Why the Highlands is suddenly a property hotspot – Bill Jamieson

The switch to working from home during the coronavirus lockdown is making many people think of relocating to the countryside, writes Bill Jamieson.

Increasing home-working means relocating to the countryside is now a viable option for many people (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images)
Increasing home-working means relocating to the countryside is now a viable option for many people (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images)

Amid the devastation suffered by towns and villages across Scotland, it may seem fantastical to imagine a rural renaissance at this time. Thousands of businesses have been deeply scarred by the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown. Recovery may come too late for many outlets that have closed forever.

Yet our Highlands and Islands may be destined for a strong revival as the virus continues to subside.

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Several separate and distinctive forces are set to combine to breathe life back into communities thought permanently damaged.

Chief among them is likely to be a permanent change in the nine-to-five city office culture. While office working will see a substantial return, the trend towards working from home has seen a pronounced surge. I suspect that, over time, office working could morph into a system of twice or thrice-weekly attendance, with the rest of the week spent in distance working, aided by digital communication and video conferencing.

All members of the family – young and old – have become more tech-savvy in the past few months, whether it’s online shopping or coping with virtual conversations on Zoom or Facetime.

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This, in turn, could see more households moving from city centre dwelling to rural or semi-rural areas – a longer commute on those days we have to go into the office, but this is offset by the many attractions of living in the countryside. If the pandemic has exposed anything, it has been the need for people to escape into open spaces or a leafy garden.

The second is a sharp rise in staycations for the foreseeable future. Even if foreign resorts are re-opened to tourism more quickly than imagined when the lockdown began, airline travel is likely to be more arduous – and costly. Along with the passport and the boarding pass, a “health visa” may also become a standard requirement. There will be a recovery – but a return to crowded airports and cramped seating on flights looks a distant prospect.

And third will be a surge in the appeal for many of a rural bolt hole, whether permanent or as a weekend retreat. Estate agents have noticed a big increase in enquiries about well-connected countryside and “out of city” locations – ranging from English market towns to Scottish fishing villages – where people could split their working week between home and office once life starts to return to normal.

Firms are already reporting a surge in interest in Scottish rural properties, in the Highlands and Islands and the East Neuk of Fife in particular. Upmarket estate agent Savills says locations down south that have seen a rise in buyer registrations include in and around Winchester in Hampshire, and villages in Berkshire and Dorset.

Lockdown appears to be prompting many people to reassess what is important to them, whether that is a desire to continue working from home for part of the week once normal service resumes or wanting a bigger garden for their children to play in.

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Now some of this may be due to what Andrew Perratt, head of country residential at Savills, puts down to “bored dreamers” sitting at home surfing the internet. And the reality, for now, is a housing market that has been traumatised by lockdown restrictions and a slump in house viewings and sales.

But he reports a jump in new buyer registrations. Savills surveyed nearly 700 registered buyers and sellers in the so-called prime property market in late April to find out how their attitudes to moving had changed during the coronavirus crisis. It found that 49 per cent expected increased home working to continue post-lockdown, while about four in 10 said they would now find a village or countryside location more appealing than previously, with the latter figure higher for those with school-age children.

The research also found that one in six respondents were ready for a longer commute, with the firm saying it believed some people would be prepared to put up with a two-hour journey to work if they were only going into the office for a couple of days a week.

Meanwhile, the latest Rightmove data named Inverness as the location seeing the biggest year-on-year increase in searches – up 167 per cent. Such are the trends that could reawaken rural Scotland from the Covid-19 nightmare.

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