While property prices outside London remain pretty stagnant, Cambridge is rocking the trend. Lucy Denyer investigates the reasons why
Say the word Cambridge and what springs to mind? Dreaming spires, probably. A punt down the river on a sunny summer’s day. For royal fans it might be the Duke and Duchess of – aka Prince William and Kate. We’ve all got an instant image: the city has long been steeped in the national consciousness as a place of academic excellence, while its elegant honey-coloured stone and quaint cobbled streets draw visitors from around the world.
And, while the rest of the country sinks further into the gloom of recession, Cambridge is on the up. A recent report by the think tank Centre for Cities found that, of 64 surveyed cities, Cambridge had the lowest rate of unemployment, while the latest figures from the Nationwide Building Society showed that house prices in Cambridge have risen by more than anywhere else in the UK, and now stand at £337,667 compared to a national average of £186,390.
‘Where property prices are going up, people will flood,’ says Ed Meyer, director of Savills’ Cambridge office. ‘We’re a city that think tanks believe will create a platform from which others should lead for the UK to come out of the recession.’
So what is it that draws people to this small but perfectly formed city amongst the fens and what can you get for your money?
For many buyers, it’s the standard of living they can get in Cambridge: although it’s not huge, the city has everything from shopping to theatre, concerts to cafés, all in a pretty setting. ‘Cambridge has got a really strong lifestyle element,’ says Meyer. ‘It’s beautiful, you can commute from London and it’s got great schools.’
That was why Katherine and Robert Stewart moved to the city from London three years ago. The couple, who have three children, were tired of the traffic and plane noise of the capital, and were growing increasingly anxious about the quality of the senior state schools in their area. So they sold their Victorian semi in Fulham and, after a bit of searching and the help of a search agent from Garrington, bought a 1960s detached house on two thirds of an acre on Barrow Road, one of the most desirable streets in Cambridge.
Not that the Stewarts found their new home straightaway. If you want a decent-sized property in Cambridge you might have to be prepared to wait a bit or be in a position to move extremely fast. Family houses usually sell within a three- to four-week period, according to Martin Walshe, director of local estate agency Cheffins, and during that time there might be 50-plus viewings and several offers. He cites the example of a property the company has just sold on Lyndwode Road, which has seven bedrooms, a 50ft garden and is a short walk from the station – despite needing refurbishing, it sold for close to the asking price of £1.3m after just a couple of weeks on the market. Sarah Broughton, of the search agency Prime Purchase agrees. ‘A good family house will go in about 10 days, and often above the guide price,’ she says. This is particularly true of the south side of the city, close to the private schools on Trumpington Road which is the most desirable place to be: prime roads include Chaucer Road, Barrow Road and Newton Road, where houses tend to be of the 1930s variety and will set you back anything between £1.5m and £2.5m. Bidwells is selling a four-bedroom 1920s house in large gardens on Luard Road, on the market for £1.35m (01223 841842; bidwells.co.uk). ). For really prime houses, the prices soar even further: Cheffins is currently selling the most expensive house in Cambridge, a detached Victorian house of over 6,000 sq/ft in total on Gazeley Lane, just off Trumpington Road, which is on the market for £3m (01223 214214; cheffins.co.uk).
Look further north and you’ll get better value for money: here you’ll find Victorian terraced properties that are some 10-15 per cent cheaper than the south side, although they do tend to be a little smaller. Meyer recommends looking in the De Freville conservation area, north of the river. This is where Ellen Nisbet and Michael Gifford bought a house at the end of last year, paying £560,000 for the four-bedroom terraced property on Humberstone Road. ‘It’s a nice city, not too big, not too small and economically not a bad place to be,’ says Gifford, 38, who previously lived in south west London. ‘It’s much more convenient [than the capital] – if I want to see a friend in the evening I can get there in 10 minutes on a bicycle.’
Travelling by bike is definitely the way to get around: in fact the one drawback to Cambridge is the appalling traffic. ‘It’s as bad as London can be,’ says Broughton, who adds that if she is going in for a meeting at 8.30am in the city she leaves a good hour and a quarter to get there.
Things look set to improve however: a new train station that will service the north side of the city is in the pipeline – it will run trains to London Liverpool Street and may ease some congestion. There are plenty of fresh property opportunities too: the city council recently relaxed a development ban close to the historic centre. Such is the appeal of the city that the Grosvenor Estate has looked out of its London heartland to build Parkside Place, 99 flats, which have all sold off-plan. Also selling well is Berkeley Homes’ Riverside scheme, at which townhouses launch this year, and where studios start at £204,950 (01223 656010; cambridgeriverside.co.uk). Close to the train station there’s CB1, an £850m mixed-use scheme led by the architect Richard Rogers, which includes a former mill being turned into 350 new homes as well as Crest Nicholson’s Kaleidoscope development, where one-bedroom flats start at £250,000. The city is even going high-rise with The Marque, which will be Cambridge’s tallest residential building, and where prices start at a similarly high £619,500 for a one-bed (01223 347000; savills.com). New homes such as these, says Meyer are particularly attractive to Cambridge’s investor market, many of whom are from overseas, in particular the far east.
Will Cambridge’s boom continue? With up to 16,000 new homes planned by 2020, some are saying there may be oversupply. In the meantime, however, the property market is riding high. As Martin Walshe puts it, the next 12 months ‘will be an exciting year to come’.