An unexpected surge of country sales in the weeks running up to Christmas saw Knight Frank’s country division put more than £250 million worth of property under offer in less than a month, at an average value of just under £1.5m. As department head Rupert Sweeting reminds us: ‘The end of November and the beginning of December are traditionally thought of as quiet months in the property calendar.

However, with some offices taking offers of more than £15m in just one week, there were signs of confidence returning to the market as buyers and sellers sought to tie up deals before the end of the year.’ Although the bulk of sales throughout the country have taken place within the £1m to £2m price-range, it still bodes well for the country market in 2013, as Mr Sweeting explains: ‘Encouragingly for vendors who are thinking of putting their houses on the market in the coming year, this unseasonal spike of activity was not confined to the usual hotspots of the Cotswolds, Oxfordshire and North Surrey estates such as St George’s Hill or Wentworth, but included locations such as Kent, Warwickshire, West Berkshire and the West Country. The West Country, in particular, appears to be shaking off the cobwebs, with transactions increasing at all levels of the market in one of the regions worst affected by last year’s 2% increase in Stamp Duty on properties valued at more than £2m.’

Other leading country-house agents have seen a similar surge in pre-Christmas sales and appear to share their rivals’ optimistic view about the prospects for the year ahead, although cynics might say: ‘They would, wouldn’t they?’ On a positive note, Mark Lawson of search agents The Buying Solution points to the ‘unprecedented’ level of sales recorded at more than £15m in the Home Counties-15 at least, most of which took place offmarket:‘The area just west of London, especially around Ascot and Esher, has been particularly strong, largely driven by international buyers who have been impressed by the value for money offered in these areas compared with London. Notable open-market Home Counties deals taking place at more than £15m included the 21-acre Pyrford Court estate in Surrey, with its neo-Georgian mansion built in 1906. It had been on the market for some time, and was bought by an international buyer seeking a huge “footprint” close to London’. However, a small number of landmark high-value sales doesn’t make a national country-house market, and Mr Lawson’s associate Nick Mead highlights the dilemma facing Home Counties vendors in the £1m to £10m price-bracket, many of whom will probably have been reading

An unexpected surge of the bubbles in their festive Champagne as they try to decide whether or not to go for a 2013 launch, and, if so, at what price. As Mr Mead points out, ‘the situation in 2012 was extraordinarily difficult to read, with property markets within as little as five to 10 miles of each other faring very differently.

For example, Beaconsfield has suffered from an over-supply of housing, with transactions few and far between, but Henley has been the opposite, experiencing an under-supply of housing and several transactions above £2m. Under normal circumstances, The Knoll, an undoubted “marker house” in Beaconsfield, which came onto the market in April at a guide price of £4m, would have sold well and under competition, but it struggled to find a buyer. Its price was then reduced to £3.6m, and it eventually sold for considerably less than its original guide’. In such a confusingly opaque market, launching at the right price is crucial to achieving a swift and satisfactory sale.

The use of ‘comparables’ is fundamental to arriving at an accurate valuation of any residential property, but the problem with the country-house market is that no two country houses are exactly the same, and ‘gut feeling’ and guesswork inevitably end up playing their part. Consequently, undecided vendors may find it useful to (honestly) compare their own property with some of the classic country houses that have sold well in recent weeks.

It goes without saying that potential vendors need potential purchasers and vice versa, and an analysis by Savills of the 10 most searched-for counties by visitors to their website in 2012 highlights the locations currently most sought-after by buyers of country property. Oxfordshire heads the list of England’s most popular counties, followed by Devon, Cornwall, Kent, Hampshire, Berkshire, Surrey, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Norfolk. Another crumb of cheer for uncertain vendors is that the number of ‘active’ country house buyers registered with Savills increased by 5% in the last quarter of 2012, compared with the same period in 2011.

And, obviously, the counties most sought after by buyers are also likely to be the most productive and competitive from a vendor’s point of view. So whether a buyer or a vendor you intend to be, a study of what goes down well, and where, may help to ensure a successful outcome, whatever side of the front gate you’re standing on.

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As we saw from last week’s review of major property sales in 2012 (December 26, 2012), ever-popular Oxfordshire again topped the charts for country house sales last year-gems such as Pusey House and Garsington Manor immediately spring to mind. Yet throughout last year, the market for houses in Oxford and villages within a half-hour’s drive of the city centre was stifled by a desperate shortage of properties for sale, as vendors dithered and buyers became increasingly frustrated. But, here again, the tide may be turning, as Damian Gray of Knight Frank’s Oxford office (01865 264851) reports seeing more houses potentially for sale in the past three months than he has done in years. This is certainly good news for the growing number of forty-somethings with children at Oxford schools who are ‘absolutely desperate’ to find themselves a house with more space for their growing offspring.

Anyone whose New Year resolutions include a move to, or within Oxfordshire, may consider one of the houses that Knight Frank have on offer right now. Best for value at £2.5m, says Mr Gray, is pretty, eight-bedroom North Moreton House at North Moreton, near Didcot, between Henley and Oxford, deemed ‘the perfect village house, in one of the best villages south of Oxford with a good Oxford school run. Launched in October, it stands in 1.2 acres of land, and has a swimming pool, a tennis court and a fantastic party barn for village fêtes, 21st birthdays and weddings’.

For all its moments of glory, the rain-soaked Jubilee summer, followed by the Olympics and Paralympics, was a total washout as far as the country-house market in west Berkshire was concerned, Nick Loweth of Knight Frank in Hungerford reveals. But business improved dramatically in the last quarter of the year, with seven houses going under offer in a single week in November. The latest to find a buyer was idyllic Burridge Heath Farm, near Little Bedwyn, 5.5 miles from Hungerford, launched in late October at a guide price of £1.6m. An extended former stud farmhouse in need of refurbishment, with stabling and 7.5 acres of land, it went under offer in December. Phillippa Dalby-Welsh of Savills’ country department (020-7409 8823), whose remit covers west Berkshire, Wiltshire and Hampshire, also saw a distinct lack of available property at the top end of the market throughout 2012. One sale that grabbed the headlines, however, was that of the exquisite, Grade II*-listed Parliament Piece at Ramsbury, Wiltshire, which launched on the market in late September at a guide price of £3.95m, and found a buyer within a matter of weeks. Interestingly, the eventual purchaser was one of two prospective buyers, neither of whom was registered with an agent at the time, but who suddenly ‘came out of the woodwork’, having seen the house in Country Life (Property Market, October 10, 2012).

‘I get the feeling that many people are rather fed up with waiting for the market to change and have begun to realise that it is unlikely to do so in the near future. Schools and commutability are the main draws for our market in Hampshire, west Berkshire and Wiltshire, and the biggest question now is “when will the London money start to filter out?”,’ says Mrs Dalby-Welsh, adding, ‘whether it is a fluke or a trend is perhaps a little too early to tell, but we have certainly noticed more London-based buyers registering along the M4, M3 and A3 corridors in the past six to eight weeks, many of whom have not previously been registered with an agent’.

Traditionally, Surrey has always been the bellwether of the country-house market in the Home Counties, and Nigel Mitchell of Knight Frank in Guildford has seen a flurry of sales in the past six to eight weeks, although he doesn’t really know why. One of those was substantial Leith Vale at Ockley, Surrey, which exchanged in November at a guide price of £2.65m. What Mr Mitchell does know, however, is that vendors are finally more inclined to accept a reduction in their original guide price, and that an encouraging number of good houses in the £4m-£6m price-bracket have already been photographed in readiness for an early launch this year. With house-prices in south-west London finally showing signs of levelling off, Kent has seen signs of London buyers appearing over the horizon. Trailing clouds of pre-recessionary glory, the impressive, Palladian style Broadwater Hall at West Malling, Kent, came to the market in June and exchanged and completed in November, at a guide price of £3.5m. Beyond the Home Counties, life has been even tougher in the West Country, which also bore the brunt of some of the worst of last year’s appalling weather.

But here, too, year-end 2012 appears to have brought some signs of encouragement for the top end of the market in the year to come. Strutt & Parker found a buyer for Grade I-listed Mamhead House, one of Devon’s grandest country houses, set in more than 160 acres in the Haldon Hills between Exeter and Dawlish. Launched on the market in September 2011 at a guide price of £8m, it found a purchaser last autumn at a price that probably fell slightly short of its original asking price. Meanwhile, the ever-tenacious Martin Lamb of Savills saw historic, Grade I-listed Bridwell Park at Uffculme, near Cullompton, Devon, finally go under offer last month at a guide price of £4m. Across the Tamar Bridge in Cornwall, Mr Lamb has also seen the reappearance of mature buyers who are taking advantage of the banking crisis to snap up homes at prices vastly reduced by the absence of City-based second home buyers. One historic Georgian house that could well inspire dreams of a premature retirement to the West Country, is Grade II-listed Nansough Manor at Ladock, 7.5 miles from Truro, which stands in 14 acres of gardens and grounds, and is on offer through Savills (01872 243200) at a guide price of £1.25m.

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  • Tommy de Mallet Morgan FRICS

    How can I get in touch with Penny Churchill regarding an interesting prime village house just coming onto the market?
    Kind regards
    Tommy de Mallet Morgan
    07500 662 662

  • Edward Sugden

    Good to hear increased activity in the hard hit country house market. The tide maybe turning as capital increases in London begin to falter and the country looks and feels good value. I am certain many London house owners will feel this is the year to capitalise on the greatest gap between London and country house values.