Charlie McCarthy, an auctioneer who has sold houses, farms and even islands in west Cork for almost half a century, takes the calls on Coom Hill as he looks out on to the Atlantic.
The last time the telephone rang so frequently back in his Skibbereen office was amid Cold War hysteria in mainland Europe during the 1970s, when German newspapers argued that west Cork was the safest place to avoid the impact of nuclear conflict.
“The Germans and the Dutch came over in their droves. It was to do with the prevailing southwesterly winds,” he says.
In recent weeks, the phone has been ringing off the hook again.
“The interest is unbelievable. Covid has made a lot of people think. There is a realisation now you can work remotely, hold meetings on Zoom. People are hankering for a better lifestyle, they want to raise their families as well.”
Last week, he put up a property online asking €575,000. A City worker in London made an immediate offer of €550,000.
The Government could capitalise on this now, to revitalise towns and villages
“I said you need to come see it. They said: ‘No, we’ve seen it online. We know the area well. We want to get out of London’.”
While the recent high-profile sale of nearby Horse Island, for €5.5 million to a mystery overseas buyer who bought without seeing it in person, has drawn “high-end” attention to the area, McCarthy says interest is “way up” in all price brackets.
The claim is borne out by an analysis of online house-hunting.
Angela Keegan, managing director of property website MyHome.ie, which is owned by The Irish Times, says searches for houses in west Cork have gone “through the roof” since the easing of coronavirus lockdown restrictions – “Up about 9,000 per cent.”
The figure is based on relatively small numbers. However, trends nationally show a definite shift by would-be house-buyers, many of whom have been forced to reflect on their way of life since the pandemic.
Online searches for properties in Schull in west Cork during June were up 300 times compared with the same month last year. Rosscarbery saw a 4.5 times jump, while searches for Clonakilty and Kinsale were 3.5 times greater.
There has been an almost 150 per cent spike in interest in Kerry properties, mainly in Kenmare, Killarney and Tralee, with similar surges for Waterford, driven mostly by a fourfold jump in queries about Dungarvan.
Outside of Dublin in Leinster, the focus is moving further away from the traditional commuter belt counties of Wicklow, Kildare and Meath. There has been a 200 per cent rise in searches for Louth – mainly Drogheda and Dundalk – with similar increases for Wexford, Westmeath and Kilkenny.
While there has been a twofold jump in searches for holiday homes, Keegan says the data – which shows numbers seeking cottages, farmhouses and country houses are all up significantly – suggests people are re-evaluating the way they live.
“My gut instinct is that while everybody has been at home for a number of months, perhaps they have decided they can live a little bit differently,” she said.
“We are seeing increases in searches in areas you wouldn’t expect. They’re not all first-time buyers when you see where they are looking.
“I think people are seeing opportunities to live elsewhere. Working from home for months in a small house with three or four children, you might be thinking well, actually, I can have a better quality of life and still work from home.
“People living on the commuter belt, spending three hours a day getting to work and back – they don’t have to do it and they are still producing really, really good work.”
The data also suggests people are looking for a bargain.
Searches for properties valued at up to €100,000 have risen fivefold, there has been an eightfold jump in those looking for houses priced under €200,000, while interest in properties under €300,000 has tripled.
Keegan says that because of limited supply and pent-up demand, a nosedive in prices is unlikely over the coming months, but it will be the end of the year before the full impact of the Covid-19 crisis becomes evident.
But is it a temporary shift in attitude, or a permanent one?
“Whether it will be radical or not remains to be seen, depending on how employers adapt to the new norm, but I think we have a better chance of a cultural shift than we would have had before.”
Lorcan Sirr, senior lecturer in housing at Technical University of Dublin, believes a “serendipitous opportunity” has arrived to regenerate rural Ireland.
“The Government could capitalise on this now, to revitalise towns and villages,” he says.
“It could be levered quite well to attract people into towns and villages. Now there are people willing to do it. It is probably easier to persuade people to move into towns and villages now than it would have been 24 months ago.”
The pandemic, says Sirr, has exposed the unsuitability of cramped city apartments without balconies or outdoor spaces, which are forcing people to think about whether they can live better elsewhere.
The coronavirus has focused minds on where people want to be
However, the Government must manage a drift to the country into towns and villages, not unsustainable one-off houses, he suggests, adding that the cost of providing extra GPs and schools could be done at relatively little cost.
“I don’t think we are going to see a sudden mass exodus of half a million people down to Carrick-on-Shannon or wherever,” he says.
“There will always be people who want to live in a city and people who have to live in and around a city.”
Meanwhile, four in every 10 of the premium houses now being sold by Savills are going to overseas buyers. James Butler, head of country sales at Savills, said it registered more buyers in June for “prime country properties” than in any month in the previous three years.
All of them – apart from one looking to move closer to family – were seeking more space than they already have.
While some of the surge is just the backlog from a three-month lockdown, the coronavirus has “focused minds” on where people want to be, said Butler, who believes there is a “Covid factor” in about half of all his enquiries.
“People dealing with some pretty big changes to their lifestyle has resulted in them thinking differently about how they live their lives, where they are based. They realise they can get substantially more for their money outside of Dublin.”