'It’s a safe haven in these uncertain times': Covid-19 sparks craving for Karoo

21 June 2020 - 00:00
David McNaughton, who runs the Seeff Properties agency in Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape, on a hill overlooking the town.
David McNaughton, who runs the Seeff Properties agency in Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape, on a hill overlooking the town.
Image: David Mcnaughton

The phones are ringing at estate agencies in small Karoo towns as city dwellers seek a safer life in the country.

From Cradock to Nieu Bethesda to Barrydale, property consultants report a surge of inquiries about houses and plots, mostly from people in Gauteng, Cape Town and the Nelson Mandela Bay metro.

“There’s been a sudden upsurge in interest,” said David McNaughton, who runs Seeff Properties in Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape. Of the “three or four” inquiries he had last week, “only one is a local”.

In Nieu Bethesda, also in the Eastern Cape, guesthouse owner and property consultant Hester Steynberg said she was getting inquiries for farms, including a R14m property for which she received six calls in the week it was listed.

Hundreds of kilometres away in Barrydale, in the Western Cape’s Little Karoo, Ruth Goodman, the agent for the Dormehl Phalane Property Group, said she signed six purchase offers in the past two weeks.

One of the sales was made over the phone as she walked around the plot while showing the buyer a video of the land.

The demand is being driven by the perception that small towns have fewer Covid-19 infections than urban centres, and less crime, the agents said.

“The Karoo is isolated,” said McNaughton. “It’s a safe haven in these uncertain times.”

Goodman said many inquiries are from younger people who have learnt they can survive without going to an office.

One new buyer in Barrydale is IT recruitment specialist Gillian Walker, who wanted a change of scene from city life in Cape Town. She said she had thought about moving for a long time, “but the lockdown was the final spur”.

Steynberg said she believes a shift in values is also a motivating factor. “People have realised other, family values,” she said. “A lot of people want to buy erfs, they want to grow their own veggies.”

Prices have dropped a lot because people don’t have money
Tour guide Grant Lind

Tour guide Grant Lind bought land in Barrydale just before the lockdown. “We wanted to live a debt-free life,” he said. “The lockdown just consolidated what we were always thinking.”

Lind plans to build a small off-the-grid house on his property with solar power and rainwater tanks.

“City life costs a fortune. We will be living big in a tiny house,” he said.

Lower property prices are also driving demand, said Goodman.

“Prices have dropped a lot because people don’t have money,” she said.

Prospective buyers wanted good health-care facilities and municipal services and, for those wishing to work remotely, good communications.

In a move to get the Eastern Cape town of Cradock’s fibre network up and running quickly, it has been temporarily run along street poles instead of underground, a resident told the Sunday Times.

A fibre network is also due to be installed in Graaff-Reinet, where people are still making do with ADSL lines, said McNaughton. 

SA’s small-town property mini-boom will depend on how towns cope with the virus in the months ahead.

“It’s definitely positive post-Covid sentiment that’s driving this,” said McNaughton, “but it will be affected by the continued good management of the virus.”

Goodman, who qualified as an epidemiologist, said it is also easier for small, community-oriented towns to completely flatten clusters of infection.

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