Town or country? Covid-19 has changed how and where people want to buy

More people are looking to move out of urban areas and are even bidding on derelict rural properties, estate agents say, as the pandemic completely transforms the property market
Town or country? Covid-19 has changed how and where people want to buy

Auctioneer Ann-Marie Ahern outside a derelict bungalow on 0.8 acre for sale in Rostellan, East Cork.  Ann-Marie says those searching for a rural bolthole during the pandemic have become more interested in the potential of previously used sites or derelict properties that can be developed to their specific needs. Picture: Larry Cummins

More people are looking to move out of urban areas and are even bidding on derelict rural properties, estate agents say, as the pandemic completely transforms the property market, writes Sean O'Riordan.

The Covid-19 pandemic has utterly transformed the property market, with people now looking at rural areas over urban centres, and a good broadband connection tops the list of must-haves.

Ann-Marie Ahern runs probably the largest independent auctioneers in the region, encompassing its major towns such as Midleton and Youghal, as well as picturesque coastal areas and remote rural backwaters. She is advising buyers with specifically designed information relevant to the pandemic.

Ms Ahern said more people were seeking to move out of urban areas and even bidding on derelict rural properties, which previously had generated little or no interest. She confirmed that older people feeling too cut-off in isolated areas want a bit more security of services closer to villages and towns and are bidding for properties in these areas.

Although based in Midleton, her business encapsulates not just that rapidly expanding town, but a huge and diverse rural hinterland.

She is advising clients about houses, and as importantly in these pandemic days, about their broadband connectivity, public transport links, availability of places in national schools, and what to do in the area for amenities if, in the future, we are forced back into more 5km-plus lockdowns.

“If someone is going to be working from home on a more long-term basis, either part-time or full-time, then we can advise them on areas that have a good internet connection, easily commutable distances for deliveries (work packages/parcels) and that extra space that may be needed as a home office/study area,” Ms Ahern said.

Derelict buildings can be re-built and transformed for modern use in rural areas.

Derelict buildings can be re-built and transformed for modern use in rural areas.

“On the other hand, it has helped us have owners realise what potential may be in their property for the ever-changing needs that have emerged from this pandemic. There may be room for extension, conversion of space, or a change of layout from their existing floor plan. Some may have seen a small box storage room and done nothing with it. We have advised they can expand this as it could make a great home office or playroom for kids,” she said.

Ms Ahern said Covid-19-enforced lockdowns have helped people focus more on whether they want country or town living.

“While under the 5km lockdowns, people understood their long-term needs, particularly in relation to essential services such as shops and healthcare facilities. We had a number of clients contacting us saying rural areas under lockdown were not suitable for them in the long-term,” she said.

“They found that the lack of social interaction and amenities within rural areas were not fitting in with their ideals and in time would be moving in towards towns or villages. They essentially are looking for areas that would have walkways, or leisure facilities nearby though,” Ms Ahern said.

She said those searching for a rural bolthole during the pandemic had, in particular, become more interested in the potential of previously used sites or derelict properties that can be developed to their specific needs.

As regards the latter, the company has two derelict properties close to the coastal village of Rostellan, which have attracted major interest in recent weeks, again due to professionals seeking to escape the cities and larger towns. One of the reasons for this is people from anywhere can buy such sites and rebuild on them.

The same doesn’t apply for new-builds in the countryside. The rules are far stricter with these. A person has to prove they are firstly in need of housing, and secondly that they have been living in the locality for at least seven years.

Ann-Marie Ahern will assist property owners in how to prepare their property for selling.

Ann-Marie Ahern will assist property owners in how to prepare their property for selling.

Maurice, her father who was in the auctioneering business for years, said one of the Rostellan homes has been idle for 40 years and the other 60.

“They are both attracting unbelievable interest and it’s because of the regulations and Covid. It doesn’t matter if they are in inhabitable or uninhabitable condition; even if it’s a ruin. You can build on them, providing of course you don’t seek planning for skyscrapers, which would be totally out of place in the countryside,” he said.

In response to the lockdown travel limits and the shift in purchasing/renting patterns, her company has run an online campaign to assist homeowners in how to prepare their property for selling within 30 days, “offering 29 days of “tips”.

They then followed up with a ‘this or that’ checklist to help homebuyers. It’s a simple checklist that helps purchasers break down their needs and wishes. It includes questions like: Town or country? Detached or semi-detached? Bungalow or two-storey? Fully-finished or work to be done? Garden or yard? Location and amenities or neighbourhood?

“This is a sample of what we now send out to people who are registering with us for listings. When we are engaging with customers, I have found that the impact from Covid can allow me to ask more specific questions to help people find a property more suitable to their needs. I feel that the property market has become more defined since the start of the pandemic with purchasers and sellers alike being more certain with what they want from the market,” Ms Ahern said.

Covid buyers bringing new life to West Cork

Kilcronan Properties owner Elaine Spillane specialises in house sales, rentals and leasing on the West Cork peninsulas, which have some of the most desirable holiday homes in the country, especially on the Sheep’s Head.

“There are lots of people looking to rent, but there’s nothing available,” she said.

Ms Spillane said there had been a huge surge of interest in all types of properties in the region last year, especially after July when lockdown restrictions started to ease considerably.

She pointed out that those who wanted to purchase properties were mainly in the over-55 age group, who had put their children through college and had a few bob to spend.

However, there were also some younger prospective buyers who had come into some spendable cash inheritance and wanted to splash out on a scenic bolthole. The vast majority of her buyers came from outside the region.

A number of those who purchased properties were working for big companies outside the region. Several of them came to West Cork when the country was about to go into its first lockdown in March and have stayed since, especially around the Sheep’s Head where high-speed broadband is available, “a good selling point”, so they can work from home in a safe, non-urbanised and potentially Covid-free setting.

Kilcronan Properties owner Elaine Spillane says people also want to move closer to more rural towns like Skibbereen.

Kilcronan Properties owner Elaine Spillane says people also want to move closer to more rural towns like Skibbereen.

“They’re looking for a bolthole,” Ms Spillane said. “People also want to move closer to more rural towns like Bantry and Skibbereen.”

The overwhelming majority of prospective clients can’t travel due to lockdown regulations, so she’s putting up videos and drone footage of the properties she has available in the area.

She said that the Germans were coming back, looking for homes in the region, which is putting further pressure on the market.

The first wave  came over in the 1970s. However, Ms Spillane said the new wave seems to be unrelated to the previous generation.

“They see Ireland as safe, healthy and very green, with great food and produce. There are no issues for them [as far as coming to live in Ireland with EU health cover etc] as we are in the EU as well,” she said.

Auctioneer Pat Maguire is based in Skibbereen and his area also primarily covers Baltimore, Union Hall, Rosscarbery and Drimoleague. He can see some of the changes in buying and leasing patterns from outsiders, especially in picturesque areas.

He’s been in the business for the past 25 years and has recently seen some notable shifts in patterns.

“Firstly, there are very few English coming over and looking to buy in my area. Traditionally they would form a quarter of all house-hunters in this region before now,” Mr Maguire said.

It’s believed this is a sign that British buyers are wary of permanently moving outside of their ‘comfort zone’ because they feel vulnerable in EU countries post-Brexit.

During the first phase of lockdown in March 2020, Mr Maguire said it was almost all Irish people seeking to purchase in his area, but they were “very insistent” on good quality broadband before they’d even consider making an offer.

He said it then became noticeable that professional couples were coming from Dublin and Cork City searching for properties.

Some had a connection with the area, but the majority didn’t. He also pointed out that a number of them had signalled that they wanted to live in the region permanently.

The auctioneer said there was also a massive surge in those looking for holiday homes in the region, as a place to escape to in case of further lockdowns.

“People buying holiday homes seem wealthier now than before. They are now more forward-looking, They know that going abroad is not as likely to be as attractive in the future,” he said.

Improved business

He pointed out there was no doubt that the pandemic had improved business as properties not viewed for months were being looked at by a number of potential clients.

“There are positives in this for everyone, as it’s bringing new life to areas,” he said.

Dermot Sheehan, a Goleen-based former auctioneer, county councillor and still functioning community activist, knows more about this region than most.

While Mr Sheehan is fully licensed and insured to practice as an auctioneer, these days he’s confining himself to property conveyancing and valuations. He acts, in his own admittance, as “a one-stop-shop” on the western section of the Mizen Peninsula, primarily for the local population looking for housing.

“We have a number of local young people who have returned home from cities and large urban areas as they can now work from Goleen rather than an apartment or flat or a shared house.

“After nearly 12 months, their verdict is they’d seriously consider it as a full-time option,” he said.

This is seen as a major positive by locals and, while they welcome new blood with open arms, they want to keep their emerging new generations as well. In the past, far too many from this area emigrated to America and Britain; several never to be seen again.

“Broadband is an issue here and infrastructure is about to become a major issue,” Mr Sheehan added.

He also pointed out that “continental purchasers are noticeable again”, who want to move into the region “on a permanent basis rather than as a holiday destination”.

Broadband ‘more important’ than engineer’s report

An auctioneer in northwest Cork, Liam Murphy specialises in properties in the Kanturk area. He says the drawback to living in parts of rural Ireland is the lack of services, particularly broadband.

He emphasised how would-be buyers now check a broadband signal in a prospective house quicker than they would seek a structural engineer’s report on it. Mr Murphy said many clients want some breakaway solace from the pandemic in rural boltholes, but they don’t want to live about 10km out of a town, unless they can be sure of good public transport connections and good broadband service.

Northwest Cork auctioneer Liam Murphy says a drawback to living in parts of rural Ireland is a lack of broadband service.

Northwest Cork auctioneer Liam Murphy says a drawback to living in parts of rural Ireland is a lack of broadband service.

He said that there’s a serious scarcity of available housing stock in his area, which he says has been notable since around last October. Mr Murphy said it had also become increasingly difficult to progress house sales because solicitors tell him there are delays in getting probate issues settled, because of Covid.

“People [with connections to the area] are trying to come back from abroad to retire here, but we have nothing for them,” he said.

“We’re very short of good rental properties in Kanturk as well. There are dozens of people every week on to me about rental properties there but we simply don’t have them.”

Meanwhile, over in north-east Cork the picture isn’t much different. The availability of broadband is “one of the first questions a client asks,” says Michael Trixie Barry who was born into the auctioneering business. He runs Dick Barry & Son auctioneers, founded by his late father, Dick, in Fermoy in 1954.

Dick was a well-known Fine Gael TD and although the business is in Fermoy, it covers a large hinterland, stretching to Mitchelstown in the north, Watergrasshill and Glenville in the south, and east across to Tallow, Co Waterford.

“[Housing] stock is very low right across the board, both in towns and rural areas where people are especially looking for detached properties. You could have one or two people working from home who need good broadband. Not having it would affect the price [of the property],” Michael said.

Like Ann-Marie Ahern in east Cork, he pointed out the big issues in rural areas are the strict guidelines and restrictions in place on building new homes and in many cases, people can only do so if they can prove a local connection.

“These planning restrictions are going to make good quality [second-hand] homes in the countryside more valuable because they are becoming harder to find as people seek to move to rural areas because of Covid,” he said.

“It [the pandemic] is definitely having a bearing on what people are thinking. The first question a young professional couple ask me is about broadband speed. Having a nice rural house for sale with good broadband will become as scarce as hen’s teeth soon,” said Mr Murphy.

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