Living in Essex, Kent and Hampshire: first-time buyer homes from £250,000 in commuter hotspots

Many house hunters are eager to leapfrog London's tiny studios and flats by finding a larger home outside of the city - but still within a 60-minute commute. We find three top spots for good-value homes, schools and outdoor spaces - from Great Dunmow in Essex, to West Malling in Kent and Hook in Hampshire.

Thinking of commuting? More space in a pretty village where homes cost less than £300,000 sounds perfect — but, on top of your mortgage repayments, you will have to factor in the cost of your rail fare.
 
The average London house hunter shops for their first home with an extensive wish list and a budget of about £300,000, and quickly discovers how little that will buy them in the capital.
 
With an average age of 32, they have often already outgrown the traditional tiny starter flat. Most buyers in their thirties want more space indoors, plus a garden — and a not-too-painful journey to work. But they still have budget constraints, which is why many are leapfrogging the first rung of the ladder and moving straight into commuterland.
 
The good news is that this relatively modest budget can still stretch to a decent-size property, if you know where to start looking.

NINE TO VIEW: HOT HOMES WITH 60-MINUTE COMMUTES TO LONDON - PRICED BELOW £350,000


 
1. GREAT DUNMOW: FOR ATTRACTIVE HOMES
Great Dunmow could win awards for the quality of life it offers. For those looking for a gorgeous location, this ancient Essex market town is hard to beat — think duck ponds on the green and wonky timbered buildings along a high street with plenty of cafés, lovely old pubs and little shops. For bigger shops, you can head to nearby Chelmsford or Braintree.
 
Indeed, a study by Halifax found that the Uttlesford district, which includes Great Dunmow, is the best rural place to live in England.
 

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£349,995: a listed four-bedroom cottage in Great Dunmow

 
There are several primary schools — Felsted Primary is rated “outstanding”, while Helena Romanes School (seniors) gets a “good” Ofsted report.
 
The reason Great Dunmow is relatively affordable is that it does not have its own railway station: commuters must drive six miles to Stansted airport to pick up a 47-minute train to Liverpool Street. An annual season ticket is £5,136, but this is offset by reasonable house prices and subsequently lower monthly mortgage repayments.
 
Despite its proximity to the airport, Malcolm Danford, principal partner at Malcolm Danford & Co, says Great Dunmow is little bothered by flight path noise. And it is great for lovers of the countryside. “You are in the rolling fields within a 10-minute walk of town,” adds Danford.
 
A two-bedroom artisan’s cottage in Great Dunmow costs about £270,000 to £280,000, while a Thirties three-bedroom semi-detached house would be about £300,000. A modern three-bedroom house with a garage would cost about £330,000.


 
2. WEST MALLING FOR LOVERS OF THE OUTDOORS
For an easy commute and good schools, look at West Malling in Kent. A lesser-known commuter option compared with nearby Sevenoaks and Tonbridge, West Malling — pronounced “mauling” — is a small market town with plenty of charm.
 
It is ideal for walkers who want to immerse themselves in revitalising country air after a working week, with the Kent Downs to the west and the High Weald to the south.
 

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£325,000: a large one-bedroom flat in Darcy Court, West Malling, in a converted oast house, with the living room in the roundel

 
Its high street is a picturesque tumble of Tudor, Jacobean and Georgian buildings, and there are more than a dozen restaurants, bars and pubs scattered in the town centre, as well as numerous coffee shops. West Malling’s low profile means it has largely avoided the march of the chain store.
 
Maidstone is eight miles away, or a six-minute train hop, for major shopping. There is a monthly farmers’ market, and you can learn to dive, windsurf or sail at Leybourne Lakes Country Park.  
 
It is an easy commute. Trains to St Pancras take 50 minutes, and an annual season ticket costs £4,136.
 
Kent’s education system is one of the best in Britain and West Malling does not disappoint. The Discovery School and Leybourne St Peter and St Paul CofE Voluntary Aided Primary School are both rated “outstanding” by Ofsted, while Malling School (seniors) gets a “good” report from the schools watchdog.
 
Prices are not as high as in the rest of the county. An average terrace house costs £308,000, with a semi-detached home available for just under £341,000, according to data from Rightmove. There is also a good stock of period property — Victorian terraces and stone cottages — as well as new-build houses.


 
3. HOOK: FOR GOOD SCHOOLS
With a journey time to Waterloo of an hour and three minutes, the affluent Hampshire town of Hook is as commutable as much of London’s Zone 4 — though an annual season ticket will cost £4,684. It is also very handy for the M3.
   
Families like Hook because of its schools — Hook Junior School and Robert May’s School (seniors) are both rated “good” with some outstanding features by Ofsted.
 
The local countryside is a delight — a walk to the ruins of Odiham Castle is particularly recommended — with plenty of traditional pubs, both in the town itself and the villages nearby. Its shops are mostly local independents, with a couple of galleries, several cafés and farm shops, and a traditional butcher. 
 
Bob Waterfield, owner of Hook Homes estate agents, says that with £250,000 to £350,000 to play with, buyers could select from a modern two-bedroom terrace at £250,000 to £260,000, a three-bedroom end of terrace for about £300,000 or a three-bedroom semi with a good garden and garage for £350,000.
 
Period homes in the town carry a premium, but £325,000 would buy a pretty two-bedroom Victorian cottage in the old town.


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