They are the rivers, roads, county borders and other magical location lines that make all the difference – over 20 per cent of the asking price for similar properties, in some cases.
The annual Halifax Rural Areas Quality of Life Survey recently flagged up South Cambridgeshire as the UK's best rural area, after an examination of 140 local authority areas in the UK. Indicators of the dolce vita include the numbers of well-paid jobs, the housing market, education and health. For example, South Cambridgeshire has an average life expectancy of 81.6 years.
It's the sort of data that makes city-escapees stroke their chins, but the usual suspects come up repeatedly – Elmbridge in Surrey, Sevenoaks, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire. And as another Halifax survey late last year informed us, affordability is in crisis in these most attractive rural areas, with rises outstripping top urban areas. Want to move to Wokingham? It'll cost you.
So where can those in search of rural and counter-urban bliss go in search of a good deal? "Many investors want to buy in areas that have already seen good growth and are now unaffordable to the local market," says Alan Forsyth, director of investment purchasing company Property Secrets. "Thus we target the more affordable areas of the UK: that is, those areas where prices are no more than four or five times the local salaries – and then aim to get a further discount from those prices." For example, says Forsyth, if you're looking to buy in North Cornwall forget popular Newquay and head six miles away to St Eval, where average prices are 25 per cent less.
It's a case of looking sideways, and time for a new generation of buyers to "re-boot" the location clichés, says Catherine McAllister of Stacks Property Search. "The trick is to find a way of gaining more space while staying in the same economic bracket," she says. "It's a bit radical as, traditionally, property in prime areas has increased in value more rapidly, and held its value." But if you need more space and can't afford to increase your mortgage, then cross that line. "Look to where developers are investing away from the hotspots," she adds.
This could mean simply shifting your focus by a few miles, perhaps crossing a county border or a main road – or moving out of a school catchment area. McAllister says that one of the most significant factors is a "ripple pattern with London at the centre", which the Halifax survey supports. So it's often further-flung counties that offer better value: think Warwickshire instead of Gloucestershire, Somerset instead of Dorset, Leicestershire instead of Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire instead of Berkshire. "You could add as much as 25 per cent to the size of your property," says McAllister. "But if you are going to move to a less prime area, pick a location where you can see that the seeds of improvement have been sown. And if you can, buy a property that has potential for adding value."
Such a move can offer more "bricks for your buck", says Simon Merton of Strutt & Parker in Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire. "For example, in the North Cotswolds, properties in Gloucestershire will attract a premium over those in South Warwickshire, although access to the same schools and transport connections are the same," he says.
Similar boundaries criss-cross the country. Take the Suffolk Heritage Coast – a popular spot for Londoners on the move. "The usual hotspots such as Southwold, Walberswick, Thorpeness and Aldeburgh command premium prices," says Carl Eastwood of Strutt & Parker in Ipswich. "But head west of the A12 (the coastal artery that stems comes from London) and you get some real bargains. We sold two major properties last year that would have cost 10-15 per cent more nearer the coast."
Indeed, it is often roads that act as the rubicon. Eastwood adds that prices are higher south than north of the A14 – the great route from the Midlands to the East Anglian coast. "Many buyers use key roads as boundaries to define their search areas," he says. So be creative, and look beyond your boundary.
Garrington, the property search consultancy for the UK, has seen a whole range of invisible lines develop. In the east, says Garrington's Chris White, a particular hotspot is Dedham Vale on the Essex/Suffolk border: after all, it's Constable Country, a living, breathing chocolate box. But just 10 miles to the south-west is the Colne Valley, where properties in rural villages are up to 20 per cent better value for money – and closer to London. Then there's Cambridge: a growing, and increasingly expensive, city. Rather than suffer its prices, look at Saffron Walden in Essex, Ely in north Cambridgeshire or Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk: all of them pretty, historic towns. Similarly, in the honeypot that is Gloucestershire, look at affordable Stroud rather than Cirencester.
Sometimes, it's rivers as well as roads. McAllister cites the river Severn where properties east of the river are about 25 per cent more expensive than those to the west. "Plus, there are lovely villages on both sides of the A5 in Northamptonshire, but those to the east of the road are as much as 15 per cent cheaper than those to the west. And South Buckinghamshire to North Buckinghamshire will make a 10-15 per cent difference in value, although communication links to London are just as good."
Liam Bailey of Savills research department says there are wider patterns of affordable areas with high living standards, and they tend to be concentrated in the East Midlands and east of England, including north-west Leicestershire, East Northamptonshire, East Cambridgeshire and West Wiltshire.
Sometimes, these price differentials come down to commutability, but there's also a more intangible fashion factor. "The Cotswolds is a classic example of an area where a high quality of living comes at a substantial house price premium," says Bailey. Some places might even be undervalued because they are seen as remote, but that could change if they come onto the commuter market. Take Lincoln, which topped a national league table for business growth and which recently launched direct trains from London King's Cross. Look ahead, think outside the box, and cross that line.
House hunting on the other side of the tracks
* Proximity to a commuting hub will add cost, so if you can be flexible, you'll be able to make savings. "In Hampshire, the A31 corridor from Alton to Winchester is about 10 per cent cheaper than the M3 corridor from Odiham to Winchester," says Russell Hill of property search firm Haringtons. This is at least partly explained by the more frequent and rapid commuting trains to Waterloo from Basingstoke as opposed to Alton. "Therefore less fashionable villages like Four Marks and Medstead are better value than the more picturesque villages of Bentworth and Upper and Lower Wield." And while the A3 corridor, via the Hindhead tunnel, is expected to bring Surrey prices to Petersfield in Hampshire, the cheaper, southern side of the South Downs – places such as Denmead, Horndean and Waterlooville – will probably remain at least 10 per cent lower than the north side of the Downs.
* The M40 is a big divider in the Chilterns region, adds Mark Parkinson of Middleton search agents. "Similar countryside north of the M40 is about 40 per cent less expensive than south."
* The south of the Winchester road running east to west between Winchester and Bishop's Waltham is cheaper than the north, says Tom Hudson, managing partner of Middleton property search agents. "Below this line, values are lower and properties more available – and there's a boundary between two local authorities, which makes a difference to planning allowances and restrictions."
* Guildford may be a hot spot, says Garrington's Jo Bishop, but an alternative is Reigate: about 20 per cent cheaper. And even at the St George's Hill and Cobham super-rich zone in Surrey, top-end bargain hunters might look at Kingswood. "It's similar to the St George's Hill and Crown Estates but up to 30 per cent less."
* The villages surrounding Henley-on-Thames are expensive, while those nearer Maidenhead – even Cookham, Burnham and Bray – are cheaper by up to 20 per cent.
* Sussex's yachtie hot spots of Itchenor, Bosham and Wittering are trumped by Cowes on the Isle of Wight.
* In Devon, Exeter, Tiverton, Kingsbridge and Tavistock and Dulverton are trumped by places north of the A30 such as Holsworthy, Okehampton and – towards Exmoor – South Molton.
* The gap is closing on the Herefordshire/Gloucestershire border close to Cheltenham and the Cotswolds, according to Knight Frank's Hereford office. "GL7 and GL54 used to be the best postcodes; now, GL18 and GL19 are the new Cotswolds, with a price differential of about 25 per cent," Knight Frank says. Upper Eggleton Court is on the market with the firm's Hereford office (01432 273087) for £1.25m, above.
* The A25 east of Guildford divides more expensive villages to the south – Shere, Albury, Peaslake, Abinger – compared with cheaper Clandon and Horsley to the north.
* In Cumbria, forget expensive Ambleside and Windermere and head east of the M6 to Kirkby Lonsdale or Sedbergh for savings of around 20-30 per cent, while further north, Keswick and Cockermouth are trumped by the Eden Valley, also east of the M6.
* In Yorkshire, look beyond the "golden triangle" bordered by Leeds, Harrogate and York to the likes of Boroughbridge, Thirsk, Ripon and Bedale further north, says Tim Waring of Knight Frank's Harrogate office. "With the upgrading of the A1 trunk road to the north, it's a location to watch and prices can be 10-15 per cent lower." On the market through George F White (01677 425301) for £335,000 is High Rowleth, above, in Swaledale.