And just in case you do find the house of your dreams in an estate agent’s window or online, it’s likely that you can’t find where it actually is. “A village with all facilities”, “a pretty hamlet, a short distance from…”, replace not just street names, but the name of the actual place. This is because houses are often represented by multiple agencies and each one wants you to sign up with them before divulging where this house might be, so they don’t have to share the spoils with others. They also don’t want you making a private deal with the seller.
Buying somewhere here is a bigger commitment than in many parts of the UK. If you buy somewhere on a whim, do lots of work on it, and then think you can flip it at a profit because the area doesn’t quite suit or your circumstances change, you may come a cropper. Property prices are usually worked out per square metre and unless the house is exceptional, or in an exceptional location, the price won’t go up because you spent a fortune on pretty wallpaper or a new kitchen.
And bear in mind when we lose our hearts to a wreck, a fixer-upper, a bargain, few of us have the skills to “do it up on a shoestring”, however many episodes of Escape to the Château we’ve watched. Work costs money, and lots of it. Just as in the UK, Covid has increased the price of materials. Good artisans get booked up far in advance, and are worth waiting for. We’ve found the quality of the work on our house to be excellent. Don’t be tempted to cut corners. Works on gas and electrics, even having your chimneys swept each year, requires a certificate for your insurance, and you need to keep them for when you might want to sell.
But the heart wants what it wants, doesn’t it? I don’t regret for a single second embarking on this adventure, and if this summer you go from looking in estate agents’ windows to stepping inside their doors, I wish you the very best of luck.
Read last week’s column: French children don’t sit with screens at the table – and they don’t throw tantrums either
One in two first-time buyers will rely on cash from their parents to purchase a home as prices and mortgage rates soar.
The so-called “Bank of Mum and Dad” will lend a total of £25bn to their children over the next three years to fund nearly half of all first home purchases, according to analysis by Savills estate agents.
This year, parents will lend £8.4bn to help their children buy homes – 68pc more than in 2019, the last year before the pandemic.
Since then, the Covid property boom has hammered housing affordability just as rising interest rates are starting to make mortgages far more expensive, meaning young people need more help to get on the property ladder.
The Bank of Mum and Dad will support 160,000 first-time buyer purchases this year – nearly a fifth more than in 2019. Over the three years to 2024, nearly half a million first-time buyers (469,000) will get financial help from their parents, Savills forecast.
But next year there will be a new blow for first-time buyers. The Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which currently supports around 40,000 first-time buyer purchases a year, will end in March 2023, removing a lifeline for tens of thousands of young people.
Mrs Frances McDonald, of Savills, said this will increase dependence on family. By 2024, parents will be involved in 49pc of all first-time buyer transactions, a jump from 43pc in 2022.
Parents lent £10.7bn to 198,000 first-time buyers in 2021 – both figures hitting a record high. This was because lenders withdrew low deposit mortgages en masse during the pandemic, and when these deals returned, they were at much higher rates. First-time buyers turned to their families to give them larger deposits so that they could access better rates.
Now, rocketing house prices mean property values are the most out of kilter with earnings on record, while high interest rates are quickly making mortgage rates more expensive. This means that the end of Help to Buy next year will be an even bigger blow.
Mrs McDonald said: “Only the highest earners and those who have received significant support are likely to be able to buy at the top end of the market. Particularly as the increase to the cost of living eats into aspiring buyers’ savings, as well as higher interest rates.”
Experts warned parental lending will remain consistently higher than that recorded before the pandemic, as interest rates rise further. Many young buyers are now being forced to take out longer-term mortgages to spread the cost of their loan.
Back in 2019, the Bank of Mum and Dad lent just £5bn to 136,000 first-time buyers, supporting 39pc of entry level purchases.
As local councils have granted more planning permissions over recent years, big developers have used their market power to stage a deliberate building go-slow, making higher profits overall by producing fewer homes, so prices keep rising.
We need to inject competition into this once vibrant sector by helping small builders – which build out permissions quickly to aid cash flow.
Firms completing fewer than one hundred homes a year now account for barely a tenth of all output, down from almost a third before the global financial crisis, which blew so many of them away. The top ten developers meanwhile build almost two-thirds of new supply.
In July 2016, the Lords Economic Affairs committee concluded the UK housebuilding industry “has all the characteristics of an oligopoly”.
Since then, with the big boys hoovering up the bulk of the help-to-buy funding, the industry has become even more concentrated. A full inquiry by the Competition and Markets Authority is long overdue.
The nub of the problem is our opaque, dysfunctional land market. When residential permissions are granted, land values can rocket many-hundred-fold – with this vast “planning gain” going almost entirely to landowners, developers and intermediate “land agents”.
It should instead be significantly shared with local authorities – so dampening price speculation.
Cheaper land would then make homes more affordable, while generating funds to build schools, hospitals and other infrastructure. New homes would then become more popular with existing locals, transforming the fraught local politics of planning.
Existing “Section 106” provisions help the state “claw back” some planning gain – but, again, reinforce the status quo.
Powerful developers negotiate away their obligations to build communal assets and affordable housing – threatening councils, under pressure from Whitehall to deliver homes, with further delays. Small builders lack such power, so are forced to fulfil their community obligations – often up front, making small developments unviable.
Official “new dwellings” numbers have risen over the last year – but due to a spate of often shoddy one-off conversions of office buildings and shops. The UK’s big developers are still building far fewer homes than before the financial crisis, despite gorging on help-to-buy taxpayers’ cash.
Rather than tackling these problems, Rishi Sunak has gone for the easy option of “clamping down on development”. In a desperate appeal to the Tory faithful, many of them elderly homeowners, the former Chancellor says it should be “much harder to build on our precious greenbelt”.
While some greenbelt is indeed beautiful, much of it is unremarkable farmland or urban scrub long overdue for development. Far from being “concreted over”, greenbelt acreage has more than doubled since the 1970s – and now covers 13pc of England’s landmass.
Housing, including gardens, accounts for under 2pc. The “no space to build” mantra is a myth. There is, though, a shortage of land, with planning permission, controlled by those incentivised to build quickly.
Only bold action can break this deadlock. I’ve proposed a transparent system splitting planning gain equally between developers and local authorities. Significant planning gain is channelled into infrastructure spending across much of the world – Britain is an outlier.
Sunak, in contrast, has opted for greenbelt dogma, helping to crush the homeownership dreams of millions. It’s a route to long-term Tory meltdown.
Private landlords should sell their properties to tenants at a discount paid by the taxpayer, an influential charity has said.
In a new imagining of Baroness Thatcher’s “Right to Buy” scheme, renters would be able to buy the home they live in from their private landlords under proposals from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Trade body The National Residential Landlords Association warned that any move to reduce the size of the rental sector would bring higher rents for tenants.
Ben Beadle, of the NRLA, said: “A strategy to cut the size of the private rented sector would be a disaster.”
Landlords have been selling up in recent months as a series of reforms have made it less profitable and more onerous to invest in property. Tax changes, plans to improve tenants’ rights and incoming energy efficiency rules have led to warnings private landlords could quit the second in large numbers.
The JRF urged the Government to use this as an opportunity to help tenants become buyers, and give them new means to purchase their rental properties below market rates.
A new “Right to Buy for private renters” would offer tenants similar discounts to those granted to council tenants – currently a maximum of £87,200 in England and £116,200 in London.
The discount would be covered by the Government, who could pay the difference either to the landlord, the tenant, or the lender, the JRF proposed.
It also called for first-time buyers to get priority for mortgage lending over buy-to-let investors to reduce the size of the private rental sector and cut speculative investment.
Landlords who do not want to sell should receive funding to retrofit their homes to meet high environmental standards, it added. In return, landlords would lease their properties to a housing provider who would rent the property out at below market rents.
Darren Baxter, of JRF, said that shifting the distribution of homes would help the millions of people trapped in unaffordable rental contracts living in fear of eviction.
“Right to Buy and the expansion of the private rented sector following the global financial crisis have already shown that rapid shifts in the distribution of homes are possible,” Mr Baxter said.
“Reforms of this type would ensure the housing market supports those looking for somewhere to call home over those seeking assets to invest in,” he added.
But the NRLA’s Ben Beadle pointed out that since 2017, the number of rental properties in England has fallen by more than 250,000.
In the last year, the share of landlords reporting rising rental demand has jumped from 39pc to 60pc, according to the NRLA.
“Policies that cut the supply of private rented homes whilst demand is so high serve only to drive up rents, putting homeownership out of reach of many,” Mr Beadle said.
Overhauling the ownership of Britain’s 25 million existing homes is just as important for fixing the housing crisis as building more houses, the JRF said.
The JRF also called for councils and housing associations to get new funding to buy and upgrade existing homes to let out at genuinely affordable rents, and for part-rent, part-buy models such as shared ownership to be made more accessible.
Between 2000 and 2020, the private rented sector grew by 2.7 million homes. Over the last 20 years, the number of 16 to 34-year-olds who own a home has halved.
First-time buyer house prices and rents have risen three times faster in the two years since the pandemic than before Covid hit as a property boom pushes property ownership further out of reach.
Monthly rental payments are rising at the fastest rate ever recorded, according to Rightmove – increasing by 17pc since 2020, compared to 5pc in the two years before that. Wages rose by 14pc in the same period, meaning income has failed to keep up.
The average 10pc deposit now stands at £22,493, 13pc higher than two years ago, Rightmove found. Average monthly mortgage payments have climbed 22pc.
A new first-time buyer now typically pays £973 a month based on the average mortgage rate, up £173. In the previous two years the increase was just £41.
Tim Bannister, of Rightmove, said that chasing soaring house prices had put first-time buyers at a disadvantage if they were unable to live with parents or family members while saving.
The average monthly rental payment is up £128 over the last two years, with a tax crackdown on landlords driving many out of the market and reducing supply.
A survey conducted by Rightmove found those planning to buy their first home said the biggest challenges they face are rising house prices and soaring energy bills.
Fewer than half (43pc) said they hoped to be able to afford a home within the next three years. Two thirds of respondents had already started saving towards a deposit, the survey found.
However, Rightmove said demand for first-time buyer properties is up by 35pc compared to 2019, suggesting many are still determined to get on the ladder despite stretched affordability.
Mr Bannister said: “We understand how difficult this challenge can be, and something we’ve seen more of over the last couple of years, particularly with working from home becoming more common, is people looking further away or at a greater number of different areas when looking to move, to see what is available within their budget.
“Those that have been able to save up a deposit are now facing rising interest rates when considering what they can afford to repay each month.
“Given the economic uncertainty at the moment, first-time buyers may seek some financial certainty by locking in a longer fixed-rate mortgage term now, before interest rates rise again.”
Sam Mitchell is the CEO of Strike, an online estate agency which is “disrupting” the traditional estate agency model further by selling houses commission-free. Instead, the company’s app links buyer and seller together and Strike makes money from referral fees and selling upgrades (photos and services and suchlike) to the vendors.
He says that traditional estate agency ended when online portals launched. “They stripped away the mystique that agents held a secret key to market knowledge and buyers. We all have access to data these days, and everyone comes to the market better informed.”
One client of Strike, who didn’t want to give his name, sold his house in Putney, south-west London, for £1.6 million earlier this year. The process cost him just £450, which covered the cost of the photos, having a floorplan drawn up and an EPC (Energy Performance Certificate) done.
“Traditional estate agents would’ve charged me between 1 per cent and 2 per cent of the selling price, plus VAT. At the top end of that scale, that’s just shy of £40,000 – or the price of a new car. I’ve no doubt that agents can add value, but is it worth that much? I don’t think so.” After the vendor met with the representative of Strike and helped to write up the house description for the listing, it was put on Rightmove and within 10 days, after 10 viewings, was sold for the asking price.
Where vendors are motivated to do the legwork – those active on social media will often set up a marketing campaign on Facebook and Instagram – the online agency route can be successful.
Sophie Baden, 38, sold her house in Godalming, Surrey, using Purple Bricks. It was on the market for £490,000 and found a buyer within a week. “We did a lot of the work ourselves including the write-up, taking most of the photos, conducting the viewings during an open day – with tiny kids, we couldn’t possibly keep tidying up the house.”
Purple Bricks acted to list the property on the portals and provided a sale board. In order to vet buyers, Sophie asked a series of questions before confirming the viewings. “It was hard work, but we were very attached to the house and maybe that’s why we wanted to go the extra mile in finding the right buyer, rather than giving money to an estate agent for doing what, it turned out, we could do ourselves. I don’t think I’d ever use an agent now as I enjoyed the process so much.”
When James Sherman* bought his Sunderland home in the early 1990s, he had no idea he would be trapped there 30 years later. “Not a day goes by that I don’t regret buying this property,” said Mr Sherman.
The 56-year-old is one of almost half a million homeowners in England and Wales who have leases of under 75 years. Most of these people are shunned by lenders and unable to sell without losing huge sums.
It is rare for banks to lend on homes with these short leases, and those that do charge higher rates with stricter terms. Anyone wishing to sell their property will be forced to do so at a heavily discounted price, while the property continues to lose value as the lease ticks down.
Flat owners also have the option to renew a lease or club together with neighbours to buy the freehold, known as enfranchisement, making it much more attractive to buyers and lenders. But this often costs tens of thousands of pounds and becomes more expensive with each passing year.
Mr Sherman bought his two-bedroom flat for £33,000 in 1992 and it is now valued at around £85,000. To renew his lease to 99 years he would need to pay £20,000 to the freeholder – a price which grows by roughly £1,000 each year.
A quirk of the system means that his neighbours in the same estate who own houses were able to extend their lease for a fraction of the cost, between £2,000 and £3,000, but flat owners on the street face bills of tens of thousands of pounds.
Mr Sherman said: “The other flat owners and I all thought we could buy the freehold when we bought our properties, but the costs are extortionate. My life is on hold and it is only getting worse with the rising costs each year.
“My options are to rent, renew the lease or sell the flat at a considerable loss. To say I am devastated does not describe how I feel.”
There are 450,000 flat owners in the same predicament, according to analysis by Lifetime Mortgage Gateway, which provides lease extensions for equity release.
The Government has promised to reform the country’s leasehold system, including greater rights for homeowners to extend shorter leases by 990 years. It also pledged to abolish “marriage value” clauses, which can significantly add to the cost of extending a lease. The value of a property can rise significantly after a lease extension and marriage clauses can force the leaseholder to pay the equivalent of half of this increase as part of their extension fee.
But these plans to reform what it described as a “feudal” system have been quietly watered down. Details on lease extension rights were missing from this year’s Queen’s Speech, which instead focused on limiting ground rent paid by leaseholders.
Mr Sherman added: “I have always voted Conservative, but their lack of action means they have lost my vote. It is criminal how we are being treated and ignored.”
Harry Scoffin, of Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, a campaign group, warned short leases were “acting as a drag on the housing market” and widening the price gap between flats and houses.
He said: “Mortgage lenders used to be fairly relaxed about short leases, lending on those in excess of 60 years, until two decades ago when they changed it for those up to 80 years.
“Lenders’ position on short leases is hardening every year and leaseholders trapped with short leases were devastated that the promised reforms to enfranchisement were axed from the Queen’s Speech this year.”
In a speech earlier this month Boris Johnson promised to “supercharge leaseholders’ ability to buy their freehold” and end unfair leasehold terms.
*Name has been changed
This is the highest level on record in Zoopla’s dataset, which goes back to 1959, if you exclude flash points during the 2020 housing market shut down and between 2008 and 2013, just after the banking system’s near collapse.
The figures emphasise the strain fast-growing house prices has put on ordinary households. Rising values have made it both harder to be a first-time buyer and harder for existing homeowners to upgrade. The gap between the average first-time and second-step home has gotten significantly wider.
Moving costs have also increased as properties were pushed into higher stamp duty bands. In the year to April, there was a 47pc increase in stamp duty bills, an extra £1,587 per home mover, entirely down to inflated house prices.
Lower-income buyers are already struggling. The last time the gap between first and second homes was so great was during another period of economic stress, following 2008. Although this time, the British economy is not grappling with a global financial crisis – that is likely still to come. CEBR has forecast the UK will enter a recession this year.
This will bring more risks for the housing market, which has been underpinned by extremely high levels of employment.
And then there’s the cost of living crisis
It is the lower end of the market that is driving the decline of the market. Average priced and cheaper properties have seen the biggest drops in competition as the cost of living crisis erodes people’s buying power.
The largest slowdown has come in properties worth between £250,000 and £500,000. The share of properties that attracted three or more offers fell to 36pc last month, down from 41pc in May 2021. For properties worth less than £250,000, the share fell from 40pc to 36pc.
Slough used to be a subject of mockery, but it has recently overcome that reputation for three clear reasons: fast access to London, high employment and excellent schools. The town, which is home of the Mars Bar, and gave birth to the zebra crossing as well as the wheelie bin, is just 28 mins from central London. It is on the Elizabeth Line, which opens there by next spring. It’s also set to be the location of the world’s second largest data centre hub. This, combined with proximity to Heathrow, means there has been a surfeit of employment opportunities. It’s also a centre for academic excellence (coming first in our ranking) with 20 schools rated outstanding or good.
Laughed at a decade ago for building a Hollywood-style welcome sign as part of a campaign to upgrade its image, this Essex town has long been a favourite with those commuting into the City (in 36 minutes, via three stations) while taking advantage of considerably lower house prices than its more rural neighbours. The East Square 10-screen cinema, part of a £24m complex, is set to open this summer. In the meantime, the Festival Leisure Park, dubbed “Bas Vegas” by locals (it was once slated as a location for a casino) is a centre of social gatherings and there’s lots of green space including Northlands Park.
Laindon, which is to the west of Basildon, has fast access to central London and five schools rated outstanding or good by Ofsted. But the town centre has suffered from people heading elsewhere to do their shopping, and a £50m plan to regenerate the centre and replace the former High Road shopping centre has been mired in years of delays.
Maidenhead is a clear winner of the Elizabeth Line. When services beyond Paddington begin by next spring, the journey from Maidenhead to central London will be just 20 mins (although we have used the current times here). The downside is that many have cottoned on to this early and, as a result, house prices have soared. The town, which sits on the river Thames, is popular with young professionals, families and retirees. It makes for a strong community spirit but puts yet more pressure on the housing market. A local niggle is the quality of shopping, with many preferring to go to nearby Henley or Marlow.
With its Norman castle, ancient cathedral and views over the river Medway, this is one of north Kent’s prettiest towns with plenty of period properties in the Roman centre. While its wealth suffered when the naval dockyard closed and it struggled to find a new economic foothold, today it’s regarded as the jewel in Medway’s crown. In recent years, the historic and cobbled high street has attracted a varied array of shops, cafes and restaurants and some popular markets, as well as an annual festival celebrating Charles Dickens, whose childhood in the town inspired some of his great works.
While the centre and the surrounding area is often regarded as run down – with associated crime rates – more loyal fans point to the Chatham Dockyard and Dockside, with its cinema and restaurants, as signs that it is starting to improve. It’s also something of a haven of academia: there are no fewer than 16 schools rated outstanding or good within a three-mile radius of the town centre, putting this Kentish town on a par with Cambridge and Brighton. For downtime, it’s also home to Buckmore Park Kart circuit, an iconic outdoor go-karting circuit where both Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button practised as children.
This town came top for life satisfaction in 2021, with golf courses aplenty, lots of green space and fast trains to London Waterloo. The area is also undergoing a large programme of regeneration, largely focussed on the central Victoria Square. The New Victoria Theatre attracts West End productions and there is a plethora of high street shops and restaurants (including, of course, the infamous branch of Pizza Express) as well as a cinema. As a place it is useful, practical and accessible, but the town isn’t going to win any architectural prizes.
Famous for its docks which were first constructed between 1884 and 1886, and which have been extensively modernised since, Tilbury is the main container port of the Port of London. It took that crown from the Docklands of London whose waters proved too shallow and congested to handle the larger ships that needed to be unloaded. Today, where Tilbury does well on house prices (it’s the fourth cheapest in our ranking) and access to central London (in 43 mins), there are deterrents. It had a crime rate of 125 per 1,000 people in 2021.
To the north west of Grays town centre, much of it built on an old chalk quarry, this 600-acre town was developed in the late 1980s, with the train station opening in 1995. The relatively affordable new houses and proximity to London meant it was quickly popular with City workers, and it is near the Lakeside shopping centre. Chafford Hundred is a popular spot among buyers who are prepared to look a bit further out of London for better value properties. It comes top of the list (alongside Grays and Tilbury Town) for the cheapest flexi-season ticket, for those working part of the week at home. The town is home to five good or outstanding schools, including Harris Academy Chafford Hundred.
Houses are more affordable here than in many commuter towns and flexi season tickets are the cheapest of all the locations on our list. However, congestion is a problem, and traffic around the town can get backed up for miles, although you can be at Lakeside shopping centre or the M25 very quickly. Change in the town could be afoot with plans announced last year to transform Grays with a £25m injection, creating a new beach destination and maritime activity centre.
With a travel time of 23 minutes to St Pancras, this town offers the third fastest commute to central London. Surprisingly, and despite its inauspicious name, the Kentish town boasts some stunning architecture with higgledy streets and 18th century buildings. Pocahontas, the daughter of Powhatan, chief of the council of tribes in Virginia, met her end here in 1617, en route back home to America. Today, what you can’t find in the centre of town is probably available in the shopping centre behemoth that is Bluewater, a 10-minute drive down the road. Another plus is access to the open countryside, as well as walks along the river and wider Kentish coastline.
Like many of the other Medway towns, Gillingham doesn’t conjure the most positive feelings among those who grew up there, with crime a concern. Like neighbouring Chatham it has strong maritime and military connections, epitomised by the Royal Engineers Museum. The town fell into economic decline in the 1980s when the dockyard closed and today much of the focus is on the business park. However, it is popular with families, with 14 schools rated either good or outstanding within a 3-mile radius, and the wide open spaces of the North Downs are on its doorstep.
One of the key new towns built following the end of the Second World War, today some feel Hatfield bears the scars of outdated 1960s architecture. But fans point to its good schools (two are rated outstanding), restaurants, pubs, and the shops and cinema at The Galleria, its shopping centre. The fact that it’s home to Hertfordshire University ensures that there’s a large population of young students living in the town from the UK and overseas. The Hatfield 2030 project, a renewal project pushed by local organisations, could soon change the look and feel of the town.
This cathedral mini-city has long been a popular commuter spot for those working in London. Fast train services to St Pancras take 21 mins, making it the second-fastest commute on our list. That, coupled with its green, open spaces and its historic centre have sent house prices soaring in recent years. It has a lively twice-weekly market, good pubs, theatres, restaurants and a leisure centre with a pool. St Albans is regularly listed as one of the top education hotspots outside the capital. Two secondary schools, Loreto and St Albans Girls, tend to draw parents with children of school age to buy within their respective catchment areas.
Founded in 1920 as one of England’s two official garden cities (alongside Letchworth Garden City), Welwyn was designed to create a thriving industrial community with peaceful surrounding countryside. Trains to London are fast, with the journey taking 29 mins. The main shopping hub is the Howard Centre, and the 126-acre Stanborough Park offers sailing, kayaking and paddle boarding on two lakes.
The home of the Derby offers the cheapest annual season ticket of all our commuter towns, at £3,188 for a 37 min journey into central London. It ticks off a number of suburban must-haves: tree-lined streets of detached and semi-detached houses with gardens, a selection of good schools, and the necessary shops and services including a covered shopping mall, and various markets. The 600 acres of the racecourse are open to the public, although racehorses have priority access before midday. There’s plenty more green space including Epsom Common and Horton Country Park, which has a children’s farm, riding school and golf club.
With its Grade II listed clock tower and 1960s shopping precincts, Stevenage was Britain’s first new town and has the scars to prove it. However, it’s currently the beneficiary of a £1bn regeneration project and is due to get a £10m technology education hub and a new town centre garden square. The old town has cobbled streets, a historic high street and pubs (and more expensive houses) while the new town boasts the UK’s first pedestrianised town centre and cheaper homes. Stevenage offers the third fastest journey into central London.
Despite its unfashionable reputation, Luton offers a short train journey to London and has easy access to acres of countryside in the Chiltern Hills. And for those who want to travel further, the town’s airport is on the doorstep. Local culture spots include the Luton Library Theatre which opened in 1962 and The Hat Factory (a reference to the town’s hat-making past). It will also receive an injection of £20m of government money from its levelling up fund to go towards development and regeneration.
Located between Pitsea and Leigh-on-Sea, Benfleet has been described as the most undervalued commuter town in Essex. Trains to Fenchurch Street and Liverpool Street take approximately 42 mins and run frequently during rush hour. The town has the usual selection of shops and services, but most will use the larger shopping centres in nearby Southend and Basildon, as well as retail parks on the outskirts of town. Nature lovers will head to the RSPB-owned Bowers March, an ancient landscape between Benfleet and Pitsea, which offers four miles of trails to explore.
Set in the rolling hills of rural west Kent but with an easy commute into London and a lively social scene, it’s no surprise that this town often crops up among the best places to live. The high street has the usual selection of chains plus a smattering of more interesting and independent shops. Popular with parents, especially among those who favour the grammar system, there are lots of school choices. It has its own annexe of the Weald of Kent Girls Grammar School and a new branch of the Tunbridge Wells Grammar School for Boys which opened last September, alongside bus and train links to other grammars in the area. In addition to Cannon Street, Sevenoaks has a direct connection to Charing Cross.
It doesn’t take long for people to mention crime rates when Southend comes up in conversation. But there are plenty of plus points for this newly-anointed city. The pier, an iconic landmark in Essex, is the longest pleasure pier in the world and the sand and shingle beach is a popular destination for families and day trippers alike. There are nine schools rated outstanding or good within a 3-mile radius, while the town centre is currently having a £2.5m makeover. For those working from home, Southend is on track to become one of the first “Gigabit cities” outside London by the end of this year.
Offering the third-cheapest annual season ticket for a 37-minute journey into the capital, this is one of Surrey’s best value commutes. Trains go direct to Brighton for days out at the beach, and it’s just 20 minute from Box Hill, part of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The town centre has its detractors, who say it is dated, but the towns of Reigate and Crawley are a short drive away and have a greater selection of cafes and shops, as well as cinemas and a more lively nightlife. The town also has direct connections with London Victoria and London Bridge.
Before the development of the Elizabeth Line, commuting from Shenfield into the City has always been quick. The 29 min journey to Liverpool Street has long made it a favourite commuter town. But now the whole of London has opened up, although until later this year you will need to change at Liverpool Street to access the West End, Paddington and Heathrow on the line. The Broadway serves as the local shopping area while the High Street has further options. Courage, the brewing family, donated land for the town’s cricket club, along with a nature conservation area known as The Butterfly Meadow.
The frequency of trains departing to London make this a very easy commute, but the fact that there are nine schools rated outstanding or good in the area is another major draw for families. The town has earned the moniker “Boringstoke”, however. Fans say this isn’t fair: Festival Place is a lively shopping centre and there are multiple green spaces including Eastrop Park in the town centre and larger Stratton Park and Crabtree Plantation a little further out. To the west lie the North Wessex Downs, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The town also hosts an annual festival.
Well connected to London St Pancras and also offering easy access to Luton Airport and the M1 motorway, Bedford is extremely accessible. If the Varsity line (also known as East West Rail) connecting Oxford to Cambridge is ever built, it will go through the town. It hosts the Bedford River Festival every other July, which takes advantage of its position on the river Ouse and offers live entertainment, activities and dragon boat races. Bedford was once known as Little Italy after thousands of immigrants from the south of the country arrived in the 1950s in search of work at the local brick companies.
Living near Ashford International is about practical choices: London lies in one direction (it might be standing room only on the train, mind), and France is in the other. Be warned, the journey is expensive: an annual season ticket costs over £8,000. There are some lovely surrounding villages, including Wye, Appledore and Biddenden, and Folkestone is nearby which has more character and a larger choice of independent shops and restaurants. The town of Ashford was largely developed in the 1960s, and it has a large cinema complex, shops, cafes and a market and is fully pedestrianised. It boasts the most listed buildings and conservation areas in Kent, and a low crime rate.
With a theatre, university, several museums, the world-famous Reading Festival, twice-a-month farmers’ markets and lots of shops, Reading has plenty going for it – as long as you forgive the town’s architecture. The town centre has been dressed up thanks, in part, to the arrival of the Elizabeth Line. There’s also the Biscuit Factory, a new cinema, and there will be job opportunities in Thames Valley Park and Shinfield Studios which, when they open, will be the UK’s biggest film and television studio. It’s also accessible: frequent trains to London take 26 mins, while Heathrow and Gatwick are a short drive away.
Officially known as Staines-upon-Thames, it is very accessible thanks to the proximity of the M3 and M25 motorways and Heathrow Airport, which lies on its northern outskirts. Trains to London take 40 mins and the annual season ticket, at £3,788, is the second cheapest in our list. Staines market, which dates back to 1218 and sells an eclectic mix of wares, is a fixture alongside two main shopping centres: Two Rivers, which was built in the 1990s and credited with transforming the town, and Elmsleigh. Local green spaces include Runnymede and Windsor Great Park.
The UK’s oldest town, Colchester offers commuters the best of both worlds: a regular train service to the City (in 54 mins, so it’s not the fastest), a pretty centre with lots of independent shops and restaurants, and rural living. Colchester also boasts good schools, theatres, a zoo and an award-winning park. However, it all comes at a price. The annual season ticket is among the most expensive, at over £7,000.
Home of the reality TV series The Only Way is Essex, the town has grown in popularity in recent years. Access to both the M25 motorway and the A12 connecting London to Chelmsford is easy. But this autumn, once connecting tunnels are completed, residents will most likely choose to commute to the capital from nearby Shenfield on the Elizabeth Line, which will take about 23 mins to Liverpool Street. There’s plenty to do outdoors with children including the Gruffalo Trail in Thorndon Park and the Stick Man Play Trail in Weald Park. Meanwhile, the town’s ski and snowboard centre overlooks more than 54 acres of woodland. * Flexi tickets between Brentwood and London are not available, but a monthly season ticket is still competitive with other towns on our list.
Once a somewhat sleepy university city in miniature form, the digital, science and pharmaceutical parks that surround Cambridge (together dubbed Silicon Fen) mean that it’s developed into a high-tech hub. Cambridge is also something of a cycling capital, with 80 miles of designated lanes and paths. Trains to London take 55 mins, it is packed with shops, pubs and restaurants, and there are world-famous views to enjoy along The Backs, the Grade I listed park which takes in King’s College chapel. The city also tops the education charts with 16 schools rated outstanding or good within three miles of the centre. The city also has a direct connection to London Liverpool Street.
Property prices make Sittingbourne competitive: it’s the second cheapest commuter town to buy a property in, with the average price standing at £262,700. What was once a large industrial town which provided many of the bricks for London’s 19th century expansion, it’s now changed into a commuter suburb. Former quarries have been developed into new homes and St Mary’s Island, an erstwhile dumping ground for Chatham Dockyard, has been developed into a new waterfront neighbourhood. Be aware, however, that it’s not the fastest commute to the capital, with journeys taking 58 mins.
While it might not win any beauty contests when compared with its county cousins, Didcot offers great rail connections (not just to London but to Swindon and Bristol too) as well as access to the A34. It also has a good selection of shops and restaurants (including a few independents). The town has changed considerably in recent decades with an influx of new housing, and the demolition of the cooling towers at Didcot Power Station. There are plenty of things to do, including a cinema, alongside a theatre and the Cornerstone Arts Centre which opened in 2008. The countryside around the town offers great walks, particularly along the Ridgeway, plus good pubs and farm shops.
Set between London and Brighton with Gatwick Airport only 30 mins up the road, this Sussex town has been a popular commuter spot for decades. It came third (after Woking and Cambridge) for life satisfaction in 2021. The town stands on the edge of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and Ashdown Forest is within easy reach. Most of the town’s shops, cafes and restaurants are found on The Broadway, which is also where the nightlife takes place. There isn’t a huge choice of great schools but two are rated as outstanding or good within a three-mile radius of the town. Haywards Heath also has direct connections to London Bridge and London Blackfriars.
Peterborough has the cheapest house prices of commuter towns on our list. But you will have to pay more for the 51 min journey into London, which is the most expensive; an annual season ticket costs £9,500. However, it fares better for schools: there are 12 rated outstanding or good within a three-mile radius. Like others on the list, it is set to benefit from a regeneration package. Announced in 2020, the £600m plan aims to provide new houses as well as culture and retail attractions in the heart of the city. The Key Theatre, which opened in the 1970s, was saved from closure earlier this year, while for those in search of nature, the Fens are on the town’s doorstep.
Properties here are good value: with an average house price of just over £267,000, it is the third-cheapest commutable hotspot. Its location makes it convenient for those commuting not just to the capital; it will take just over an hour to London Marylebone, but both Birmingham and Oxford are closer (45 mins and 20 mins respectively). It is a market town, with the usual high street names, plus it has the Gateway, a large shopping centre.
The city has 10 good or outstanding-rated schools and the season ticket cost of £6,696 is at the upper end of the expensive scale but by no means at the top. But house prices are the major stumbling block with Oxford: with an average second hand sale price of nearly £877,000, it’s the most expensive commuter spot. The city wins on other aspects, including quality of life, employment opportunities, top-ranking healthcare, and having plenty to do and see in free time. Those in search of greenery won’t have to go far with Port Meadow and University Parks.
Its seaside location, excellent school choices, regular train service to London Victoria (when it’s operating correctly), diverse and open-minded community, lively shops, cafés and restaurants and the fact that it’s at the foot of the South Downs mean that the lifestyle in Brighton is hard to beat. With average house prices standing at just shy of £452,000, it’s in the upper end. Preston Park is the city’s largest with 63 acres and has a charming local neighbourhood. The UK’s first national open water swimming centre of excellence, a new beachfront 50m lido, is opening soon. The town also has direct connections to London Bridge and Blackfriars.
With pretty streets of historic houses and independent shops, the seaside within easy distance and the South Downs on the doorstep, Lewes is a popular choice for commuters. It is particularly popular among those who want to engage with an active community, as there are more than 600 clubs and societies in Lewes. Culturally minded (Glyndebourne is just down the road, as is Charleston, the country home of the Bloomsbury set), there is an award-winning arthouse cinema, Depot, and an active branch of U3A (University of the Third Age). For bracing swims, Pells Pool is the oldest freshwater swimming pool in the country and is almost 50m long.
Max Armstrong, of North East Property Investment, a buy-to-let specialist, said the measures followed years of policy changes that had made buy-to-let less profitable and came alongside forthcoming minimum Energy Performance Certificate targets that could cost landlords up to £10,000 per property. “There is a worry that there will be a cumulative effect that, when you throw in the upcoming EPC requirements and the reduction in tax relief on mortgage interest, will push small landlords out of the market,” he said.
For Jess Dene*, 51, and her partner, the burden is already painful. The couple are self-employed and have built a portfolio of seven properties in the South West as their retirement fund.
“We didn’t have any money until we were in our 40s and by then it was too late to start a pension,” she said. “Our only option was property.”
But the Government’s buy-to-let crackdown and soaring house prices have already pushed back their plans. “Our aim was to have a pre-tax monthly rental profit of £5,000. We were at £3,500, but that has dropped to £3,200 following the interest rate rises. For two people, that is no longer sustainable.”
A raft of previous measures, such as new requirements for electrical checks, have already squeezed profit margins, said Ms Dene. “It used to cost £75 to renew a tenancy agreement. We just renewed one and it cost £900. The red tape costs so much money.” She is worried that a requirement for all properties to meet new minimum standards will bring additional costs in the form of paying for checks and certification.
Sarah Coles, of the investment company Hargreaves Lansdown, said: “Landlords have been cashing in and moving on as rising costs and a tougher regime persuade them there are easier and more profitable ways to make money.”
Those who sell up will get hit by inflation if they keep their savings in the bank, so former landlords could instead turn to the stock market. A stocks and shares Isa will allow them to invest £20,000 each year free of tax. Self-invested personal pensions generally have an annual contribution limit of £40,000 but allowances can be carried over for three years. Funds offer greater diversification of risk than investing in individual shares, said Ms Coles.
A Government spokesman said: “Good landlords have nothing to fear from our rental reforms, which will give tenants greater security to challenge unreasonable rent rises and poor practice. We are strengthening the grounds that landlords can use to repossess their homes where there is legitimate reason.
“We have consulted with landlords and will continue to work with them as we prepare legislation.”