For the past few years, Deborah Brown and her husband have been having an “existential struggle” over their future: should they move to the countryside or stay put in their much-loved Cambridge home?
Brown, who left the City of London for academia and now runs a social enterprise that sells handwoven Ghanaian baskets, says the pandemic helped bring the decision to a head.
“There was a point this summer when the older children were here and there were baskets all over the place and we just sort of thought, it’s time to get out,” she says. “Over lockdown we’d gone from having one dog and one hamster to two dogs, a hamster and three chickens, so we kind of felt like we’d already started this country life.”
While the Browns are heading to a farmhouse and six acres in south Cambridgeshire, the pandemic has led others to hanker after what they’re leaving behind: a small city with a booming economy, excellent schools, the countryside on its doorstep and close links to London.
For many freed from the daily commute by remote working, it’s an ideal halfway house between the big city and the countryside — and prices are high because of it.
At the end of last year, the average property price in Cambridge was £444,300, up 1.5 per cent on 2019, according to estate agent Hamptons, using Land Registry data. But the real growth in the city’s property market came between 2010 and 2017, when the average price of a home rose by 67 per cent.
Since the market peaked in the third quarter of 2017, at £452,100, price growth has been relatively flat, due in part to strained affordability. At the top end of the market, though, prices are growing. Estate agent Savills calculates that the average price for a prime home in the city increased 4.1 per cent in 2020.
Sales have been boosted by the recent stamp duty holiday, introduced last July, which raised the threshold for paying the tax from £125,000 to £500,000. Despite the market being effectively closed for seven weeks during the first lockdown, Hamptons reports agreeing the same number of sales last year as it did the year before.
Savills’ Ed Meyer says recent demand has been driven by those looking to upsize within Cambridge, as well as an increase in people relocating to the city for schools and its green open spaces.
“The Cambridge region is a phenomenal driving powerhouse in the UK economy,” says Gemma Burgess, head of the centre for housing and planning research at the University of Cambridge. “Quality of life is very high, [the city has] loads of green space . . . The consequence is that lots of people want to live here and the consequence of that is we have a very pressured housing market.”
According to figures from the Office for National Statistics, in 2019 the average property price in Cambridge was 12.66 times the average annual earnings in the city.
The majority of houses in the centre of Cambridge are Victorian and Edwardian terraces, as well as larger Arts and Crafts-style homes built by the university colleges. The most expensive ward is Newnham, between Grantchester Meadows and Cambridge University Library, where the average sale price of a non-new-build in the year to October 2020 was £1.1m, according to Savills’ analysis of Land Registry data.
A cluster of streets around Barrow Road, south of the city centre and close to the university’s botanic gardens, has family homes sought after for their large detached plots (with gardens designed to accommodate a lawn tennis court) and proximity to Grantchester Meadows and the station.
Brown, who lives on Barrow Road, says that while some students (particularly postgraduates) stayed in Cambridge during the pandemic, the lack of visitor numbers provided a “nice bit of quiet”. “The tourist buses seemed to grow year by year and, most summer days, you couldn’t walk on King’s Parade,” she adds.
Roads around De Freville Avenue, north of Midsummer Common, are also a hotspot for family homes, while younger residents and students tend to live around Mill Road, closer to the station and with a buzz of independent shops, bars and restaurants.
“The real pressure is in Cambridge city. Prices drop relatively quickly once you’re outside, as soon as you get beyond cycling distance,” says Burgess.
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Between April and September 2020, the average price of a home in south Cambridgeshire was £122,157 less than those in the city, according to Cambridge Ahead, a research organisation where Burgess is chair of the housing group.
But, she adds, moving further out is not an answer to the affordability problem because of poor transport infrastructure. From Cambourne, for example, a commuter settlement 11 miles west of Cambridge, it could take “well over an hour” to get into the city centre, she says.
This is also a concern for Cambridge’s economic future and its burgeoning tech and biomedical industries, Burgess says. “If there’s not real investment in transport infrastructure, that will be a restraint on growth. If people get to the point where the commute is too long, the fear is that the industries will relocate.”
Stansted airport is 30 minutes away by train, or a 22-mile drive. London Luton airport is 30 miles away.
Some properties are affected by a covenant that means buyers must obtain permission from the university before they can carry out works.
What you can buy for . . .
£525,000 A two-bedroom terraced cottage with a garden near Jesus Green. Through Redmayne Arnold & Harris.
£1.5m A large family house with five bedrooms and a south-facing garden, close to Cambridge train station. Available through Savills.
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