UK housebuyers look to swap cities for suburbs

As life returns to the UK property market after three months of lockdown, home hunters are looking to escape the city.

Searches on property portal Zoopla, many of which have crystallised into agreed sales, show commuter belts and coasts are high in demand, while longtime hotspots such as London have lost some of their shine.

“Covid has created a one-off situation: you lock up millions of people in their houses and the whole population re-evaluates what home means for them,” said Richard Donnell, Zoopla’s director of research. 

The property market was shut down on March 27, when the government prohibited most transactions. Since its reopening on May 12, the rebound in demand has been stronger than expected.

Map showing there is high demand for properties in the north of UK

Agreed sales — not all of which will be completed — spiked once trade was permitted and by June were at a higher level than in the same period in 2019.

The faster than expected rebound in demand and the government’s announcement this week of a stamp duty holiday has given the UK’s biggest housebuilders — Taylor Wimpey, Barratt Developments and Persimmon — a substantial boost.

But buyer interest is not evenly spread. “Everywhere is up but London’s definitely lagging behind,” said Mr Donnell. Zoopla data shows the highest levels of demand are outside of — but close to — major cities. 

The commuter belts that ring Manchester, Liverpool, London, Glasgow and Edinburgh have all enjoyed big spikes in demand, which in some areas more than doubled between February and June this year. Demand in the cities themselves has rebounded far more modestly or, in London’s case, dipped. 

Scatter chart showing home buyers look to commuter areas

Coronavirus and the resulting lockdown has made buyers reassess their priorities, estate agents said. Green space has become more important after months of confinement. Figures from the ONS show that one in 11 London district authorities have properties where the average garden size is larger than a tennis court, while Preston and Bradford have gardens that are 1.5 times larger on average than those found in Manchester.

Proximity to an office has become less of a priority, with much of the workforce currently at home.

“There’s been a lot asking: is this the end of cities? I think it’s too early to call that, but it does seem to be a trend,” said Neal Hudson, an independent property market analyst.

London has sucked in young people from across the UK for decades but “the trend of the last 20 years” has been for them to stay and start families, he added. But if early indications are sustained, those people could end up leaving the city once they start a family.

“We might see a fall in the number of children living in cities,” said Mr Hudson.

Mr Donnell said a number of his customers had expressed concerns about living in dense cities and that demand for coastal and suburban properties was coming from all age groups.

Chart showing traffic to property sites plummeted during lockdown

London was one of the few parts of the country where demand after the market reopened was lower than it had been pre-lockdown. Central and west London postcodes experienced the steepest falls in demand between February and June.

“If you’re a would-be first-time buyer and you no longer have to commute five days a week [because of coronavirus], and instead you can work from Swindon, Chatham, or Milton Keynes, you might think ‘now’s the time’,” said Mr Donnell.

A migration to the suburbs “will inevitably have an impact on pricing”, said Mr Hudson. “More people looking to move means more people looking to sell.”

It may also be “a cause for concern” in the areas favoured by London-leavers, he added. “In certain markets London wealth can dominate and push out local people from the housing market.”