How to beat the catchment area premium

Don't risk your child's education by being caught out by catchment areas

Don't risk your child's education by being caught out by catchment areas - Credit: Getty Images

With a limited number of places available each year at top schools in areas such as Crouch End, Muswell Hill, Camden and Kentish Town, especially for primary admissions, homes within catchment areas can command high price premiums and competition to secure one is rife. Here’s how to get in in time and without breaking the bank if possible.

Catchment areas for selected state schools in Camden and Haringey based on 2013/14 figures

Catchment areas for selected state schools in Camden and Haringey based on 2013/14 figures - Credit: Archant

Time was when parents in Hampstead and Highgate were less concerned about local school catchment areas and more worried about how long the school run would take. But with the cost of private education soaring (educating one child privately from age four to 18 will cost £210,000 give or take) and the best state schools overtaking private schools on exam results, that’s no longer the case. Even Tatler magazine, that bastion of all that is posh, has run a state schools guide for the past three years.

Each school in each borough has its own admissions policy.

These are by no means hard and fast rules and there is no guarantee that you will secure a place at the school of your choice. We should also point out that these are not tips for cheating the system. Local authorities are clamping down on the merest whiff of admissions fraud and besides, nobody wants to get on the wrong side of Giles Coren – the Kentish Town columnist called parents who manipulate the system “lying, cheating, hypocritical, Guardian-reading, middle-class, north London, Corbynite scum”, after his daughter failed to get a place at Eleanor Palmer school, mere metres from his house. Strong words indeed.

1. Plan ahead and be prepared to buy even if you’re not ready to move yet

Guy Russell of Salter Rex in Kentish Town, who sells properties in the catchment areas for Eleanor Palmer Primary in Tufnell Park and Camden School for Girls, both consistently rated ‘outstanding’ by Oftsed, advises parents to start their property search two to three years in advance of the application process and leave a year at the very least. So if you’re hoping to secure a place for 2017 you may be too late.

“Look at the number of houses on Patshull Road, which is probably the best road in the catchment area for Camden School for Girls, that come up for sale each year. It’s one, maybe two at most,” he says.

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So to secure one of those coveted homes when they come up, you need to start your search early – for primary admissions, parents of one and two-year-olds should be looking now for 2018 and 19 admissions, even if they don’t yet want to live in the area.

“We have sold a couple of times to people who’ve bought to be within the catchment area and then rented the property out until they needed to get into the school,” says Russell.

2. Be prepared to pay well over the odds

Russell estimates that properties within the catchment areas for very popular schools command a premium of at least 10 per cent, hardly surprising when you consider just how few streets and houses this constitutes.

Only half of Patshull Road falls into the catchment area and so few properties sell at that end of the street it’s difficult to generalise about prices but a town house sold in March this year for £2.2million, compared to an average price for a terraced house in Kentish Town of £1,344,245.

“We’ve just sold a 2,100 sq ft house for £2.55million, which is a high price per square foot for a house in Kentish Town and that was certainly influenced by the fact that it was within the Camden school catchment,” he says.

But, for those who can afford it, Russell suggests that splashing out on one of these properties won’t be a bad investment.

“You pay the extra price for that property, you get the benefit of that free education, you save money you might spend on school fees, and then you get the capital appreciation on that property so in the long run you’ll have made money from that fabulous education.”

3. Rent before you buy

For those who haven’t realised in time that north London parenting is akin to a military operation and fear they’ve missed the deadline to buy before the little darlings start school, it’s always possible to rent in the catchment area while you conduct your property search.

Aree Rand, partner at Knight Frank in Hampstead, says: “People will compromise on a lot of factors, including size of the property, but one thing they won’t compromise on in Hampstead and Highgate is location because they want to be near the schools and house prices in the area are driven up massively for this one reason.

“Parents need to be flexible and be prepared to rent in the catchment area until they find somewhere to buy. Once they’re in they’re in, so if you’ve put a foot down in the area for a year or two and you’ve got the child into the school then you have a few more options for where you can buy.

“This may even turn out quite well for them – not only could the market soften while they’re renting, which is perfectly possible at the moment, but also if something comes up while you’re renting, you’re chain-free and so will be a more attractive buyer.

4. Think one move ahead

“Very often people will move for one school and then be out of catchment for another, which can cause problems when it comes to applying for places at secondary schools” says Claire Beauchamp-Ward, manager of Prickett and Ellis in Muswell Hill. She advises parents to “keep an eye on the next move” – if you’ve landed a spot within the catchment area but you’re not in the perfect home, consider staying put to get a primary school place before moving on to a bigger property.

“Many families decide to squeeze in somewhere a bit smaller, maybe stay in a maisonette somewhere like Talbot Road before moving to a larger place near a secondary school having secured the primary school place.

“Once they’re that bit older the kids can get the bus to school and so on.”

5. Don’t move, improve

Transaction costs are high, moving is stressful and if you’ve put down roots, get on well with the neighbours and feel happy in your house, consider whether it’s more affordable to extend, rather than trying to move a rung up the ladder.

“We don’t always advise to buy or sell,” says Beauchamp-Ward. “Getting an extension might work. This might be a really good house for you in the long run and there may not be something better within your price bracket or desired area.”

If you can face a few months of disruption and are able to get planning permission to build up, down or out in your area, this could be the most affordable way to fit a growing family into your dream home near your dream school.

6. Consider private

If your house is the right size but wrong location it is worth considering private school, which you could be largely paid for by the savings in transaction costs.

“The transaction fraction is eye watering,” says buying agent Henry Pryor.

Beauchamp-Ward agrees: “The cost of moving is now so high with Stamp Duty and a lot of people are looking at that against private school fees.”

The average terraced house in Muswell Hill sells for in the region of £2million, with stamp duty on property at that price point costing an additional £153,750. Assuming day school fees of £6,000/term that’s eight and a half years’ of private education for one child for the same price as the tax on your new home.

If you’re determined to move though a word of caution from Pryor: “Don’t, for goodness’ sake, buy now. If we vote Brexit, by the 24th June you might as well have educated your children at Harrow!”

7. Don’t put your life on hold to secure that golden place

“Schools is one of the things that remind me that homes are for living,” says Pryor. “If you’re not careful you can put your life on hold.

“If you can’t compromise by paying for your children’s education you may have to compromise on where you live, or which school you send them to.

“Of course everybody worries about their children’s education but if they don’t get into the school you want them to go to, they’re still not being educated in the Calais jungle. It’s all relative.”