News – Welcome to log cabins

Farewell caravans, welcome to log cabins, the acceptable version of second homes

ALL WE WANT is a room somewhere, far away from the dirty city air, with one enormous parking space for the 4×4, a glimpse of the sea and a price tag of less than £200,000 . . . oh, wouldn’t it be lovely? The British appetite for homes by the coast is as insatiable as our appetite for chocolate eggs. This weekend the shelves for both are almost empty.
The charming harbour cottages, seafront apartments and less charming bungalows which line our shores are caught between two incoming waves of buyers. First, there are the growing numbers of urban refugees, swapping a high-dollar, low-quality way of life for something more wholesome but less lucrative. Then there are the legions of second-home owners, whose ranks are being swelled by about 8,000 new recruits a year. These are the people stuck next to you in the traffic jams heading for Devon, Cornwall and north Norfolk this weekend.

Existing owners will arrive to discover good news and bad: their property will probably have gone up another few thousand pounds in value since they last visited, but so too will their council tax, now likely to be charged at 90 per cent, rather than 50 per cent of the local rate. Like interest-rate rises, this does not appear to have put buyers off.

The West Country is more affected than anywhere by these trends. Over the past 20 years, estate agents have noticed that buyers, like policemen, are getting younger. Twenty years ago the seaside was a place for the fully retired, aged 60-plus. Many found their isolation from children and grandchildren less than splendid and returned whence they came. The advent of early retirement brought in buyers in their fifties, whose children were grown up. Now it is families in their forties, wanting a better quality of life for themselves and their children, who are cashing in expensive houses in metropolitan areas to compete for rural idylls.

Not surprisingly, prices are soaring. The average property value has gone up 62 per cent in the South West in the past three years. The house which cost £101,000 in Cornwall at the start of 2002 will cost nearly £180,000 today. The terraced houses that first-time buyers could pick up for £60,000 now cost double that.

Stuart Harding, who runs Bradford & Bingley’s office in Newquay, Cornwall, which still carries the local Stratton Creber name, has watched this change in his clientele. When he started in the early 1980s, 10-15 per cent of his buyers came from outside the area. For the past three years that figure has been 50 per cent — and he is not just talking of incomers from Devon. These are people coming from beyond Bristol.

These new full-time residents are bringing life and commitment to the prettiest rural backwaters. Less welcome are second-home owners, who add value only at weekends and in school holidays.

Some days every second person who walks into Stuart Harding’s office is looking for a second home by the coast. They want a bolt hole, with a parking space, as near to the sea as they can get, for about £200,000, cash. “It’s not an unreasonable thing to ask for,” he says, “but they are amazed when they can’t find it.”

Prices for classic seaside bolt holes used to start with a one. Now they are more likely to start with a three. In yachty Salcombe, one small house with a glimpse of water from the doorstep is on the market for a pound under £500,000.

Stuart Harding is acting for the one developer adding some new houses to the meagre supply in Newquay with a scheme one mile from the sea. Already he has more than one taker for every property, including some from the third battalion of buyers, the buy-to-let investors.

The number of second homes in the UK has risen by 26 per cent in the past five years, according to a study by the property company FPDSavills based on council tax returns. That is in addition to the undocumented thousands who have bought a second home overseas. The Centre for Economic and Business Research guesses that the current figure of 206,000 will almost double in the next 20 years, as we become richer. Schemes designed to halt this tide are doomed to fail, as history teaches us that you cannot buck the market.

One solution to the dilemma may lie in the caravan parks, scattered along our coasts.

As Britain becomes richer, demand is going upmarket. Second-home buyers who cannot find a cottage are unlikely to settle for a caravan, but may buy a chalet or log cabin with their more romantic American and European associations, particularly if it comes with facilities beyond the concrete lavatory block. They provide cheap bolt holes for families and attract less opposition from residents who accept “holiday homes” because they do not reduce the supply of real homes for locals.