Spring Property Survey: Vital to know your train-pain threshold: Beware lest the dream of country birdsong turn into a nightmare of journeys begun before the birds even awake. Ann Morris reports

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The Independent Online
IT IS as seductive as ice-cream in a heatwave. Swap your cramped London flat for a spacious country cottage, lose the drone of the South Circular for the birdsong of a village lane, the pollution of the city for the pure air of a green valley.

Every year for the past two decades approximately 58,000 Londoners have packed their bags and moved to the country: seduced by a greener lifestyle and more room for their money. But the dream of that cottage with roses round the door, long country walks and the village pub can turn into a nightmare of missed trains, cramped carriages and not a sight of the countryside from Monday to Friday as you rise before the birds and get home long after sunset.

Balancing the pleasure of country life against the trials of commuting requires an extensive self knowledge of your train-pain threshold. Research shows that the optimum tolerable limit for most people is a 90-minute journey with a 15-minute trek each side house-to-station and station- to-office. But falling house prices and rising rail fares during the 1990s have resulted in fewer families deciding to move more than an hour's train ride from London.

'Rising prices during the Eighties forced people to move further and further out of London in order to buy their dream home,' says Colin Mackenzie of Hamptons. 'But times have changed.' Kevin Parsons, of the estate agents William H. Brown, in Diss, Norfolk - a 90-minute commute from London - agrees. 'During the late 1980s, almost 60 per cent of buyers coming through our doors were potential commuters. Today they make up about 15 per cent.'

Norfolk was one area where house prices soared higher during the property boom and have dropped lower during the recession - by up to 50 per cent in some areas. A good proportion of the potential commuters now looking to buy in Norfolk are older couples with grown-up families.

The serious urge to 'move to the country' hits most families twice in their lifetime. The idea is first seriously mooted when your children are small. You are living at worst in a flat, at best in a terraced Victorian house with a handkerchief-sized garden. In both you subject your innocent babes to carbon dioxide pollution. Country air, trees to climb, horses to ride and, above all, space for money, are very appealing.

If you make the decision that you work long enough hours already and do not wish to add to your absence from the family by commuting, you might think again when you reach your fifties. Convinced you would like a real garden to potter in during your approaching retirement years, and a more relaxed lifestyle providing a wonderful weekend and holiday retreat for children and eventually grandchildren, then again you may move out of town.

It appears to be this older group that is still prepared to put up with a 90 minute commute - perhaps knowing that they have only a limited number of years in which they will have to take the strain of the train. They are also more interested in living in a country village - a 15-minute drive to the station is not daunting.

Kevin Toms of Fox & Sons at Hayward's Heath, Sussex - just under an hour's train ride from London - says that although potential commuters start with the ideal of living in a picturesque village they usually settle for an edge-of-town house.

'About 50 per cent of people coming to our office are commuters looking for a home in this area. Most have youngish families and want a four- or five-bedroom house. They start by looking in tiny country lanes and backwaters but find the idea of being so remote uncomfortable. They end up swopping city life for town life,' says Mr Toms.

'Being within walking distance of the station is of prime importance to the commuter,' says Martin Burrows of Hamptons in Weybridge, Surrey - half an hour from London. 'The minute you have to drive to the station, you have to think about parking, whether you need two cars, that you will probably have to ferry your children back and forth to all their activities as well as to their friends' homes; it becomes a nightmare.

'There is always a lot more interest in a house with a 90-foot garden within 10 minutes walk of the station than a similar property with half an acre but a 10-minute drive from the station.'

Before you make your final decision about whether and where to make the leap into commuterland, take a close note of train times, timetables and rehability. This can make or break that move.

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