The London-to-country market marches almost entirely to the prep-school tune, but if buyers want to be installed by summer, they shouldn’t delay, says Arabella Youens.

The Old Parsonage in Stockbridge, Hampshire, is an easy distance from Farleigh School, which is just up the road towards Andover. The house has six bedrooms, a pool and stables. £1.895 million through Knight Frank (01962 850333).

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Once upon a country-house buying time, if a child was moving from their London day school to begin at a country prep in September, you wouldn’t need to start thinking about moving until early spring. ‘That has changed now,’ believes Hampshire-based buying agent Charles Birtles (01256 892296). ‘People have woken up to the fact that, particularly in the current climate of the country-house market, you can’t just breeze into the game in February and assume you’ll be installed by July. It’s not like buying on the Peterborough Estate in Fulham where, if you lose one house, there’ll be another. Finding a house near one of the major-draw prep schools here in Hampshire now requires more organisation and better preparation.’

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Mr Birtles cites three clients who, this time last year, retained him for this purpose: they were leaving the classic west London family-friendly enclaves of Brook Green, Fulham and Wandsworth and starting their children at schools such as Farleigh, near Andover, and Twyford, near Winchester. ‘By starting the process early, they knew exactly where they wanted to be and were able to put their London houses on the market in good time to be in a strong position when the country-house market picked up in late spring.’

country houses near prep schools

Perfect for Winchester preps
Hampshire, £2.5 million, Freefolk House, Martyr Worthy, 7 bedrooms, pool, tennis court, 3.75 acres, Strutt & Parker (01962 869999). This fine Georgian house, in the heart of the Upper Itchen Valley between Alresford and Winchester, has been in the hands of the current owners for more than 30 years. The stables have been converted into a two- bedroom cottage and further outbuildings include a woodshed/dog kennel, workshop and store.

Next year’s country-house market is likely to be heavily impacted by the twin unknowns: who will win the general election and what will become of the mansion tax idea? This makes getting organised early even more key, attests Jonathan Bramwell of The Buying Solution in Oxfordshire (07825 609001): ‘If they’re committed to making the “big move” for schooling, we’re advising clients to start looking as soon as possible, as supply is likely to be very limited for the first half of 2015.’

But is the general election going to put a complete halt on anyone moving? ‘I had this very conversation this morning,’ explains Mr Bramwell’s Newbury-based colleague Bobby Hall (07733 314326). ‘The agent firmly believes that no one is going to move before the election, but we’re already seeing clients signing up, if only because of the school year beginning in September. For many of these parents, their children were put down at a school at birth—or soon after—and the families are going to move regardless. The election, mansion tax, half term and looming winter aside—it’s this market that’s still performing.’

Mark Parkinson of Middleton Advisors in Abingdon, Oxfordshire (01235 436270), says that 80% of his clients moving from London to the country are driven by their children’s imminent move to prep school. ‘I can count on one hand the number of clients that we work with in a given year who are moving to the country for another reason. In fact, the reverse is more common, now—we’re increasingly acting for clients who are moving from the country to London to be closer to their children and grandchildren.’

country houses near preop schools

Ideal for Rutland public schools
Lincolnshire, £1.05 million, Manor House, Folkingham, 6 bedrooms, outbuildings, tennis court, one acre, Fine & Country (01476 584164). Set in the pretty village of Folkingham, the Manor House was described by Pevsner as ‘uncommonly fine’ and has been carefully maintained. Within an easy commute of London either via Grantham or Peterborough, it’s also a short drive from a selection of good schools including Oakham and Oundle.

Competition for places at some of these schools is famously tough and many of the leading schools are over-subscribed, but Mr Parkinson has a rather novel way of getting around the problem for those who haven’t managed to get names down on the waiting list: ‘Have lots of children—these schools are businesses and you’re a far more attractive prospect if it’s likely that you’re going to produce three or four sets of school fees, instead of just one. Countless clients have arrived in my patch with three children and, miraculously, the school doors have opened. If I was a bursar, I’d do the same thing to keep the school solvent.’

Another push-factor from the capital to the country that agents are currently citing is the fact that, finally, London house prices look to be reaching a plateau and the difference between what you can sell in London and then buy in the country—especially family houses with gardens—looks very attractive. ‘Buyers who have sold up in London can use the change to educate their children,’ says Robert Fanshawe of Property Vision in the Cotswolds (07920 413270). ‘The challenge is finding the house here that will leave behind “the change” when there is high demand—it’s not unusual for premium prices to be paid, even in what is regarded as a difficult country market.’

More and more, adds Mr Parkinson, people are holding on to the London house and renting elsewhere or just downsizing in London and buying in the country. ‘They want to keep a toe in the capital—it’s become an alternative pension pot.’

NEED TO KNOW: MARKET MOVING SCHOOLS
Oxfordshire
Dragon, Oxford; Summer Fields, Oxford

Berkshire Elstree, Newbury; Oratory, Reading; Caldicott, Farnham Royal; Cheam, Newbury

Buckinghamshire Godstowe, High Wycombe

Hampshire Farleigh, Andover; Pilgrims’, Winchester; Twyford, Winchester; Highfield, Liphook

Surrey Aldro, Shackleford; St Edmund’s, Hindhead

West Sussex Westbourne House, Chichester

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