Some of the largest country-house sales this year have been to overseas buyers moving back home. Arabella Youens finds out why.

A world away from Bangkok: Knight Frank sold this Exmoor estate, with a guide price of £3 million, to an expatriate returning from Thailand.

It’s official. South-west London families have put agents on starter’s orders and, as of the past few weeks, are finally taking advantage of the extraordinary price differentials between the capital and the countryside, feeling that now is the time to make the ‘big move’.

According to James Mackenzie, who heads up Strutt & Parker’s country department (020–7318 5190), a quarter of recently registered country-house buyers are currently based in the classic country-bound postcodes of SW6, SW4 and SW7 and are looking to buy— with considerable budgets—around the West Sussex hotspot of Chichester, Winchester in Hampshire and perennially popular Oxfordshire.

However, in a market that’s been quiet for some years, will they be vying for houses against a new bidding competitor in the form of returning expatriates? William Morrison of Knight Frank in Exeter (01392 423111) has seen a definite upturn in interest from British businessmen and women currently based abroad.

‘This year, 11% of our buyers have been British expatriates compared to just 3% in 2013,’ confirms Mr Morrison. ‘They’re British buyers returning from Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Hong Kong with budgets above £1.5 million and most of our recent sales have been at £3 million and above.’

This tallies with Mr Mackenzie’s experience. ‘Last year was all about sales at about the £2 million mark, but, this year, we’ve done some of our best deals with expatriate buyers or international buyers with a British connection, such as an English husband or wife.’ He cites sales of country houses at £11 million and £7.5 million to such buyers, but underlines that most of the movement has been at least above £4 million.

So why the return now? Jasper Feilding of Carter Jonas (020–7518 3200) believes that ‘expatriates who intend to return to the UK in a few years are keen to buy now, before being priced out of the market further down the line’.

In terms of where they’re buying, the answer appears to be all over— and, surprisingly, it’s not all about being within 40 minutes of Heathrow. ‘Expatriate buyers think they want to be in a classic old rectory within an hour of London,’ explains Mr Mackenzie, ‘but, in the end, they often end up in an Elizabethan pile two hours from the capital—and sometimes much further than that.’

This might explain why Mr Morrison has seen increasing interest in his patch of the West Country. ‘The South-West offers a complete lifestyle change—buyers can embrace rural living, beautiful coastlines and friendly communities. This also goes for those who are slightly older and coming back to the UK on retirement. Many also feel that the market is starting to improve and now is the best time to buy as prices are still well below peak levels.’

British public schools are a draw for many, but, according to Mr Mackenzie, this demand isn’t necessarily driven by the attractiveness of a British education. ‘My theory is that people are sending their children to school here not to meet English people, but to make international connections for the rest of their lives. These days, it’s about rubbing shoulders with children from all over the world and these relationships stay forever.’

Lindsay Cuthill, head of Savills country department (020–7016 3820), agrees: ‘The expatriates we’re seeing returning to the UK and focusing their search on the country-house market are very much driven by proximity to good schools. We’ve seen them returning from across the globe, including Hong Kong and Singapore, Australia, America and Switzerland— particularly in the early half of 2014 so they were settled in time for the September school term. For these buyers, popular areas include the Cotswolds, Hampshire and Berkshire.’

For Nick Ferrier of Jackson-Stops & Staff in Midhurst (01730 812357), there’s always going to be one special draw that attracts foreign investors in his patch of West Sussex. ‘Polo is a sport that is very much ingrained in the community in this part of the world. The polo season, for the most part, brings a spring to the step of West Sussex residents and there’s no finer sight than fields full of ponies and closely cut lawns ready for the season to begin.’

However, one group of international buyers expatriates won’t have to contend with in the country-house market this autumn are the Russians. ‘They were buying at the beginning of the year, but, since the Ukraine crisis began, they’ve completely dropped off the map,’ adds Mr Mackenzie.

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