An attempted escape to the country

An attempted escape to the country

 · 6 min read
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While the British press has spent much of the last year waxing lyrical about the “exodus from cities,” the reality for those trying to move, especially those who were looking to move out into the country before Covid-19 struck, hasn’t always been straightforward.

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Making hay while the sun shines is something that county folk have been doing since the first homo sapiens downed their spears and said, ''Wouldn't it just be easier to sell stuff to the Neanderthals up the road?’’ In a piece I wrote a couple of months ago, I talked about some of the problems my partner and I had been having trying to buy a property and a few acres of land in the West Country. It had been a regular search, then Covid-19 struck. People began working from home. The stamp duty holiday was announced. Three blasts from the metaphorical starting pistol and the ‘race for space’ was off.

Still an overheated market

The first thing I imagine most readers will want to know is whether it is still as bad? Yes. I’d say that currently, it’s a stampede. The Land Registry says the price of a property in the UK increased by 1.2% month-on-month and 8.5% year-on-year. The prices of detached properties have outdone this and have risen by an average of 10%. The steepest rise has been in the Southwest, followed by the North West and Yorkshire and Humber. According to Rightmove, 50% of the properties advertised on their site are selling for the asking price or higher.

It’s a jolly holiday with Rishi

Even though buyers have probably realised the stamp duty holiday has helped push prices up, lessened their bargaining power and caused an unholy scramble, most people prefer a higher-priced property to paying tax. Judging from the collective sigh of relief that came after hearing the Chancellor had extended the stamp duty holiday, it seems that people are happy it will continue. As usual, there are rumblings there will be a slump when stamp duty is reinstated, with falls of up to 17% predicted. I imagine some buyers who property binged in 2020 may have woken up with sore bank accounts and are wondering what they’ve done. But if it’s your dream house, it must be worth it.

The search continues

After a break between November and February, we have restarted our property search, and it pains me to repeat that things haven’t changed. There is an agency that specialises in West Country properties and whose website clearly illustrates what is going on. If you search for properties in order of newest first, you don’t have to scroll down too far before you reach wall-to-wall UNDER OFFER or SOLD properties. Call an agent to try to arrange a viewing and (maybe I'm paranoid, perhaps I've been doing this too long!) I hear the derision in their voice.

Sorry, too late

A lot of places continue to go out to tender or best and final offer. Houses new to the market flip on to ‘Sold’ before the pixels have had time to proverbially dry on the screen. It isn't easy to find the right strategy. We’ve been told several times that a vendor is ‘waiting a couple of weekends until all the viewings have taken place’ but have had several appointments cancelled because sellers have accepted an offer in the meantime. It is pretty common to see a property advertised with five acres of land for £700,000 one week and then the following week see the same property on sale at the same price but with the land now going separately at £100,000.

Road to nowhere

Our house hunting went from the frustrating to the surreal last week when I called about a place for sale in Devon. I was told by a young woman, who I thought sounded a little ‘cagey,’ that the person dealing with the sale would ring me back. As it turned out, the property had right-of-way over a neighbour's land and could only be accessed down a very uneven track. So uneven, in fact, that you needed a 4x4 or tractor to get down it. The agent went on to say that the landowner would not pay for any improvements, nor would they allow any to be made.

It’s got a what?

Off-putting enough you’d have thought, but there was more! The vendor was trying to sort it out and said it probably wouldn't be resolved before they sold the house. An old man was living in one of the sheds and was seemingly part of the sale as if he was livestock. There was even more. He went on to tell me quite jauntily - maybe he was trying not to put me off - that buried somewhere in the garden was the dead body of a former owner. The agency selling this place is the same one that specialises in West Country properties and is currently trying to sell this gem (with an impassable track, old man and corpse included) for £750,000. If you think that this seems a little far-fetched, please contact me. I’ll be happy to give you the link so you can check it out.

If you build it…

Recently we have tried a few other options, but these too have proved problematic. Getting a doer-upper and, well, doing it up, is one but they've been flying off the estate agent's shelves. Then there's buying a piece of land and building a place. It seems like a good idea but anywhere which has a hope of planning permission - maybe there's a rickety tin shack on it, or there’s a hen house that might qualify as permitted development - is getting gobbled up. If you get a look in, there’s the dreaded ‘upage’ or ‘uplift’ to confound you - a buyer is contractually obliged to pay the previous owner a share (usually around 20%-30%) on the future development value.

What now?

This piece isn’t intended as a moan (we’re ploughing on with our search and have two viewings next week) but rather as an account of how things are if you’re looking to move to the country. The housing market around the country is still being described in estate agent-ese as ‘robust’. I’d describe it as ‘exasperating’ and throw in a few profanities for good measure. I always thought that selling a place was the hard part and buying was exciting. With the reduction in stamp duty continuing until the end of June prices will likely keep edging upwards. Demand is still high, and many urbanites still want a piece of the good life. And the country folk? They’ll be heading off to Kensington, Chelsea, Shoreditch, and Richmond, where the property’s cheap and it’s not full of townies!

Kevin Hardwicke
Kevin Hardwicke
Kevin joined Age Group in 2020. As well as sharing personal experience of trying to find a property during the Covid-19 pandemic, Kevin is an expert in cultural issues including music and film from the 1960s and 1970s onwards.
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