If you want to see the two sides of the market town of Totnes, in Devon, walk down its high street. There is a so-called “ethical undertaker”, Green Fuse, just across from the community-run People’s Café and near the Mare and Foal Sanctuary charity store. In between are organic butchers, health-food outlets and clinics run by therapists and reiki healers. This is the kind of distinctive retail spread that Totnes residents say demonstrates their individualism in an area of rural southwest England dominated by traditional agriculture and tourism.
But cheek-by-jowl with these shops are estate agents’ offices selling properties that are among the most expensive in Britain. There are new-build apartments in the Redhills development in the town centre priced up to £700,000 each; period and contemporary detached houses in the nearby villages of Diptford and Cornworthy for upwards of £1.5m; while dotted around the edge of Totnes are old farmhouses with income-generating holiday cottages in their grounds for £2m-plus.
This juxtaposition of the alternative and the affluent is both the inherent contradiction of Totnes, sited on the River Dart 200 miles southwest of London, and the key to its appeal.
Property website Zoopla says the town’s average house prices have risen by 9.1 per cent in the year to November 2012. “There are a lot of artists, literary figures and the like who move from London or southeast England and want somewhere that has more countryside yet reflects their lifestyle. It’s especially appealing for artistic retirees,” explains Martin Lamb of Savills estate agency.
Early in the year his firm sold a farmhouse in the village of Staverton, three miles north of Totnes, for “a hell of a lot more” than its £1.5m asking price after competitive bidding. A five-bedroom house requiring extensive renovation in Dartington village, two miles north of Totnes, had a price tag of £600,000 but recently sold for more than £700,000.
There are practical aspects of Totnes that, together with its radical chic image, help to boost house values. It is on a mainline rail service to London, with the fastest journeys lasting just under three hours, and it is on the inland fringe of one of Britain’s most popular tourist locations, South Hams, which runs along south Devon from Plymouth in the west to Torbay in the east. South Hams’ coastal resorts, such as Dartmouth, Kingswear and Salcombe, are a 30-minute drive from Totnes, while the open wilds of Dartmoor National Park are only six miles further inland.
But although there are large properties in the villages and hamlets surrounding Totnes, there are few very substantial homes in the town itself, which has only 8,000 residents.
“As a result, we’re seeing a lot of people buying old bungalows or similar, less attractive houses and demolishing them to provide a footprint on which they can then build a bespoke home. We’ve had people spend up to £500,000 on properties for that purpose, and it’s mostly been individuals wanting customised properties, not professional developers,” explains Gordon Maunder of Marchand Petit, one of the busiest estate agents in the town.
“In another case we’ve had a Georgian house, most recently used as a veterinary surgeon’s practice, bought for £430,000. The buyer has won consent to convert back to a home and will probably spend at least £300,000 bringing it up to scratch. The absence of large homes within the town isn’t putting off people who want to live here,” insists Maunder.
He predicts that within the next few years some other larger townhouses currently used as businesses will come to the market, adding to an already wide range of homes available in the area surrounding Totnes. For example, on the town’s fringe sits an 18th-century five-bedroom listed farmhouse, recently modernised and with large gardens, for £800,000 through Marchand Petit. Four miles south of Totnes, in Tuckenhay, Jackson-Stops & Staff has a six-bed Georgian house overlooking a creek for £950,000.
Five miles from Totnes at Cornworthy village, Strutt & Parker is selling a modern arts and crafts-style six-bedroom house with outbuildings and gardens for £1.5m. Also in Cornworthy is a seven-bedroom contemporary house with views of the River Dart and almost four acres of grounds for £2.1m through Marchand Petit.
If these prices appear premium, they provide better value than those a few miles away on the coast of the South Hams. “A five-bedroom house in Totnes may be £650,000 to £750,000, but in a port like Salcombe it might cost at least £300,000 more,” says Christopher Bartlett of Stacks Property Search, a buying agency.
Alternative thinkers are now getting involved in the local housing market, too. Transition Town Totnes, a pressure group that has created a local currency to encourage shopping in the town, is talking with planners and potential funders about a Dartington site on which it wants to build 20-24 homes with allotments. “To be considered for one of the houses, people have to be in need of housing, unable to buy on the open market, and have a local connection,” says the group.
It will be late 2013 before the scheme is confirmed, but in the meantime the town has made a name for itself with another success. It has persuaded global retail chain Costa Coffee to abandon plans for a Totnes branch. Some 65 per cent of residents petitioned against it, saying they would instead use the 41 independent coffee stores in the town.
Costa’s withdrawal statement spoke of Totnes being “a town with a long and proud history of independence”. That characteristic, it seems, has put a froth on the housing market, too.
● Crime levels in Totnes designated low to medium by Devon & Cornwall police; of 84 crimes in October 2012, half were antisocial behaviour
● Few residential properties exceed £2m threshold, triggering 7 per cent stamp duty
● Local farms on sale for over £2m attract 4 per cent stamp duty
● South Hams area has one of the mildest climates in Britain
● Road travel within the area is notoriously slow
What you can buy for …
£500,000 A four-bedroom terraced house close to Totnes centre
£1m A five-bedroom detached house with grounds in a nearby village