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May 5, 2015updated 04 Aug 2023 8:58am

You thought London was bad? Rents in the commuter belt are soaring, too

By Barbara Speed

In Harlow, Essex, there are nine flathunters for every spare room going. Demand has risen by 350 per cent over the past two years. Everyone, it seems, wants to live in Harlow. 

This somewhat surprising information – and the dismal image it conjures up of dead-eyed renters wandering the streets, queuing up for viewings – comes from researchers at SpareRoom.com, who monitored listings and searches on their lettings and flat-share site throughout April to find out where demand is increasing. The answer, it turns out, is in London’s commuter towns: savvy renters sick of London’s prices and tiny rooms are heading into the Home Counties in search of a better life. 

But their savviness is catching up with them. On average, the rents in the satellite towns monitored by the site (all an hour or less from London by train) increased by 9 per cent over the past two years. Compared to the cool 10 per cent rise in London in a single year, that doesn’t sound too bad. But in Benfleet, Essex, average rents increased by 21 per cent in the past year. In six out of the 24 satellite towns surveyed, in fact, rents are increasing faster than in central London. 

Of course, there are drawbacks, that go well beyond the reduction in your proximity to an all-night Tesco Metro. In many of these commuter towns, savings on rent are outweighed by the sheer cost of travelling along commuter train lines, where most ticket prices have far outstripped the rate of inflation over the past 10 years.

In Swindon, for example, an annual season ticket will set you back £8,200. If we’re working with average rents, the amount you’d pay for housing plus transport would be £2,840 more a year than you’d need to rent in London and use a zone 1-3 travelcard. The best savings can be found in Grays, Essex, where monthly rents are a mere £440 and an annual travelcard only £2,236. 

As housing and travelling prices rise, it won’t be long until even that pied-à-terre in Harlow ceases to be a cheaper alternative. As the site’s director, Matt Hutchinson, notes, the trendlines show that the housing crisis is gradually swallowing a large chunk of the south of England: 

What we’re seeing is the housing crisis rippling out along the train lines from London. In many cases that means increased competition and rising rents.

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At the moment there are still towns and cities offering a good balance between journey time and cheaper rents but, unless we address the need for more affordable homes, particularly in the South East, that won’t be the case for long.

You hear that? Let’s build more houses, or, failing that, relocate to Manchester. 

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