Thanks to TV property gurus Phil Spencer and Kirstie Allsop there can hardly be a living man, woman or child in the entire country who is unaware of the fact that location is the single most important factor when buying property.
In fact deciding where you want to live is often the first decision you need to make.
Your choice of area will not only depend on commutability to work, but also on your preferred lifestyle – whether you love the vibrancy of the city centre or feel the urge to move out into the country, or perhaps hedge your bets by settling in the suburbs.
In the real world, harsh financial realities can mean having to compromise between property and position. Given the choice of a tiny studio flat in a fabulous area and a period house in a less salubrious district, on balance the temptation may be to opt for the latter, in the hope that the area is ‘up and coming’.
But it’s important to bear in mind that one day it’ll be your turn to sell, so it’s always best to avoid obvious negatives, such as properties next to 24-hour takeaways, busy pubs, car repair garages, hospitals and fire-stations.
Nearby schools and churches can also prove disruptive, with your neighbourhood being periodically invaded by swarms of car-borne parents/worshippers.
Before committing to any one location it’s important to consider what you really want from a locality, and it’s essential to take a leisurely stroll around the area and thoroughly check it out.
Points to consider include:
People like us
Despite what we sometimes proclaim, most of us prefer to live in an area well-stocked with people similar to ourselves. Whether we’re swinging ‘24-hour party people’, young professionals, students or growing families, it’s often the case that like tends to attract like.
Occasionally the papers come up with stories of folk who, for the sake of a glorious home, will endure the most gruelling and expensive commutes to work. Living in northern France and commuting to London is not unknown. But for most of us, easy access to public transport, or to motorways permitting journey times of an hour or less, are key to the house-buying decision.
Having settled on a viable route to work, it’s important to try out the journey at the times of day you will actually be doing it – just to be sure.
You know what amenities are important for you. If you’re new to the area it’s worth spending a little time searching online for the availability of NHS doctors and dentists, hospitals, leisure centres, pools and gyms, churches, libraries, pubs, bars and restaurants.
From an investment viewpoint, property in prime residential areas tends to appreciate in value more quickly over time than the equivalent real estate located in less expensive areas. So opting for a smaller property in a premium area is normally the better buy, pound for pound.
Living in fear every time you pop out to the shops probably isn’t a good trade-off for being able to afford an enchanting property.
Many buyers will opt for the relative safety of established residential areas rather than risking collateral damage from drive-by gangster shootings and binge-drinking epidemics. This is partly an ‘age thing’.
One person’s perception of a lively vibrant urban area is another’s war zone. But for obvious reasons families tend to take a more conservative outlook.
If you’re planning to buy in an area you already live in, you will know how safe it feels and have an idea of the relevant crime statistics. Again, bear in mind that the day will come when you’ll want to sell, and this will be more difficult in a dodgy area. Check crime statistics online.
For anyone with a young family, the first question to ask is often about local schools. And as all estate agents know, properties within the catchment area of good schools are easier to sell and command a premium.
Parents who are well enough off to pay for a private education for their little darlings may not need to worry about catchment areas. Otherwise there’s the dilemma of whether to buy an amazing property in a cheaper area served by a notorious sink-school, and then worrying that your kids will all grow up to be brain-dead glue-sniffers.
Like everything else, the fortunes and reputations of schools can change over time, so if you have ‘inside information’ that a school is on the up, you could be ahead of the market. School league tables can be checked at www.ofsted.gov.uk.
Environmental issues, such as mobile phone masts near a house, can have a significant impact on price. A discount is normally needed to reflect perceived drawbacks. Some of these concerns aren’t actually supported by conclusive scientific opinion, and different people will judge them differently.
Values can be negatively affected by close proximity to the following:
Mobile phone masts
Electricity substations and pylons
Flight paths to airports
Main roads and air pollution
Factories and shops
Landfill sites and mines
On the plus side, you may be able to clinch a bargain and buy a cheaper property in a top postcode area due to its immediate environment. Asking prices will be lower for houses next to busy roads or railway lines, or adjoining commercial or retail property.
Intensity of use
Those who bought a house by Stansted Airport in the days when it was a private flying club aerodrome may not have minded the occasional de Havilland Chipmunk droning mellifluously overhead.
The trouble is, small aerodromes as well as railways and minor roads have a nasty habit of getting busier over time as intensity of use increases. Even previously undiscovered rural backwaters aren’t necessarily safe from thundering convoys of truckers following implausible satnav short cuts.
Change can create opportunities, as well as threats. It’s well known that major infrastructure projects, such as train line extensions, can add tremendous value to areas that were once ignored as being off the beaten track.
Another way the planning environment can sometimes work in your favour is when a major neighbourhood detraction is due to be taken out – such as where a polluting old eyesore cement works is scheduled to close.
But of course, such events can be a double-edged sword because of local job losses.
Once upon a time, public enemy number one for insurers was ‘subsidence’. But as climate change has evolved, the risk of flooding has suddenly taken on the role of chief bogey-man.
Fortunately, before buying you can easily check whether your house is located in a flood plain by searching by postcode on www.environment-agency.gov.uk.
If it is, don’t be too downhearted – the whole of Central London is sitting on a flood plain. What really matters is whether there has been recent flooding and the chance of it recurring.
How good is an area?
If you’re not familiar with the area you’re thinking of buying in, it’s essential to do your homework. A little online research should tell you enough to be alert to the downside of an unfamiliar area.
You can check out schools, crime and Council Tax rates etc on checkmyarea.com or police.uk. But there’s nothing like judging it for yourself. First impressions can be important, but may not tell the full story it is always essential to get the relevant surveys done once you’re further down the line
One thing’s for sure, the charming estate agent selling you the property won’t be overly keen to divulge details of the local mafia turf wars or marauding girl gangs.
To accurately assess an area, it needs to be checked out at different times – at the weekend, at night, and during the week. Quiet suburbs can suddenly be transformed into ‘rat run’ racetracks, choked with gridlocked traffic at peak hours.
Nearby schools may attract Mums double-parking and blocking narrow streets with SUV uber-wagons. A nearby pub could be a tremendous boon, but could also be a mecca for armies of boisterous revellers merrily chanting into the wee small hours.
Nightlife is great when you want it, but not when you’ve got to get up at 6:30am the next morning.
Handy tips for assessing an area include:
- Do local shops sell the kind of stuff you would buy?
- Does the local pub feel reasonably welcoming?
- Are gardens well-maintained or strewn with rubbish?
- Are any houses boarded up after being fire-bombed?
- Count the number of bells on each door – lots of flat conversions can mean parking and noise issues.
- Do many houses have commercial vehicles parked outside?
- Be nosy – peer through windows (you might be invited in for a cup of tea!).
Up and coming areas
In a buoyant property market, stories proliferate in the media about spotting ‘up and coming’ areas. Buying ahead of the game is a tempting short cut to riches.
Being smart enough to get in before the herd can earn you a small fortune as prices rise at above-average rates. Chelsea, for instance, was once a down at heel quarter inhabited by penniless artists. But areas can also go the other way and rapidly lose value.
But the influx of ‘big money’ into an area isn’t always a good thing.
Large numbers of houses in parts of Prime Central London bought by super-rich international investors as assets are left vacant, contributing to a lifeless, sterile local environment whilst doing nothing to address the housing shortage.
The same could be said for predominantly vacant holiday homes in parts of the country like Cornwall and Wales.
Of course, spotting the next big thing is not as easy as the media sometimes suggest. Some long predicted potential hotspots never seem to actually happen, resisting what used to be called ‘gentrification’ (then ‘yuppification’ and now ‘colonisation’).
It tends to be young professionals who are prepared to gamble on a postcode area, rather than young families who are safer sticking to established areas.
The latest property hotspots are often based on plans for infrastructure investment. For example, parts of Dorset and East London have retained a touch of Olympic stardust.
But you need to be selective – high speed rail links and major new runways are unlikely to bring much joy to surrounding areas.
Such predictions are at best only an educated guess, and tough market conditions can torpedo ‘growth plans’. However, there does tend to be a ‘ripple effect’ in a rising market, as people who can’t quite afford to live in the best neighbourhood often buy just outside it.
Then it’s only a matter of time before the gastro-pubs and bistros appear, trees are planted and green spaces blossom. Similarly, a major new housing development can affect the balance of a formerly shabby suburb, adding new momentum as fashionable buyers pour in and rediscover an area’s hidden charms.
Herd instinct, egged on by media hyperbole and speculation-fever, is the main driver of property booms and busts, so areas can change one way or the other surprisingly swiftly.
In a depressed market ‘up and coming’ areas suddenly become known as ‘fringe areas’, and there is a tendency for values to drop quicker than in better-quality, well-established postcodes.
But then choosing pretty much any property means gambling big sums of money on how the market will view the area in future. So what can push a formerly buoyant locality into reverse gear?
An area is a function of the population who choose to live there, and their spending power. If a major local employer folds, local shops may close as spending is reduced, or a new out of town superstore may suck away local business with devastating consequences.
Fashionable areas may suddenly become terminally uncool. Even depressing new monolithic architecture can play a part in the downward spiral. Some areas have started to decline when problem tenants have been moved in, or perhaps a mini crime wave gets out of hand.
Eventually, if enough local residents react to persistent noise and disturbance by selling up, a ‘down and going’ momentum can develop where more owners move away, increasing the supply of properties on the market.
This causes prices to fall, making them more attractive to social landlords, who buy up more properties.
Conventional wisdom has it that owning a less good property in a nice location is better than owning the best property in a naff area. But you have to be careful when following this advice.
An area may be delightful, but living in the wrong house can drive you mad.
Too many kids crammed into too few bedrooms while you try to work from home is a recipe for trouble. To get the balance right, it might be better to settle for a reasonable location with affordable property, perhaps one with potential for a loft conversion.
You shouldn’t have to live in a mugger’s paradise to buy a nice house.
True story case study
Duncan and Helen fell in love with a handsome five-bedroom Georgian semi-detached house in an ‘undiscovered’ part of Saint Paul’s, Bristol. It had previously been let as an HMO (‘house in multiple occupation’) and had great potential.
But as soon as they moved in, they noticed a posse of local youths congregated most evenings on their front garden wall, drinking and smoking until late.
The local school was dire and there were no other children locally for their kids to play with. After a couple of weeks, Duncan’s car was deliberately scratched.
One day when they were out at work there was a break-in, and the police were not too optimistic about catching the criminals.
Ultimately, as the stress began to affect their relationship, it seemed that the best course of action was to sell up, even at a loss.
We don’t bring this up as a horror story but you should really assess any area before making a decision. Drive past at different times of day, adhere to the above and come to a decision. It’s going to be a big one so get it right!