Island life is classically portrayed as slow-paced and relaxing, but that has been far from the case in the residential property market in the Western Isles over the first 11 months of 2020 and activity is showing little sign of abating even as the festive season approaches.
It has been very buoyant across the board – apart from Spring, obviously, when all activity ground to a halt – and has ranged from steady interest and sales in Lewis to people paying way over the odds to secure an Instagrammable shoreside cottage near the golden beaches of Harris.
As with all islands, second home buyers figure as prominently as local buyers, but this year has seen a quite marked increase, ever since the severity of covid became apparent, in people searching for an “escape property” with lots of space and fresh air.
While local people are by no means absent in the competition, there is no doubt that more potential buyers are coming from outwith the islands, and there is distinct evidence that islanders in some cases have been priced out by incomers.
Agents report that some properties on their books have been bought 'sight unseen', without the buyers even visiting, and two houses around Luskentyre – the most famous of the beaches – have gone under offer for significant figures at closing dates with prospective buyers flying in for viewings. For the really attractive homes, it is all becoming a bit of a bunfight.
Another effect of covid is that buyers who have long harboured thoughts about a romantic, away-from-it-all seaside cottage have been spurred into action and, because they are not now tied to an office job, they find that they can realise their dreams.
Within that cohort, however there are cautionary tales. One buyer of a remote property on Uist – selected for the isolated lifestyle and working from home – lost his job and had to decamp back to the mainland.
Harris is the paradise of choice for would-be Robinson Crusoes, followed by the Uists, Benbecula and picturesque Barra with its castle in the bay. Lewis, the biggest, most northerly island, is a bit more mixed but it has the attraction of employment and the excellent facilities of its main town, Stornoway.
Crofts on the shore are, of course, attractive but there has also been a spike in what people are willing to pay for a modern property, regardless of location, which will not face the same maintenance and upkeep issues.
Typical in this category are large homes which have been well built with modern materials when plots were cheap and are now being moved on by people who are downsizing. Such sellers can expect a substantial premium.
In fact, prices north of £300,000, while still not common, are certainly not unheard of in the more attractive parts of Harris, Stornoway and even on the wild, Atlantic-swept west coast of Lewis.
But while island prices are on an upward curve, they still lag by some margin behind the mainland. A one-bedroom flat near the harbour in Stornoway Marina would fetch £95,000 while a similar property in Inverness would be £105,000 to £110,000.
The difference between a three-bedroom semi-detached property in Stornoway and Inverness is even greater, at £125,000 and £200,000 respectively – while a three-bedroom detached bungalow in these locations would come in at £175,000 and £245,000 respectively.
People will always be attracted to an island, since it offers a clean and simple life. The people are friendly, there is the freedom of the outdoors and for people coming in from the outside there is the attraction of affordable, and even mortgage-free, living. And there are quick and regular air links to the mainland.
The drawbacks, however, are not to be sneezed at, though you are likely to do quite a bit of sneezing over the course of a Hebridean winter. The dark season is bleak and harsh and can be very isolating. Compounded by a lack of facilities, it may not be everyone’s cup of tea.
But at the moment, there is enough interest to keep an already bubbling property market on the boil for some time to come.