When the Government announced its two year stamp-duty holiday (ending in March 2012) for beleaguered first-time buyers, Londoners reacted with understandable cynicism. While £250,000 - the maximum you can pay for a "duty-free" home under the regulations - might take you a long way in, say, Yorkshire, the average house price in the capital now stands at £387,119.
However, new research published today by Savills shows, somewhat surprisingly, that while finding a £250,000 house in London is difficult, there are almost 60 very commutable destinations within an hour of the capital where you can buy a semi-detached house - not just a flat - for less than £250,000.
"I think people living in London would be surprised by the number of places you can buy a house for that amount," said Savills' associate director Marcus Dixon, who carried out the research.
Dixon analysed prices for different types of property across the Home Counties, all within a 60-minute commute of central London. The results make interesting reading, not just for first-time buyers but for "second steppers", who pay one per cent stamp duty for homes under £250,000, but who then find the tax leaps to three per cent once they pay £250,001 or more.
Some of the cheaper destinations are more desirable than others but there is choice, whether your taste runs to rural village, historic town or modern commuter zone.
"Rochester, in Kent, is the nicest of the Medway towns, with a lovely old town centre and loads of Georgian and Victorian property," says Dixon. "It is also quick into town, particularly if you work in the City or Canary Wharf."
Stansted Mountfitchet in Essex has a countrified feel, though now that the spectre of the expansion of Stansted airport has been lifted prices are likely to rise, and Fleet is a budget gem, not in the pretty town centre but in the surrounding countryside, which is stunning, and is why so many London refugees end up there looking for great schools and a speedy commute.
Journey time: 36 minutes
Annual season ticket: £3,048
Average price for a semi: £159,000
Average price for a terrace: £137,000
Teeming with history and culture, and only a shade over half an hour to London, Rochester is one of those places which feels like it should be a lot more expensive with its castle, cathedral and the River Medway.
The Old Quarter is stuffed with interesting shops: think quirky antique stores, craft shops and art galleries - and virtually no chains (although Bluewater is 15 minutes away if you feel the need).
The Zandra Rhodes Gallery, at the town's University for the Creative Arts, has fashion and photographic exhibitions, and since Charles Dickens grew up in Rochester, fans will notice that Restoration House, just off the High Street, was the inspiration for Miss Havisham's creepy home in Great Expectations. Schools are another big reason to live there, with Kent's grammar school system providing an attraction. The Rochester Grammar School (girls) and Sir Joseph Williamson's Mathematical School (boys) are both rated "outstanding" by Ofsted.
David Lane, a partner at Machin Lane estate agents, says you could find a two-bedroom cottage from around £125,000, while £200,000 to £250,000 will buy you a three- to four-bedroom period house. There has been a rash of development along the river, where a new-build town house will cost around £220,000 to £250,000.
Stansted Mountfitchet, Essex
Journey time: 52 minutes
Annual season ticket: £3,368
Average price for a semi: £249,000
Average price for a terrace: £220,000
Last May, airport owner BAA confirmed, after a heated local battle, that it would not pursue airport expansion at Stansted which is three miles from this cute village close to the border of Hertfordshire.
Proximity to an airport brings with it the spectre of flight path noise, but this lovely village has been spared the roar of passing jets. "We have no noise at all, although people always think we must do," says Heather Curtis, of estate agents Intercounty. What it does have is a rich seam of affordable period homes - Victorian cottages within minutes of the station sell for between £200,000 and £220,000.
And the streets close to Bentfield primary school (rated "good" by Ofsted) are especially popular with families - you can buy a post-war three-bedroom semi for between £240,000 and £250,000. It also has St Mary's C of E Primary School, rated good. There is a high school, the Mountfitchet Mathematics and Computing College, rated "satisfactory" by the Government's schools' watchdog.
The village centre is suitably olde worlde with lovely timbered buildings and a toy museum, claimed to be the largest in Europe. There is also a Norman castle and even a fully operational windmill.
The High Street is useful, rather than spectacular - but there are many new restaurants and bars, notably Yuva, with an Indian fusion menu, and Cork, a wine bar and bistro. If your tastes are more old school, then the Rose and Crown at Bentfield Green is less than two miles away.
Journey time: 42 minutes
Annual season ticket: £2,988
Average price for a semi: £240,000
Average price for a terrace: £205,000
There are two key reasons why commuters are drawn to this nondescript town: attractive schools and a quick train journey to London. The downside is the high street - dominated by dull, mid-priced chain stores. Fleet is far from offensive but while its town centre won't set pulses racing, the country villages and good-value properties will.
Richard Day, associate director of Hamptons International, estimates you could buy a smart two-bedroom character cottage for between £230,000 and £250,000 or a three-bedroom post-war house in great condition for £250,000.
The town also has a stock of good-quality former local authority houses (laid out in streets, not gloomy estates) for around the same price. Both the town's senior schools are oversubscribed and parents slightly favour Court Moor School, rated "outstanding" by Ofsted. The other option is Calthorpe Park School, which is already rated "good" and said to be improving.
Fleet is surrounded by countryside and a stroll along the towpath of the Basingstoke Canal is a very civilised way to spend a sunny afternoon. The Fleet Pond Nature Reserve (a rather misleading name since the pond is, in fact, the largest freshwater lake in the county) is a treat. Sports fans will enjoy the annual Fleet Half Marathon, a traditional warm-up for the London Marathon.
Until 1998 there was a strict embargo on the number of licensed premises in the town but that has been lifted and "it is improving in leaps and bounds", said Day.