The space race: how Covid-19 is driving renters to the suburbs

With home-working here to stay, tenants have been swapping inner city one-beds for larger homes. 

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For many people, the adjustment to coronavirus-era home-working has not been easy. A quick scroll through social media, and the outpourings over staring at the same four walls are plentiful. 

“I genuinely feel like I'm suffocating in my own space. I need more room. If I'm gonna be working from home I need an adequate office set up. I can't do this,”  said one Twitter user in June. 

“Decided if I’m going to be working from home into 2021 I need to stop camping in the dining room and make a more permanent work space! So I’ve cleared out a spot in the dressing room!,” wrote another in August. 

It will come as no surprise, therefore, that 34 per cent of UK tenants moving home after May this year – when the government started easing some lockdown restrictions – added at least one extra bedroom to their new property, according to data from Hamptons International, an estate agent. This compares to 16 per cent during the first three months of the year, before the pandemic. 

Renters are joining homeowners in the race for space by rushing to the suburbs, says Aneisha Beveridge, head of research at Hamptons. “People have been spending more time at home living, working and socialising, and subsequently place greater value on the space they have,” she adds. 

[Read more: Could mass home-working “level up” the economy?]

The move to suburbia has mostly been dominated by those in their mid-30s onwards. Younger tenants, however, have also shown increased appetite for additional space, according to Hamptons’ data. 

For these groups, this typically means moving from a room in a shared house into a studio apartment (possibly to reduce contact with people, too), or from a studio into a one-bed home with its own separate living and sleeping space. 

 

 

Over past few months, employers have been forced to clarify their stance on home-working. For some sectors and professions, time spent working from home appears inevitable, says Tim Leaver, an employment lawyer at Herbert Smith Freehills. “Employees are no doubt starting to react to the additional certainty they are being given, that an investment in improving the home-working environment is one which will reap benefits not just in the short term, but in the longer term also."

With home-working here to stay, at least for now, renters are being drawn away from urban centres. Indeed, the number of applicants looking to rent in city locations across Great Britain is down 23 per cent, Hamptons has found.

To some extent the trend is also a reaction to the claustrophobia of lockdown, a period in which one in eight households had no access to a garden, according to data from Ordnance Survey and Natural England.

In May, a survey from Savills, another estate agent, found that four in ten people now find a village location more appealing than before. The vast majority of younger home buyers, meanwhile, said they crave more outdoor space.

With talk of an impending second wave this winter, people are gearing up for another lockdown, but this time they want to be prepared and house-ready for it. 

While the premium placed on green space is growing, upsizing tenants have typically stuck to the outskirts of cities they know rather than leaving altogether, explains Beveridge. With many people experiencing, or expecting, several days of office work per week (even after the pandemic), proximity to the city is still required. 

In the capital – where rental prices were the highest in Europe last year – 63 per cent of upsizing renters moved to cheaper and greener locations just outside the capital, Hamptons’ data shows. 

London was the only UK region where upsizing meant saving money. Londoners looking for more space spent £86 pcm less, on average, despite gaining at least one extra bedroom. Meanwhile, in the rest of the UK the average upsizing renter paid 23 per cent more, or £149 a month more in rent. 

 

 

In other words, it has never been cheaper to rent more room in London. Falling rents in the capital continue to be driven by rising stock levels – London remains the only region of the country where there are more homes to rent than at the same time last year.

The factors pushing up rental stock in London are mostly confined to the inner City.  “As an international market, London is heavily reliant on overseas tenants who typically arrive either as part of a corporate relocation or as students. Both of these groups have significantly diminished in size since late March,” says Beveridge.

 

 

[Read more: The home-working revolution: New normal, old divides?]

“Additionally a slump in overseas tourists, many of whom stay in short lets, has seen landlords quit the short let market in droves and look for a longer term tenant,” she adds. 

The central London market has pivoted from being international to almost exclusively domestic. This happened within just a few months, impacting rents and stock levels. In London, the outsized commercial hub of the UK, significantly more people upsized than any other city, Hampton’s data indicates. In terms of regions, the south-east saw the most movement, followed by the north-west, home to economic hubs Manchester and Liverpool. 

 

 

This trend reflects UK regional economic inequalities made worse by the pandemic. Not all professionals and locations have been equally affected by the move to home-working.

For many – if not most – people, Covid-19 has squeezed incomes and savings. This largely explains why demand from new tenants also remains below last year’s levels across most of the country, says Beveridge. “Those choosing to move and take on higher rents are less likely to have been affected by the economic crisis.” 

The extent to which homebuyers and renters will continue to flee the inner city remains to be seen. But with every move the permanence of home-working is reinforced. Structural changes are underway. For city centres now made ghost towns, this does not bode well. 

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