Although country estate agents haven’t exactly been ringing church bells to signal the bottom of the market, a recent surge of activity in key commuter areas suggests that the worst may at last be behind us. After a fairly disastrous last quarter of 2008, sellers are now much more realistic in terms of what they can expect to get for their properties, and most have adjusted their prices accordingly.

Meanwhile, buyers, especially those living in rented accommodation, who were happy enough to sit on the sidelines while they lived off the interest from a previous house sale, are suddenly much keener to get back into the market, and on with their lives. As a result, the number of houses being sold or going under offer, especially in the £500,000 to £1.5 million price range, has risen quite sharply in recent weeks.

Surrey

Richard Winter of Savills in Esher (01372 461900) agreed sales on 12 houses in March 2009, compared with only six houses in March 2008 a year-on-year increase of 100%. Most of the properties were priced between £1.5m and £3.5m, and located in quiet private roads, such as within the exclusive Crown Estate in Oxshott.

The impressive, six-bedroom, neo-Georgian Chimay, in Birds Hill Road, Oxshott, which failed to sell last year at a guide price of £4.5m, has now found a buyer at £3.5m. Meanwhile, Savills are offering the no less pristine, neo-Georgian Clevedon House in Princes Drive, also within
the Oxshott Crown Estate, at a guide price of £3.95m.

The buyers are still calling the shots in Guildford, where anything that looks reasonable is selling, and anything that looks over-priced is going nowhere, says Tim Harriss of Knight Frank (01483 565171), who reports sales agreed in March of 11 houses within the city’s commuter catchment area, at prices ranging from £900,000 to £7m. With strong demand for good country
properties coupled with short supply, Mr Harriss has already seen a positive reaction from buyers to the probate sale of the classic Georgian Home Farm House, listed Grade II, in the pretty village of Shackle-ford, 6.6 miles from Guildford, which, he says, is ‘sensibly priced’ at a guide of £1.8m.

‘There has been an altogether different feel to the market in recent weeks, especially among buyers living in rented accommodation, who have seen a dramatic reversal of fortune, with the interest on their deposit accounts sliding in line with Bank of England base rates. This, coupled with a 20%–25% fall in property values from the peak to the present day, makes the argument for buying all the more compelling,’ says Edward Jackson of Savills in Haywards Heath, West Sussex.

He reports the sale of £23.5m worth of properties since the beginning of January 2009, compared with sales worth £12.4m in the same period of 2008. At the moment, most buyers on his patch are looking to spend about £1m, but Mr Jackson is hopeful that the relaunch of the idyllic, recently renovated Duckyls in Selsfield Road, near East Grinstead, at a reduced guide price of £2.75m through Savills (01444 446000) and Hamptons International (01403 262628), will also reap the benefit of the new mood in the marketplace.

West Sussex

 ‘The “golden triangle” around Midhurst has suffered as much as anywhere in the past 18 months, but recent signs show that West Sussex buyers now want to press on and buy,’ says Andrew Ferrier of the local office of Jackson-Stops & Staff (01730 812357). The run-up to spring has been hectic to say the least, with 13 sales recorded six of them in one week and a huge influx of people rushing to put their houses on the market in time for Easter.

Buyers seem to be a mix of investors, both local and from London, and also expatriates looking to retire to the UK. Current prices may be nothing to shout about, Mr Ferrier admits, ‘but with little stock in the area, it will be interesting to see how the market will receive Broad-land Court, a mile from Midhurst, a £3.5m new house on the edge of “polo country” with six bedroom suites, five reception rooms, a fitness area, 4½ acres of paddock and direct views to the South Downs’.

Hertfordshire

Leading country agents in Hertfordshire have also noticed a spurt of activity since the beginning of the year. Mark Rimell of Strutt & Parker in St Albans (01727 840285) reports ‘very definite signs of improvement’, with viewing levels almost doubling year-on-year. He now has eight houses under offer in the St Albans/Harpenden/south Hertfordshire area (all of which have direct City commuter links) at prices ranging from £500,000 to £3m.

After 30 viewings and three offers, he recently agreed a sale on a house in St Albans at £750,000 a mere 4.5% below the guide price. Out in the country, a property that had been on the market for nine months went under offer in mid-March at £1.325m; the following week, the agents were told to accept an offer of £1.4m a ‘gazump’, no less.

Following a price reduction from £975,000 to £895,000, pretty, Grade II-listed Brewhouse Cottage at Essendon, near Hatfield (Kings Cross 20 minutes; Moorgate 40 minutes) looks good value in today’s market.

With high-street estate agents closing their doors up and down the country, Knight Frank’s decision to open a new country office in Berkhamsted in January this year looked something of a gamble. But it’s one that seems to have paid off, as local agent Chris Moor-house reports ‘a hotbed of interest’ from buyers, many of whom are coming out of London. With 34 country properties currently on his books, he has just agreed a sale on The Grange, a new, 3,970sq ft, five-bedroom family house at Frithsden Copse, two miles from Berkhamsted, at a guide price of £1.999m (reduced from £2.5m).

Knight Frank (01442 861610) are also offering the charming Edwardian Little Heath House with 4.7 acres of immaculate gardens in an AONB adjoining the National Trust’s Ashridge estate, at a guide price of £2.6m.

Berkshire

Even the Royal County of Berkshire hasn’t been spared the effects of recession. With no sumptuous £10m-plus mansions to illuminate the marketplace around Ascot, James Heron of Knight Frank (01344 624732) has been happy enough to exchange contracts on 16
houses since January, at prices ranging from £450,000 to £2.5m. With commuters in mind, he’s currently offering the tidy, four-bedroom Orchard House at Woodside, near Windsor Great Park, at a guide price of £850,000.

Despite a ‘real shortage of supply’, Tim Sherston of Jackson-Stops & Staff in Newbury has 11 of the 28 properties currently on his books under offer, at prices ranging from £530,000 for
a four-bedroom Edwardian house in the town, to £1.25m for a country property nearby.

Half his buyers have been people living in rented houses, or those wishing to hang on to their mortgages especially tracker mortgages, which are becoming increasingly scarce. Following a recent price reduction, secluded five-bedroom Doric House at Tydehams, a leafy no-through lane on the south side of Newbury, looks a good bet at a guide price of £1m, through Jackson-Stops & Staff (01635 45501) and Knight Frank (01488 682726).

Kent

Over in Kent, it’s open season in Cranbrook, where the results of the entrance exams to Cranbrook School, one of the top-performing State schools in the country, have just been announced. As William Peppitt of Savills in Cranbrook explains:

‘For the next 12 weeks, parents whose children have secured a place will be desperate to find a home within the school’s six-mile catchment area before the start of the autumn term. This invariably leads to at least a temporary uplift in local prices in the £400,000 to £1m price bracket, and we’ve already seen a surge in inquiries in recent weeks.’

Mr Peppitt is selling elegant Regency Ellerslie House with 10 acres of land at Gills Green, Hawkhurst, ‘arguably the best house within the catchment area’, which was bought by the current owners at the top of the market in 2007, and is now back on the market at a ‘seasonally adjusted’ £1.75m guide price through Savills (01580 720161).

For years, good old solid Sevenoaks has been Kent’s ‘banker’ location in every sense, with easy commuting and excellent local schools the market drivers. In stark contrast to the last quarter of 2008, Edward Rook of Knight Frank’s Sevenoaks office (01732 744477) reports the sale, since January and following the inevitable price reductions, of 22 houses priced between £650,000 and £3.75m, with contracts already exchanged on 14 of them. ‘At present, the greatest demand is for family houses in Sevenoaks itself, within walking distance of the station (Charing Cross: 32 minutes) and at prices up to about £1.75m,’ Mr Rook reveals.
     
He quotes a guide price of £3.95m for ‘one of the six best townhouses in Sevenoaks’: the beautifully maintained New House in Wildernesse Avenue, whose owners are downsizing after 18 years’ occupation. The luxurious, 11,356sq ft house stands in more than three acres of splendid gardens and grounds, and has three main reception rooms, a kitchen/breakfast room, an orangery, a study, eight bedrooms, five bathrooms and an indoor swimming pool.

Suffolk

Longer days and sun in the sky have made Suffolk’s commuter market start to shine, with the Ipswich office of Jackson-Stops & Staff (01473 218218) seeing eight houses go under offer in March, at prices ranging from £300,000 to £1.25m. Generally, the pattern of demand is irregular, with intermittent ‘pulses of  interest’, says Jonathan Penn of Jackson-Stops, who notes, however, that sellers who put their houses on the market now are serious about selling, and prepared to negotiate.

He recently launched onto the market the delightful Queen Anne Monewden Hall near Woodbridge, 13 miles from Ipswich (Liverpool Street: 65 minutes), jointly with Knight Frank (020–7629 8171) at a guide price of £1.6m. The pleasantly rambling 11-bedroom house has been the much-loved home of the sporting Reid family for the past 20 years; it stands in some five acres of gardens, grounds and paddocks, and has wonderful views of the surrounding Deben valley.