When it comes to housing market transformations in the UK, few are as dramatic as the one that has taken place over the past two decades on the southern coast of Cornwall.
In 1994 the area had relatively poor road access and an 11.5 per cent unemployment rate. A typical house in south Cornwall cost £55,200, according to the Land Registry, while the UK average was much higher – even if that was a mere £68,032. Outsiders moving to the area were likely to be retirees seeking a quiet life.
Today, it is a very different place. A typical home in Falmouth, for example, costs £285,000 – far above the Land Registry’s £172,069 average for England and Wales. Falmouth is now a bustling university town where the superyacht construction and repair company Pendennis employs staff from across the world. Outsiders moving here are often Londoners using broadband and air links to divide time between Cornwall and the capital.
“We sell few second homes now. Modern lifestyles, telecoms and better transport allow people to spend most of the week on the water’s edge here. They have a second home in London, not Cornwall,” says Jonathan Cunliffe, who runs Savills’ office in the county.
In his 20 years as an estate agent in the southwest tip of England, Cunliffe has witnessed its transformation from underachiever to high-end haven. Many of his highest-value sales are in the 50-mile stretch between Lizard in the west and Fowey in the east, part of the “Cornish Riviera”, an area known for its beaches and attractive sailing ports.
“South Cornwall is all about sailing,” says Cunliffe. “It’s what draws people in. It’s no coincidence the best properties have beaches or moorings, or are near marinas or yacht clubs.”
At Flushing, a waterside village across the Fal estuary from Falmouth, a seven-bedroom detached house with 9,500 sq ft of internal space has a huge 350ft waterfront access. It boasts a mooring, slipway and a 44ft boathouse and is one of the most expensive homes on sale in Cornwall this year, priced £4m through Lillicrap Chilcott.
In Helford, just south of Falmouth, Helford Point House is a four-bedroom property built in the 1990s, with 2,540 sq ft of space, plus landscaped gardens and water frontage. It is on sale with Savills for £1.2m. Cunliffe describes the house as “the perfect summer retreat for the keen yachtsman” because of its river views and proximity to marinas and boatyards.
There are other advantages to the south Cornish coast. “The landscape is soft. There are plenty of wooded areas and abundant opportunities to create a ‘plantsman’s garden’, which is generally not feasible in north Cornwall as it’s more exposed,” says Nigel Stubbs of Jackson-Stops & Staff.
Most popular with high-end buyers are villages close to Falmouth such as St Mawes, where the former chairman of Aston Martin, David Richards, has just opened one boutique hotel and acquired another. Also popular are tiny villages, including Mylor, and more easterly bases such as Fowey.
Just 150 yards from Mylor harbour is a five-bedroom, early 19th-century vicarage with a two-bedroom holiday cottage set in 1.5 acres of grounds, being marketed by Jackson-Stops & Staff for £2.45m. Meanwhile, in Fowey, Victoria Steps is a 10-year-old, 2,650 sq ft, waterfront property with five bedrooms and panoramic views over the water from a small, private terrace. It is on sale with Knight Frank for £2m.
However, these locations – and fishing villages such as Polruan – are not easy to reach. It takes at least five hours to drive from Falmouth to central London, with a motorway starting only at Exeter – 100 miles into the 300-mile trip. Train journeys take almost as long, so many opt to take one of the twice-daily flights to Gatwick from Newquay, a short drive away in north Cornwall.
“There are more permanent residents in south Cornwall and fewer holiday homes. Those choosing to buy on the southerly coastline close to Truro are very conveniently placed for good-quality private schools,” says Nicola Oddy, Cornish representative of Stacks Property Search & Acquisition, a buying agency.
Although the transformation since 1994 has been dramatic, the economic downturn of the past five years has had an impact on the area.
“Demand remains strong but the market is being restricted by limited stock, which is frustrating as there are plenty of potential buyers with the means to purchase,” says Stubbs.
William Morrison, of Knight Frank, says that, despite rising interest from big-budget buyers in the past year, prices are 5-10 per cent below their peak in 2007.
Some agents report a handful of clients from overseas but Morrison says most of his buyers with £2m-plus budgets are from London and southeast England; several are business owners who sold up during the downturn, as well as professionals such as lawyers and accountants.
The shortage of buyers who work in the financial-sector buyers may not be a problem for the high-end market in this part of Cornwall. Nowadays, the area is increasingly reliant on purchasers with a job that allows them to work outside the office.
“The joy of Cornwall is that both coastlines are close to each other but the south is more polished than the north,” says Cunliffe. “You might not have said that 20 years ago.”
Photograph: Anna Stowe Landscapes UK/Alamy
●A total of 58 crimes in Falmouth were reported to police in May (down from 61 offences in May last year)
●South Cornwall attractions such as the Eden Project entice more than 1m visitors every year
●Polwhele House, Truro High and Truro School are all successful independent schools in Truro
What you can buy for …
£750,000 A five-bedroom, detached house inland, with grounds
£1.5m A five-bedroom home with grounds close to Falmouth
£2.5m A substantial, waterside house with letting accommodation