March 7, 2014 6:23 pm

The appeal and challenges of buying on the Isles of Scilly

Horses grazing on St Mary’s, the largest of the Isles of Scilly©Robert Birkby/4Corners

Horses grazing on St Mary’s, the largest of the Isles of Scilly

On Seaways Farm the crop of scented narcissi is in full bloom. Since December the family-run farm on the Isles of Scilly has been dispatching its fragrant harvest to the mainland by the armful.

Seaways is run by Andrew May, 59, and his wife Juliet, 63 – who moved from London to live with her husband on St Mary’s, the largest of the isles, more than 30 years ago. “I think the reason people love the Isles of Scilly is the way of life,” she says. “It is very safe, there is almost no crime, the beaches are beautiful and there are lovely walks . . . It is the kind of place where everybody knows everyone and looks out for each other.”

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The other selling point of the Isles of Scilly (calling them the Scilly Isles will earn you a gentle rebuke from Scillonians) is the temperate climate – thanks to their location 28 miles off the coast of Cornwall – which is perfect not only for commercial flower growing but as a habitat for rare flora and fauna to flourish.

Given all this, it is perhaps not surprising that when Miranda Pearce, a partner at Clive Pearce Property, put a fine Grade II-listed property overlooking the beach at St Mary’s on the market for £600,000 earlier this year she found herself fielding inquiries from Europe to the Middle East.

“They were second-home owners and those just looking to escape completely,” says Pearce. “We had people calling from all over the country but most of our buyers tend to be from London and the home counties. They want to chuck in their London City jobs and have a real lifestyle change.”

Isles of Scilly map

Appealing though Scilly life sounds, there are some serious, practical challenges to overcome. The Duchy of Cornwall, Prince Charles’ UK estate, owns about 300 homes, roughly a quarter of the housing stock on the isles. And, claims Ian Sibley, partner at Sibley’s Island Homes, most Duchy-owned properties come with short leases and significant ground rents.

Garrison House, the property Pearce is in the process of selling, has just 48 years remaining on its lease while the ground rent is £7,500 a year. This sort of arrangement can make raising a mortgage problematic; most properties are therefore sold to cash buyers from the mainland, unless the terms of the lease specifically forbid it from being used as a holiday home.

For its part, the Duchy says its intentions are to promote affordable homes for islanders. A spokeswoman for the Duchy denied a deliberate policy of granting short leases. “Usually these leases were originally granted for many years,” she says. “Inevitably, over time, the period remaining on the lease gets shorter.” It was, she said, “commonplace” for the Duchy to extend leases by 50 years on request.

Despite the Duchy’s efforts to reserve homes for local people, there are 266 second homes on Scilly, according to the Office for National Statistics. It may sound like a small number but with a resident population of just 2,203, it means the isles have a higher proportion of second homes than anywhere in England and Wales other than the City of London.

Clarence House

Clarence House, a four-bedroom cottage

The other issue is accessibility. Pearce says that although there are five inhabited islands, most buyers concentrate on St Mary’s, since it has the best facilities and transport links. “The smaller islands are quite cut off,” she says. “What you gain in privacy you lose in that you might only have one shop and getting on and off the island can be time consuming.”

The final challenge is simply finding a property to buy in the first place. According to Savills, there were just 10 sales recorded with the Land Registry in the 12 months to September 2013, the most up-to-date period available. The average value was £343,000, compared with £356,000 in 2006.

Part of the reason for the lack of property is that Tresco, the second largest of the isles, is run by Robert Dorrien-Smith, whose family has leased it from the Duchy since 1834. The Dorrien-Smiths do not sell their properties, although they do offer rental cottages, a guest house, and timeshare cottages on 30-year leases.

For those wanting a more permanent base, the choice is narrowed yet further by the fact that the architecture varies wildly on the island, with attractive stone cottages sitting cheek by jowl with 1970s bungalows. “There are some beautiful, beautiful houses on the islands, but there are also some horrors,” says Pearce.

In the former category is Clarence House, a white-painted cottage in Hugh Town, St Mary’s. The four-bedroom property is on the market for £475,000 with Clive Pearce Property. Also in Hugh Town, Sibley’s Island Homes is offering a Grade II-listed, three-bedroom terraced house dating from the early 19th century for £365,000. Both houses are being sold freehold since Hugh Town was sold by the Duchy to its inhabitants in 1949.

Ian Sibley says prices are fairly uniform across Scilly, the exception being Bryher, the smallest of the isles.

“Bryher has done unusually well because of its association with Tresco next door, [which] has always had an upmarket clientele,” he says.

The challenges of buying on Scilly might make it sound like too much trouble but Sibley disagrees. He and his family moved to St Mary’s from London 20 years ago after holidaying there. “The isles are stunning,” he says. “I have travelled all over the world and I have not found anywhere as beautiful as Scilly.”

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Buying guide

● A total of three offences were reported on the Isles of Scilly in December 2013, representing a rate of 1.43 offences per 1,000 people

● A recent study by HSBC found property on the isles secures among the best rental yields of any seaside town in the UK at 4.35 per cent

● St Mary’s airport offers flights to and from Land’s End, Newquay, Exeter, Bristol and Southampton. There is also a ferry from Penzance

● State education is provided by the Five Islands School

What you can buy for . . .

£200,000 A two-bedroom (long lease) holiday apartment

£500,000 A three-bedroom period cottage with freehold

£1.3m A detached (freehold) house with 10-plus bedrooms and an acre of gardens

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