Coming home to west Cork, from all over the world

 

Expats, English people, artists, even second homeowners are keeping west Cork afloat in the recession – but prices have come down

WHO BETTER to judge just how great a place West Cork is to live than someone who has lived all over the world?

Sharon Murphy is just such a person. Born in Clare and raised in Dublin, the chef left Ireland in 1992 with husband Mark, a marine engineer, and for the next 10 years they worked their way around the globe on super yachts – the kind you see in posh marinas with their own speed boats and helipads.

In 2002 they returned to Ireland with a view to buying a base before heading back out to sea again. They became so smitten with a house they spotted in West Cork however, that they’ve been landlubbers ever since.

“It is an 1850s longhouse near Ballydehob and we just fell in love with it. Babies followed soon after and babies and boats don’t mix, so we stayed put,” explains Murphy. Today the couple have two boys and offer luxury accommodation on their property called Kilcoe Cottage.

Murphy also has a catering business, cooking up a storm for, among others, neighbour Jeremy Irons. The eclectic mix of people in the area is just part of the appeal of living there, but it isn’t all plain sailing, she admits.

“We absolutely love living in West Cork but what I would say is that it’s not as laid back a lifestyle as people think,” says Murphy.

“You have to scrabble around for your work a bit more and then, if you have kids, you still have to combine that with all the usual business of school runs and after school activities.”

It is however, a terrific place to raise children. “Our boys are out exploring the fields all day and basically running free, which is terrific for them. Also, our local village, Ballydehob, has a terrific primary and secondary school and is hugely community oriented,” says Murphy.

“Everybody pitches in together here. We recently had the Mad Pride event in the town, which was a great day, and there wasn’t a piece of litter left behind by the time it was all over which says a lot about the community here.”

While she doesn’t rule out moving to a bigger property, what she does rule out is a move from West Cork. “Working on super yachts you wake up every day looking at beauty. The great thing for us is that we do the same here. In terms of scenery, west Cork is the equal of anywhere we’ve seen.”

But is beauty enough to shield property prices in the region from the worst excesses of the downturn? John Hoddnett of auctioneers Hoddnett Forde in Clonakilty believes so, to a point.

“The market is not too bad at all right now. We’ve had a very good first quarter, with sales volumes up 10 per cent on last year,” he says.

“For particularly good, well located west Cork houses close to the coast, which is key, values have fallen back only by around 15 per cent to 20per cent from the peak,” says Hoddnett.

Enquiries are up significantly on last year too, he reports.

“West Cork is a particular market in that there will always be people attracted to it for the environment and the lifestyle it offers. We are even finding that second homes are selling. There are still people out there who have made their money and who didn’t take the plunge and lose it elsewhere, and they are willing to buy. Anywhere south of the N71 is still in demand.”

For first-time buyers however, the main problem is securing finance.

“People who get mortgage approval but don’t find the house they want within three months are having to go back to the drawingboard and start again, except that the goalposts will have moved. This is proving incredibly frustrating for some buyers,” says Hodnett.

The first-time buyer market in West Cork is, however, skewed slightly by the relatively high proportion of new householders who are given plots of land by their parents, he says.

Towns and villages around the region have their fair share of empty houses, but he baulks at the term ghost estate. “In west Cork, we have plenty of houses that are empty and waiting to be sold, but not unfinished estates. These are properties that are ready to be walked into if a sale could be made.”

Kinsale and Schull still top the list in terms of having a premium attached to buying there, but people choose various locations in the region for a variety of reasons, he points out.

“Kinsale is the gourmet capital, Schull and Baltimore appeal for their sailing, while a town like Clonakilty sells because it is the gateway to West Cork.”

It is also 40 minutes from Cork airport, and from Kinsale even less, which adds to their appeal. Clonakilty and Kinsale are also perfectly placed for commuters working in Cork city or needing access to Cork airport.

Industry in west Cork is centred around the west Cork Business and Technology Park in Clonakilty, home to such businesses as IDA client Premier Global Services and Enterprise Ireland’s indigenous SWS Group and Interaction. In all the park is home to more than 1,000 employees.

According to the Daft website, there are currently 2,185 houses for sale in west Cork however and not everybody agrees that west Cork has avoided the worst of the slump in prices.

“The second-home market has been hit hard in this recession; obviously we can all live without one and properties in west Cork are primarily second homes,” says Harriet Grant of Knight Frank.

“On the other hand, west Cork will always hold more appeal than other areas of Ireland for those looking for a second home or a retirement home, as it is truly beautiful with fantastic amenities, and the airport is easy to get in and out of.”

One noticeable shift in the market is that the majority of her enquiries now come from abroad, as expats and others look to take advantage of the property crash here.

In the last two weeks viewers to some of her properties in West Cork included an English couple living in Hong Kong, an English couple with Irish ties living in Switzerland and an Irish couple who sold in the UK and are looking to retire in Ireland.

“These buyers are in a strong position and they are very aware of that and they will not over pay,” says Grant. “They will pay the current market value (only) and hence the address of west Cork is not immune to the recession.”

Stephen O’Keeffe of West Cork Property, which specialises in properties in Skibbereen, Schull, Bantry and Baltimore, has also witnessed a shift in buyer profile.

“We are seeing an increase in demand from UK purchasers, with plenty of yellow registration plates around the roads right now,” says O’Keeffe.

The fact that local businesses in the region established a co-operative to relaunch the Cork to Swansea ferry has helped boost not just tourism but property in the area too. “It has made us much more attractive to UK buyers,” he says.

Buyers coming to West Cork now are doing so for the same reasons people used to, for the peace and quiet.

“To them, the demise of the Celtic Tiger makes us more attractive, not less. There’s less hustle, less bustle and no one talks about buying a second home as an investment anymore, rather as a place they want to go to spend time with their kids.”

At the height of the boom potential buyers would arrive into him on a Friday evening “in a frenzy to find somewhere to buy by Sunday night. All that has stopped, thank God”, says O’Keeffe.

Summer rentals still do well in the area but long term rentals have died back. Agricultural land has fallen by a half to €5,000 an acre.

For those looking to relocate somewhere permanently, O’Keeffe, who is born and bred in Schull, is evangelical about the quality of life it affords families.

“We have, for example, a terrific sailing school here now that is part of the local secondary school, and is run by the VEC. If a child doesn’t want to kick a ball around, they can learn to sail instead and a number of first class sailors have come out of our school as a result. It’s a fantastic amenity,” he says.

The town, which is famous for its sailing, is playing host to the ISA World Championships at the end of August, for which 19 teams from around the world have signed up.

“We have the best of both worlds here, with peace and quiet during the winter and all the buzz of the summer, plus beautiful scenery year round,” he says.

* Houses currently for sale in west Cork include Clear Water, Union Hall, a six-bedroom waterside house on two acres with views over Myross Bay. It comes with a detached studio and is for sale through Knight Frank for €595,000. Outside Clonakilty is Butlerstown House, a 464sq m (5,000sq ft) Georgian five-bed on eight acres a few minutes’ drive from the beach at Dunworley. It’s for sale through Hodnett Forde for €1.3m. And The Isles, Ahakista, near Durrus, a 279sq m (3,000sq ft) five-bed looking over Dunmanus Bay costs €525,000 through Charles McCarthy.

From commuter life in London to taking pictures in the wild

ENVIRONMENTAL scientist Debbie Heaphy, left, moved to West Cork from London with her husband six years ago. At the time the couple’s daughter was seven years old. “Things were just too hectic for us in London. Also, I was teaching environmental sustainability and began to question the wisdom of lifestyle that meant driving 100 miles a day to teach 30 students about protecting the environment.

“I knew I needed to practice what I was preaching,” says Heaphy.The family now lives in Leap, near Glandore – not far from Baltimore – in a bungalow on three acres.

“Actually life is still hectic, but in a different way. I’ve got bees and hens and various animals, and between those and our three acres to tend to, it’s all fire fighting but it’s great,” says Heaphy.

The downside of moving to such an isolated area is that, while she is steeped in a wonderful environment, the PhD graduate finds it hard to commercialise her environmental skills.

“Finding suitable work is a problem,” she admits.

Instead she volunteers in her local school, helping the children cultivate their own vegetable patch. Living in such a scenic area has also fuelled her passion for wildlife photography, to the point that she is developing a website from which to take commissions and sell prints.

Above all however, the move to West Cork has resulted in one enormous advantage which outweighs everything else.

“The absolutely best thing of all about the move to West Cork for me has been the opportunity to spend so much time with my daughter,” says Heaphy.

“You don’t get those childhood years back and I wouldn’t have missed them for the world.”

Art and cafe keep Annabel busy

ARTIST Annabel Langrish grew up in Barbados and fetched up in Ahakista in West Cork, where she runs the Heron Gallery and Cafe. Her husband Klaus runs a second art gallery, in Schull.

“What brought us to West Cork was a craft fair we were at one year. While we were there we met another artist who was selling her house here on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula. I went to see it, and, because it was perfect, bought it.”

As well as five acres of gardens, filled with polytunnels and raised beds from which she grows fruit and veg for her cafe, she has her own pottery, painting and woosd carving studios. She sells her own work plus that of fellow artists in the area in her gallery. The cafe opens in summer only.

“What I love most about it is that it has a mountain behind it and Dunmanus Bay out in front of it, and I absolutely love the sea.”

The fact that her sister had already moved to nearby Sherkin Island was also part of the location’s appeal for Langrish, who had previously lived in Roscommon. “There are lots of artists in this area, so there is no shortage of likeminded people. But the entire community is very friendly and welcoming. We are also lucky in that our local pub, the Tin Pub, is just down the road and a terrific meeting place. It has all worked out very well for us here, and I get to swim in the sea at least once a day, sometimes twice. It is possible that the land might get too much for us one day, but really, I can’t ever see myself moving. I love it here.”