It was one of the big trends of last year and there’s no regret about making a big move to Northern Ireland for two families
Belfast has been named one of the UK’s top five cities for residential investment as a trend for people to return home to the province after long periods away looks set to bed in during 2022.
Commercial property agents Colliers puts Belfast at number five in the top 20 UK cities for people to invest in residential property.
Edinburgh is the number one city, followed by Cambridge, London, Manchester and Dublin.
But Belfast claims the top spot for “liveability”.
Colliers’ report says Northern Ireland’s reputation for good schools is a major pull. But the pandemic practice of working from home is perhaps an even bigger trigger.
In Colliers’ words, it’s been “encouraging reallocations to the city from peer group UK cities, a trend now very prevalent in the middle to upper house brand sector.”
One family who moved here from Farnborough, England last year, Italian-born Rita Malosti, her Co Mayo husband Ken Hennigan and daughter Amelia, say they’ve no regrets about their relocation.
Emma Grossmith, an employment lawyer from Northern Ireland who’s lived away for 27 years, said experiencing the Covid-19 pandemic while living in Sweden contributed to her decision to move back here at the end of last year.
She’s now living in Banbridge with her husband, daughter, who’s 13 and a son of 11. Husband James continues to work as a musician in Sweden.
Emma says: “I left Northern Ireland to go to university at Cambridge and I always meant to come back. Then I met my husband at university. He’s a musician so musicians have to go where the work is.
“I got a good job and was working in Scotland and London, then he got a great job in Sweden, so we went to Sweden. But a lot of time went by, and my homesickness never got better — in fact, it got worse.
“It was awful, and I think probably the pandemic had something to do with it.
“We couldn’t fly, and we didn’t know what would happen if we both got sick. It was really quite dreadful.
“It took a situation where I was one day hoping to go home into a situation where I really had to take major steps to make that happen.”
She had become accustomed to working remotely for her UK employer after moving to Sweden in 2014.
“That was unusual back when we moved there in 2014 but of course that has changed now.”
Emma’s father is the former Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh, Alan Harper. Her parents and two sisters still live in Northern Ireland and her brother lives in England.
“We lived all over the place when I was a child.
“Because my dad was in the church, we were moving around quite a bit though most of my education was in Methody College in Belfast.”
She says she feels happy with her decision to move home even though the practicalities were complex. “It was tremendously difficult with two children to get all the ducks in a row, and to find somewhere to live.
“I’ve had tremendous support from my family who are all living locally, and I haven’t at any point felt this is the wrong decision.
“But I haven’t felt it was purely kind of a spur of the moment mistake, no. My heart is really at home, and I feel really good about being back.
“We were very isolated in Sweden. We only had each other. If the wheels had come off health-wise for he or I, we would have been on our own.
“I feel just a lot safer being at home.”
She is thinking about her children’s future in Northern Ireland. “I hope Northern Ireland will give the children the opportunities that I had.
“Having moved from Sweden, where it is a very socialist, egalitarian and liberal environment, I was concerned would I find the place too old-fashioned, and I do think NI has a long way to go.
“But I also think it has moved on tremendously and the vast majority of people have moved on tremendously in their attitudes to each other. Handled properly, NI’s unique position post-Brexit could be great.”
Her family are very pleased that she’s home.
“My sister Ann let us live in her house while we were trying to find a house here and that was really kind and a big ask.
“We have now bought our home and have just moved, so that’s wonderful. We’ve bought in Banbridge, which is where our family have been for generation upon generation, so it’s really good to be back.
“One of the things that was a bit of a surprise was just how much the NI housing market had gone up in 2021, I don’t know what happened. Things were going for well above the asking price and it was difficult to find the right house, so thank goodness it’s done now.”
She feels that the transformation brought about by the wider acceptance of homeworking will see others follow in her footsteps.
“I do think hybrid working is going to be become the norm, at least for those who can do it.
“I think those who consider themselves Northern Irish but feel trapped by their work will be thinking: ‘Why can’t I take my work with me? I can do it wherever I am?’”
Rita Malosti and her family moved here over the summer. Her husband Kenneth is a musician and in his day job, works from home for an aerospace corporation.
Rita is head of space activities at Skytek, an Irish software firm which last year started an operation here.
She’s full of enthusiasm about her new home.
“We simply love living in Belfast. The first few weeks had been extremely stressful due to the fact that the house sale in England fell through at the last minute — literally the day we had the movers in the house collecting all of our stuff.
“So we had a few hurdles to overcome to move into our new house here. The flexibility and willingness to help we found in people here were amazing. We totally did not expect that.
“We felt like people understood we had a big problem and despite the fact that it was not their problem, they did their best to help us.
“This applied to everyone we met during that period: the family that was hosting us in the first few weeks in their Airbnb, the solicitor that took care of the purchase of our house here, the developer that was selling us the house.
“It made us feel truly welcome and we even started some lovely friendships.”
Once Amelia got settled at school, the family “started enjoying our new city”.
“I suppose in England we lived a different life, too far from London to be ‘a city life’ and not isolated enough to live ‘a country life’.
“So we had the worst of both worlds really, plus the added stress of the commute without the practical pros of a city.
“After having lived in Rome for 12 years before moving to England, both Ken and I were looking forward to being closer to a city, but we didn’t know what to expect from Belfast.
“We soon realised that Belfast is a gem. It is big enough to feel like a city but small enough to go around quickly and for our 12-year-old not to get overwhelmed or lost in it.”
She loves the proximity to the North Coast, where the family has been spending a lot of time.
“Co Mayo (where Ken is from) is only three hours’ drive from here and we’ve had the chance to go and visit his family much more easily than we would have had before, especially with Covid.
“We have been here only a few months, but we all feel very integrated already, from the wonderful neighbours to the community we share our fitness passion with at the gym.
“Amelia found many great friends straight away in school and through the extracurricular activities she is enjoying.
“We are very happy with our choice and look forward to spending many more years here in Belfast.”
David Menary, head of residential at Colliers, said both families are typical of a wider trend.
“Colliers transacted a higher number of homes in Cultra, North Down and Greater Belfast on and off the open market last year, mainly to buyers returning from London, the UK and further afield.
“Many professionals can now work from home and have made the life changing decision to sell up their homes and come back to NI to work remotely, maintaining their higher salaries — resulting in purchasing high value, low density housing and having a better quality of living for them and availing of the first-class schooling.”