking for family homes to live in - and work from. As broadband slowly creeps through the lanes and byways of the county, more people are realising they can move here full-time.

"It's really good news," says Max Sowerby, of the eponymous local estate agency chain. "Our main market for larger homes in the past few years has been the retirement market, or second homes, but now we're seeing younger people with families. Many are people who are able to work from home all of the time; other people may still have to go up to London for a couple of days a week, but want a better quality of life. There is still a sense of space in Norfolk."

And, right now, buyers have the upper hand, says Sowerby. "Last spring, sellers were expecting their asking price or even more. Now offers of five per cent under the asking price are being happily accepted.

"But that's for properties which are correctly, not ambitiously, priced," Sowerby adds shrewdly. "It's an area which needs some attention."

It will be interesting to see what offers Sowerby's gets for one intriguing property on their books: the former warehouse The Coal Barn, at Thornham Harbour, which has been the subject of endless paintings over the years. Sited at the water's edge, with unrivalled views and surrounded by National Trust land, the 39-foot upper floor of the brick-and-flint building has permission to be used as a studio/observatory - but the ground floor must remain in use as community storage. The Coal Barn is on the market at £170,000.

Of more interest to well-heeled urban escapees would be The Old Vicarage at Thornham, on the market with rival agent Bedfords. Built in 1905 of local carrstone, the seven-bedroom home, with stunning gardens of 1.5 acres, has been extensively refurbished yet virtually all the original features remain. Bedfords are marketing it at £1.15m.

Ben Marchbank, the senior negotiator at Bedfords, agrees that this is a good time to be looking at seaside homes."Buyers now have nothing to lose by trying to strike a deal, especially if vendors want to move by Christmas." Bedfords is also selling three-bedroomed Mill House at Langham, with its panoramic sea view across to Blakeney, for £500,000.

Sellers are being realistic, says Duncan Morton, a regional manager with Abbotts Country Houses: "Vendors with lower-priced properties are still getting their asking price - I tied up two such sales today - but some of the more adventurously-priced properties around may need to be rethought." Pretty little Wherry Cottage in very popular Wells-next-the-Sea, which Abbotts is marketing at £187,500, would have been snapped up as a holiday cottage only a few years ago; now it's more likely to go to someone who will actually live in it.

All country agents love to spark interest in their window displays and websites with postcard-perfect cottages, but one particular sort of property is selling better than older homes: the well thought-out barn conversion, or new development based on an existing site. Marchbank cites the local builder Michael McNamara's work, found in many north Norfolk locations including Langham, South Creake and Weybourne, as a stylish example of how to combine architecture that is sympathetic to the brick-and-flint tradition with all the interior mod cons.

Both families and "downshifting" retirees seem keener to buy something which is not going to mean endless renovation. But there is also another reason for the interest in new-build: houses right on the coast are difficult to find. Barry Chambers, of Sowerbys in Wells-next-the-Sea, explains: "Once people have their hands on a sought-after coastal property, they don't let go of it lightly. There's no doubt that you get more for your money inland, in quiet, rural settings."

Jenny Stone of the long-established agency Gaze and Sons' Diss office concurs: "Go a little further inland and you'd be surprised what you can get for the same money." A case in point would be the moated mansion of Ashwellthorpe Hall which, with 15 acres of gardens, woodland and pasture, is to be auctioned by Gaze on November 26 at a guide price of £750,000 - unless sold before the auction date. The much-chimneyed house has been in use as a hotel for some years, so any buyer would need to be prepared to live with the builders for some time. But that's a lot of space for the money.

Bedfords: 01328 730500, www.bedfords.co.uk.

Sowerbys: 01485 533666, www.sowerbys.com

Gaze &Sons: 01379 6411341, www.twgaze.com

Abbotts Burnham Market: 01328 738111, www.rightmove.co.uk

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