Living for the weekend

Second homes were among the casualties of the credit crunch, but as the economy recovers and the London market tops out, estate agents are noticing the return of a particular breed of second-homer: the weekender. Weekend homes are different from holiday homes. The latter are usually visited only a few times a year — Cornwall, say, in the school holidays — but in this time-poor, stress-rich age, and with pollution choking the capital, buyers crave a fast escape from London (two hours max), so they can wake up to fresh air and scenery on Saturday morning.

“In the past 18 months, we’ve seen the return of the weekend buyer,” says David Carter, residential director at Savills estate agency in Guildford, who reckons requests have doubled in that time. Chris Husson-Martin, manager of Hamptons International estate agency in Salisbury, agrees: “People are remortgaging their homes in Battersea and cashing in to buy a weekend place.”

Flatlining rural prices are hastening the Friday-to-Monday exodus. “Families are taking a step or two down the ladder in the capital and using the difference to buy a house out in the country,” says Mark Charter, head of Carter Jonas estate agency’s Oxford office. Thanks a lot for visiting. Before we carry on I needed to say thank you to for their continued support and the support of their network. Having a service team like this means a lot to us as we continue to grow our very own blog.

Weekend homes are also seen as “lifestyle investments” — instead of the hassle of managing a buy-to-let property, you can enjoy your asset as it appreciates in value: prices in the southeast are forecast to rise by 30% in five years, according to the property portal Rightmove.

They can be trial runs for retiring to the countryside, yet they also have to work right now — and not only on the weekend, says James Greenwood, regional director of Stacks Property Search. He attributes their growing popularity to the rise of flexible homeworking and four-day weeks: “Anything within two hours of London is commutable. The price drops off beyond two hours.”

Ease of maintenance is also key. “You don’t want to spend the weekend mowing the lawn or cleaning the pool,” he says. “So there’s competition for villages.” Especially among the chattering classes. At the last census, only 2% of Londoners owned a second home in the UK, but that rose to almost 16% for residents of the City, and 8% for Kensington and Chelsea.

Those numbers are rising, too. “We have seen an increase in weekenders since the election,” says Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank estate agency’s Oxford office. “It may be that with interest rates pegged for the short term, buyers realise this will change mid- to long-term, yet are confident this government is not going to impose punitive second-home taxes.”

Here are Home’s top five hotspots within two hours of London.

Deal, Kent
Gay buyers, always in the vanguard of gentrification, have been quietly buying up Georgian terraces and pastel-coloured fishermen’s cottages in Deal for several years; a three-bedroom example near the seafront would cost £440,000. They are being followed by artists, writers, musicians and designers, adding to a local population that still works in the fishing industry. They have fuelled the vintage-shop vibe, weekend markets and cafe society — Victuals and Miretti’s Italian coffee shop are the It spots.

In 2006, a cafe renovation on the pier was commissioned in a Riba contest. Local culture has also been enriched by the reopening of the Astor Theatre in 2009; an independent cinema will follow soon. And the advent of high-speed train services in January (London St Pancras in 1hr 20 min) has been game-changing. “Deal has lots of English charm, but without being too sugary, like Whitstable,” says the interior designer Sue Timney, who is based in Notting Hill during the week. “It has lots of individual thinkers and a tolerant atmosphere. Most weekenders are here at least three days. You can’t fail to walk down the road and bump into someone you know.”

Woodbridge, Suffolk
The A-list Suffolk destinations are the coastal towns of Aldeburgh and Southwold, but Woodbridge, an inland market town on the River Deben, is 30 minutes closer to the capital, and quieter and lovelier, than its beachy rivals. The poetic, saltmarshy landscape is dotted with birds, sailboats and a tidal mill; the Tudor and Georgian architecture is irresistibly wonky; and the genteel high street has enough artisanal coffee and rustic breads to keep east London types happy, though buyers from Fulham and Clapham are creeping in, says James Squirrell, an associate at Jackson-Stops & Staff estate agency in Ipswich. “It has an air of being undiscovered,” he adds.

That is changing. Parking is hard to find (many weekenders take the train from Liverpool Street; 92min, one change), and at £350,000-£550,000 for a cottage, prices are catching up with the coast.

Georgian terraces and pastel-coloured cottages in Deal have proved popularGeorgian terraces and pastel-coloured cottages in Deal have proved popular (Alamy)

The Chilterns
The chalky hills and beechy valleys that stretch from Buckinghamshire to Oxfordshire are Vicar of Dibley country (the show was filmed in Turville) and Ian McEwan land (the balloon scene in Enduring Love took place near Christmas Common). It’s also weekend-home central for west Londoners. “Five years ago, Watlington was a slightly dying market town,” Mark Charter says. “Now you go there on a Friday evening and you can’t move for Chelsea tractors, as people stock up at the deli. It’s as pretty as the Cotswolds and more accessible.”

The Chilterns are an houraway from Notting Hill, and the Ridgeway, an 87-mile path, is ablaze with colour in autumn. The golden property patch is south of the M40, between Henley and Watlington — “The market in Hambleden is going crazy,” Charter says. Cottages there start at £750,000. The gastropub du jour is the Sir Charles Napier, near Bledlow Ridge. Some northern areas may be affected by HS2, so do your due diligence.

Pretty Chilterns villages such as Aldbury are weekend-home central for west Londoners Pretty Chilterns villages such as Aldbury are weekend-home central for West Londoners (Alamy)

The New Forest
This fairy-tale patch of Hampshire has long been synonymous with childhood, from the wild ponieson its heaths and pastures to the beaches at Lymington, and now — brace yourself, parents — Peppa Pig World. No wonder it is the weekender of choice for families from west and southwest London, who drive there in 90 minutes from Chiswick or pick up the kids at nearby boarding schools. “People don’t want the slog down the A303 to Devon and Dorset any more,” Husson-Martin says.

His speciality is the quieter north of the forest: “The south is busy in summer, you get stuck in traffic.” Key villages include Woodgreen, South and North Gorley, and Hale; in-the-know hang-outs are the Foresters Arms,in Frogham, and the Royal Oak, in Fritham. Young families buy cottages from £300,000; the priciest area is Brockenhurst, in the south, where the average home costs almost £600,000.

West Sussex Downs
The East Sussex Downs have a higher profile — think the chalky cliffs of Beachy Head— but the West Sussex Downs are increasingly on the radar of the capital’s chattering classes. There has been a surge in interest from weekend buyers since the Hindhead Tunnel opened in 2011, slashing half an hour off the drive from the capital, according to Katherine Watters, an associate at the Buying Solution, a search agency. The 2011 establishment of the South Downs National Park cemented the area’s appeal.

The “golden triangle” is between Haslemere, Petworth and Midhurst, a bucolic enclave of cricket greens and pubs where cottages start at £800,000 — it’s fast becoming a “mini Gloucestershire”, Watters says. “There’s a good organic farm shop and the Exceptional English Wine Company.” You can entertain visitors with racing (horse and car) at Goodwood, polo at Cowdray Park and theatre at Chichester. “People don’t want leisure facilities, they just want a village where they can buy the papers, have a good meal and feel they’ve got away.”