The grass is greener...

Few city-dwellers dreaming of a better life think about what they'll need to survive in the country. But there are plenty of properties with an income, as Graham Norwood discovers
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Edward and Jane Ma may not know it, but they are typical examples of a new trend in the property market - greenshifting. The term describes those city dwellers who do not just dream of moving to a rural idyll but actually up sticks and do it. More significantly, they change their whole lifestyle, too.

Edward and Jane Ma may not know it, but they are typical examples of a new trend in the property market - greenshifting. The term describes those city dwellers who do not just dream of moving to a rural idyll but actually up sticks and do it. More significantly, they change their whole lifestyle, too.

For the Ma family, this means Edward leaving his London bank where he worked for 20 years, while Jane quits her career as a commercial lawyer. They have sold their detached home in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, and are en route with their children, aged three and seven, to the Lake District.

And their chosen lifestyle from now on? Running a bed and breakfast business. "We don't underestimate how hard the work will be, but for some time we've wanted something that would allow Jane and I to spend more time together and with our kids, too," explains Edward as he flicks through details of potential B&Bs in Keswick. "We're using a couple of buying agents to find something for us. We're staying temporarily at Jane's mother's home in York."

The couple's home sold for just over £500,000 and, like many greenshifters leaving the South-east, they thought it would buy them a palace elsewhere. But they soon had a reality check. "House prices have shot up in the Lake District and have not risen to the same degree in the South-east. We'll certainly get something, but it will be a little smaller than we expected," says Edward.

The Ma family are not alone. A survey by website Assertahome claims that 9.9 per cent of homeowners living in big cities would like to abandon the metropolitan bustle. Most are over 40, have above-average incomes and want better environments in which to live. "These are wealthier households where careers are well-established and for whom quality of life and open space are more important than nightclubs and 15 types of latte on every street corner," says spokesman Jim Buckle.

The main areas of England attracting greenshifters are the Lake District, East Anglia and the South-west. Occasional trips to London and relatively easy access to major airports are important, but greenshifters usually seek areas outside the normal commuter belts surrounding London, Birmingham or Manchester.

Nicola Oddy, of the Cornish branch of Stacks, says many of her clients want a ready-to-go business, usually a country house in which they can live, with apartments or separate cottages that can be let out. "We receive lots of enquiries from people wanting to talk through the concept. Many come to nothing, but people who become our clients have thought through the logistics and are ready to proceed. They're quite switched-on in business terms."

There is no shortage of property on the market each autumn as owners of existing tourist-related small businesses either retire or move elsewhere. Isle of Wight estate agent Watson Bull & Porter (01983 867745) is selling the Royal Essex Cottage tea rooms, a thatched Victorian-themed restaurant, tea room and gift shop that also has a two-bedroom living area. The building, in pretty Godshill village, costs £595,000; the current owners claim that in high season it can take £1,925 a day before staff, running costs and depreciation are deducted.

Colemere Farm, in Ellesmere, Shropshire, meanwhile, is a farmhouse for family use with equestrian facilities. There are also six cottages offering a total of 10 bedrooms, all with planning permission for holiday lets. Lane Fox (01743 353511), who is selling it for £800,000, calculate this could provide an annual income of £30,000.

For £2m, you can buy a Georgian rectory with a large holiday rental business in Devon's South Hams, 15 miles from Dartmouth and Totnes. The main house at West Charleton Grange has 10 bedrooms but these have been split into a series of self-contained units. There are also four holiday letting cottages sitting in the 10-acre grounds. (Knight Frank, 01392 493101.)

But greenshifting is not all plain sailing. A Barclays Bank survey suggests 30 per cent of people who make such a move fail in their new business ventures, while another 30 per cent succeed up to a point - but earn less than they thought.

Oddy says you have to be ruthless in anticipating problems, even if you take over a successful going concern. "If you make too many changes too quickly, regular customers may look elsewhere. If you are not a jack of all trades, you will need reliable service providers willing to drop everything and come to your rescue. Everyone needs a holiday once in a while - who will hold the fort in your absence?" she asks.

Although many greenshifters are well-heeled after years of large urban incomes and after perhaps two decades of seeing South-east homes appreciate in value, even they may be in trouble if they need a mortgage for that perfect country business.

Ray Boulger of mortgage broker Charcol says no matter how high any previous income, the absence of a proven track record in a greenshifter's new profession will bear heavily on his or her future. "It's no use giving a forecast of expected income or an indication of what it used to be under a previous owner. Lenders really want proven track records," he warns.

"Often, one of the couple remains in a conventional job pulling in a decent income, and any mortgage required can be based on that. Or they can pull in other assets like a buy to let property portfolio to improve their collateral and encourage the lender to offer a larger mortgage," he says. If most of the property you buy is given over to the business, any mortgage may turn out to be offered at commercial interest rates at least 1.25% above traditional domestic ones.

These are not worries for Edward and Jane Ma, who aim to be operating their new bed and breakfast business by Christmas. "In addition to the family benefits I'm also really doing it because I enjoy cooking. It's always been a passion," admits Edward.

As a pioneer greenshifter wanting a better lifestyle, country home and less stressful job, he now really hopes to have his cake and eat it, too.