Rents in British cities fall by up to 15% amid Covid ‘exodus’

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Private rents in Britain’s cities have fallen by as much as 15% over the past year as tenants quit urban areas for a new life in the suburbs or the countryside, data shows.

What has been described by some an “exodus” from the cities sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic is now pushing up rental costs in rural areas.

In October, average rents in the countryside were 5.5% higher than a year earlier, while typical city rents were down by almost exactly the same amount (5.3%), according to figures for Great Britain from the estate agents Hamptons International.

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This gear change in demand has created a glut of properties in some areas and shortages in others. There were 29% more homes available to rent in cities than at the same time last year, while the number available in the countryside was down sharply – by 48%.

The reassessing of priorities brought on by the pandemic, with millions working from home and many wanting more space, combined with plummeting numbers of international students, is wreaking particular havoc on central London.

Hamptons said rents in inner London were down by 14.9% year on year as landlords slashed costs to attract tenants – lopping almost £400 off the average monthly rent, which fell from £2,564 in October 2019 to £2,182 last month.

The figures come after a series of surveys suggesting that many city dwellers have either moved out or are planning to do so after re-evaluating their lifestyle. Many are likely to have concluded that they will be able to continue working from home for at least part of the week once the crisis has subsided.

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On Tuesday, the property website Zoopla said the UK was in the grip of a “two-speed rental market”, with UK rents outside London up by 1.7% annually, whereas in the capital they were down by more than 5%.

And on Thursday, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors said that, while the picture in terms of rental growth remained “positive” for most parts of the country, “London is a clear exception”.

Overall, rents in Great Britain rose last month for the first time since March this year, said Hamptons, taking the average amount paid to £1,041 per month. It said they were typically up by 1.4% on the same time last year.

However, the average cost of a newly let property in the countryside rose to £919 a month in October – an increase of 5.5%. The average increase seen in smaller towns and suburbs was 2.2%.

“The shift in tenant preferences since the spread of Covid-19 has meant rents are now rising faster in country rather than city locations,” said Aneisha Beveridge, the head of research at Hamptons International.

The flexibility of the rental market meant that while some renters had decided to make a permanent move out of the city in search of more space, others had moved out temporarily, she added.

As a result, the gap between what people pay in cities and the countryside is closing. Tenants making the move from the city to the countryside last month spent 31% less on rent – down from a 38% saving in October 2019.

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On a regional basis, rents outside London continued to accelerate, with the average monthly cost in the north of England reaching a record high of £689 – up 5.9% on a year earlier. Rents in south-west England also rose by 5.9% year on year – the strongest growth there for five years.

Some commentators have suggested that talk of an exodus from London has been exaggerated. Zoopla said on Tuesday that despite rental prices falling in the capital, its data showed that most Londoners were looking for a rental property within the city, “so the idea of a large-scale move from London is probably an overstatement. The proportion of Londoners looking to stay in the city has actually risen compared with last year.”