Reading has been described as a well-located but unexciting dormitory town for London, yet its local housing market suggests a commuter location with a difference.
Contrary to first impressions, Reading has a net inward commuter flow. Its local council estimates 24,000 of 150,000 residents travel to and from London daily, most using the frequent 25-minute rail services or spending an hour each way on the M4 motorway. But a surprising 30,000 others commute to the town, mostly from towns and cities such as Swindon, Oxford and Basingstoke and their nearby villages, all within a 40-mile radius.
The majority of these inward commuters work in IT and finance firms clustered in business parks on Reading’s periphery, including BG Group, ING Direct, Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco and Ericsson. Others work in town-centre malls and out-of-town shopping parks that make Reading a popular retail destination for those living west of London.
As a result of these complex demographics, Reading’s housing market sharply diverges. Within the town, a high proportion of the housing stock consists of modern apartments and small houses at relatively low prices: the Land Registry says in the three months to October 2012 the average home cost £248,500, with typical detached houses at £461,000.
Just outside the town, however, dense urban development suddenly gives way to a belt of countryside scattered with small villages, many lining the Thames or other rivers and protected with listed buildings, conservation areas and narrow lanes limiting the scale of modern development. Most properties here are period, detached, have substantial grounds and are lived in by affluent commuters working in Reading or London.
Local estate and buying agents say the most popular villages for top-end purchasers cross the county boundaries of Berkshire, of which Reading is the county town, and Oxfordshire. They include relatively large settlements such as Pangbourne, Goring and Wallingford and smaller villages such as Yattendon, Upper Basildon, Ashampstead, Shiplake and Sonning.
“Period houses from the Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian eras are the most in demand, with space for a tennis court and [less frequently] paddocks,” says Christopher Dewe of Knight Frank estate agency.
In Streatley, a neatly manicured village 10 miles from Reading, a three-storey period house with conservatory and a half-acre garden is £1.85m through Strutt & Parker. In the nearby village of Goring, a three-year-old five-bedroom house with a staff annexe and 12 acres of land is £3m, through Davis Tate estate agency.
At Caversham, on the river Thames opposite Reading, a contemporary four-bedroom house of 4,000 sq ft with an acre of grounds is £1.6m through Hamptons. Local agents say these prices, although high, are 10 per cent below comparable properties further west in Oxfordshire, which is regarded as prettier, or further east on the fringes of Greater London.
Nonetheless, the affluence of these villages and their proximity to big employment centres means their infrastructures remain strong, despite the wider economic downturn. The redundant Post Offices, closed corner shops and infrequent rural bus and rail services seen outside southeast England have not blighted these Berkshire communities.
“Families want to live in towns and villages where there are good local amenities such as boutique shops, butchers, bakers and restaurants,” says Alex Barton of Strutt & Parker.
An even bigger draw to some incomers is the proliferation of good schools. Popular examples near Reading include Wellington, Queen Anne’s Caversham, St Andrew’s, Moulsford and the Oratory Prep. These high-achieving institutions, and easy access to the capital, are beginning to attract international buyers to the area.
“There aren’t the international enclaves of Surrey,” says Bobby Hall of the Buying Solution, the relocation arm of Knight Frank. Even so, he says his clients in 2012 included a South African family who paid £4m for a nine-bedroom house with a staff apartment, five acres of grounds and leisure facilities. Other agents report buyers from the Middle East, Russia, Greece, France and Germany.
However, this international interest – also attracted by the 35-minute drive from Reading to Heathrow and the 75-minute train service to Gatwick – has not prevented the housing market feeling the effects of the downturn.
“Property numbers [on sale] have outweighed committed buyers,” admits Barton. Rival agent David Holman of Hamptons International says prices for high-end homes remain “in the order of 5 per cent below where we were at the peak” of 2007-08.
The hope is that the market will revive in the long term thanks to the arrival of Crossrail, the high-speed cross-London train service scheduled to open in 2018. The service’s western terminus will be Maidenhead, 16 miles from Reading, from which up to four trains per hour will travel eastward.
They will take 40 minutes to reach Bond Street and 55 minutes to Canary Wharf – a little over half the times currently endured. Although a formal extension of Crossrail to link Maidenhead and Reading has not been agreed, the existing rail service between the two towns is being enhanced by an electrification programme set to be complete by 2017.
Whether these services will make Reading – and its surrounding areas – more desirable, no longer playing second fiddle to Oxford and London, remains to be seen.
● In December 2012 unemployment in Reading was 3.4 per cent of the working- age population, compared with 3.8 per cent across the UK
● There were 4,393 reported criminal offences in the Thames Valley, covering Reading and surrounding areas, from April 1 to December 31 2012 – this was 11.2 per cent down on the same period of 2011
● A £425m improvement programme to Reading railway station will create five additional platforms by 2015
● The University of Reading has more than 22,500 students
What you can buy for …
£500,000 A four-bedroom modern detached house on the outskirts of Reading
£1m A contemporary five-bedroom detached house in Caversham
£5m A rare, period seven-bedroom village home with 20 acres