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Sex, fruit and veg. Those requiring any of the above might once have made for Soho and Covent Garden. Yet these historic districts in the heart of London have changed. Soho still does sleaze in parts, but alongside sophisticated shops, bars, restaurants and media company headquarters. One-time produce market Covent Garden draws shoppers, plus arts lovers seeking opera, ballet and world-class shows at the West End’s many theatres.
“Covent Garden and Soho have had a hell of a run over the past couple of years, partly because of the wider market conditions, but mainly because the area has had a serious makeover,” says Roarie Scarisbrick, partner at buying agents Property Vision. “Not all that long ago, the area was a grubby tourist sprawl, with cheap shops and bars and very little to offer in the way of good residential property. We had plenty of clients come to us with the dream of a cool Soho home then went running back to less edgy postcodes when confronted with the reality.”
Now agents have an improved offer, with a string of high-end apartments emerging in new developments and conversions – the latter encouraged by government ministers making it easier to change offices into homes, resulting in just under 800,000 sq ft of West End conversions in 2013, according to estate agent Colliers. Previously scarce lateral apartments have proved a particular draw, the best fetching more than £2,000 per sq ft, says Scarisbrick.
“All this has opened up the area to a whole new audience,” he adds. “It used to be mostly young, mid- to low-budget media types, with a lot of pied-à-terre owners. The new residential offering has attracted bigger money, with a broad cross section of ages and nationalities. There is a surprising number of [downsizing] British buying there, with many who have sold family houses in Kensington and Chelsea, and now want something a bit more interesting.”
For Christopher Saye, director at Chestertons, Covent Garden and Soho also offer value compared with other central locations. “We’ve seen price increases of 30 per cent in the past two years . . . People are realising that the capital growth is as strong as any part of central London, but with lower entry prices than Knightsbridge or Mayfair.” Knight Frank research shows prices per sq ft start at £1,400 in the Covent Garden and Soho area, compared with £2,500 in Mayfair.
International buyers are also active, says Saye. “[They] have turned their attention to new-build developments in the last three to four years. The main overseas investors are Asian buyers who choose the area for its proximity to London’s best universities: LSE, UCL and King’s College London are all within easy walking distance. Even if their children are still young . . . [they] invest well in advance.”
Knight Frank is marketing properties in 190 The Strand, a 206-unit development by St Edward close to Covent Garden. A three-bedroom apartment, due to be available in October 2017, is on sale for £3.94m. Amenities include 24-hour concierge, pool and spa.
While such schemes often prove popular with overseas buyers, Tor Jones-Davies, of Savills, says smaller scale conversions of about five to 10 units generally attract domestic buyers. “We often see older people moving in [to Covent Garden], the reason being that the transport links are so good and because the local amenities and retail offering is so much more sophisticated than it used to be.”
A good example is Exchange Court, a former office building that Hadley Property Group has converted into eight apartments and one penthouse. The building dates from the 1630s, helping to form a secluded passageway between Covent Garden and The Strand. Hadley’s Andy Portlock says the scheme represents “the best of both worlds – the original features and the characters of the traditional buildings alongside modern convenience”. CBRE UK Residential is asking £1.15m for a one-bedroom apartment set over the ground and lower ground floors. Charing Cross and Leicester Square Tube stations are within five minutes’ walk.
Yet it is Soho, still scruffier round the edges than Covent Garden and perhaps better suited to a younger buyer, that arguably offers the best transport links – or it will do soon. From 2018 London’s new east-west train line, Crossrail, will call at Tottenham Court Road station on Soho’s northern border.
Andrew Boyd, director of Savills’ London development team, cites the project as a major catalyst for new residential schemes, as developers seek to capitalise on an estimated 30 to 40 per cent uplift in values driven by the rail line.
New-builds and conversions are not the only game in town, however. Just off Dean Street is Meard Street where Knight Frank is selling a Grade II-listed townhouse – owned by the thriller novelist Ken Follett – for £4.5m. Though arranged as a one-bedroom property, with staff accommodation in the basement, the five-floor house has scope to provide further bedrooms.
● Soho and Covent Garden are served by seven underground stations. From 2018, Crossrail trains will run direct from Tottenham Court Road to Heathrow
● Crime in Soho and Covent Garden is higher than the London average, with 83 crimes per 1,000 people recorded in September this year
● There are 42 theatres in the area
What you can buy for . . .
£550,000 A studio flat close to Tottenham Court Road Tube station
£4m A good-sized, two-bedroom flat with a private roof terrace in Soho
£6m A renovated four-bedroom Georgian townhouse in Covent Garden
Photographs: Massimo Borchi/4Corners; Tom St Aubyn