Anyone looking for signs of solid recovery in the country-house market can take heart from the recent surge in the volume of properties advertised in Country Life between September 2009 and August 31, 2010, compared with the dismal 12-month period that preceded it. In a year disrupted by snow, the ash cloud, the election and the jittery wait for the new Chancellor’s emergency Budget, the market finally got its act together in May and June, when the number of houses released for sale almost doubled by comparison with the same period of the previous year. But, with few agents anticipating a further dramatic surge in the number of country properties coming to the market this autumn, it will probably remain a buyer’s market for the rest of the year.

‘In our view, there will be less new stock, but more of an active marketplace, with buyers looking to take advantage of opportunities and sellers looking to cash in, given the uncertain outlook for 2011,’ says Crispin Holborow of Savills, who expects buyers to become ‘more predatory’ if the summer launch of country houses remain unsold. But there will always be ready buyers for the ‘best in class’, he points out, citing three exceptionally fine country properties that sold quickly in the early part of the year.

Ropley House near Alresford, Hampshire, found a buyer in April at more than its £4.25 million guide, within weeks of an advertisement in Country Life. Shanks House at Cucklington, Somerset, was sold for ‘way over’ its £5.5m guide price within five weeks of its launch on April 1. And the spectacular Chadacre estate at Long Melford, Suffolk, launched in March at a guide price of £10m, sold within six weeks for a sum rumoured to be closer to twice that figure.

As usual, Knight Frank have had a field day in the Cotswolds: of 38 properties advertised for sale in Gloucestershire with a combined list-value of £122m between January and June, 17 have been sold to date for an estimated £50m. In neighbouring Wiltshire, where values are generally lower, nine of 16 properties advertised in Country Life sold for a combined total of £26m. 

And patience paid off in the case of Compton Castle in Somerset, which had the misfortune to launch in late September 2008 with a guide price of £17m; it sold for £15m prior to auction in February 2010. But the substantial Grade II Little Faringdon House at Woodstock, Oxfordshire, made its £6m guide price within three weeks of its launch in Country Life on June 16.

Down in Sussex-by-the-Sea, it’s been ‘steady as she goes’ for Tim Page-Ratcliff of Strutt & Parker’s Lewes office, but he’s not complaining. Having sold a steady stream of good country houses of the ilk of pretty Ashfold Farmhouse, at Handcross, West Sussex (which fetched 28% more than its £1.1m guide in June), Mr Page-Ratcliff is optimistic about the prospects for the autumn. A sudden rush of interest from buyers returning from holiday in late August has been matched by a clutch of new instructions across a spectrum from £500,000 to £3m.

In the meantime, investment in farmland, and houses with land, is still perceived as the proverbial golden goose, says Giles Wordsworth, head of farms and estates at Smiths Gore. ‘With the outlook for the farming sector still positive, property with land is considered a safe bet compared with gilts and bonds, and lack of bare land to buy is forcing frustrated farmers and agricultural investors to compete for residential holdings. And when a property of quality comes to the market, the competition can be fierce. We recently sold Blackborough Manor Farm at Middleton, west Norfolk for just above the guide price of £3.6m. From the moment it was launched in Country Life, there was an overwhelming response from interested parties.’

Unfortunately, not all your geese can be swans, as every estate agent knows. This year in particular has been a very mixed bag, both in terms of where and what buyers are keen to buy and what they are prepared to pay. As John Young of Chesterton Humberts reveals: ‘So far this year, we have found the country-house market pretty healthy in the South-East and in coastal hotspots such as Chichester. However, the Cotswolds has been disappointing, the South-West a curate’s egg, and the East Midlands is having it tough, with prices still heading south.’ His advice to unsuccessful vendors is blunt: ‘If it hasn’t sold yet, take some action. Hoping for the best is not a good strategy.’

Country properties that fail to sell within 6-12 weeks of coming onto the market are either seriously blighted (bad road, rail or aeroplane noise are the worst offenders), lack ‘sex appeal’, or are over-priced, says Rupert Sweeting of Knight Frank. ‘And as there’s usually not much you can do about the first two problems, price is the one factor you can change, so it’s better to do it sooner rather than later. Or, better still, get it right in the first place, as buyers are incredibly well-informed these days and won’t even view a house that they perceive to be over-valued.’

For families moving out of London, proximity to good schools and fast commuter links are an increasingly influential driver of the country property market, says Hugo Thistle-thwayte of buying agents Prime Purchase. ‘With many parents choosing to keep their children in day schools during the prep-school phase, this can involve different times for picking up, dropping off and collecting for sports matches and Saturday school. This makes proximity to the chosen school extremely important, to the extent that a 20-minute school run is deemed about right, but 30 minutes can be considered too long. Conversely, properties that don’t have easy access to schools tend to be worth from 20% to 30% less than their better-placed equivalents.’

The cathedral town of Guildford is spoilt for choice in terms of schools, and following an exceptional run of sales with swift completions in June,July and early August prior to the start of the new school year, Michael Parry-Jones of Grantleys in Wonersh, Surrey (01483 893939), reckons that ‘Guildford is about as good as it gets outside London’. Another house that he expects to sell quickly is Fluter’s Field (Pictured) in sought-after White Lane, two miles from the town centre. Built in 1927, the classic six-bedroom family house is for sale for the first time in 36 years at a guide price of £2.15m.

Fluters

The ‘schools effect’ is especially strong in counties such as Kent, where there is a good choice of private and State schools, and with grammar schools constantly narrowing their catchment areas, the competition among buyers to buy within the right zone is becoming ever more intense, says Gavin Selbie of Jackson-Stops & Staff in Tunbridge Wells (01892 521700). He quotes a guide price of £1.75m for historic Monks Manor at Mayfield, East Sussex, a pretty, six-bedroom, medieval hall house set in 16 acres of gardens and grounds, with access to a wide choice of schools in both the State and private sectors.

Winchester also offers the dual benefits of commutability and access to good private and State schools, plus a fantastic community spirit which is much appreciated by families ‘upsizing’ from Fulham, Battersea or Wandsworth, George Clarendon of Knight Frank (01962 850333) points out. He’s poised to launch handsome, Grade II*-listed Durley Mill at Durley, on the banks of the River Hamble, 11 miles south of Winchester, at a guide price of £1.85m. For sale for the first time in 45 years, the mill has accommodation on three floors including four reception rooms, a conservatory, a sun room, six bedrooms and two bathrooms, plus the former mill workings and wheel house.

Damian Gray of Knight Frank in Oxford-another linchpin of the schools/commuter market-is in reflective mood. ‘It’s quite extraordinary,’ he muses, ‘how buyers who are totally depressed by the prevailing media wisdom that the world is about to end suddenly get very excited when a special house comes onto the market. But although the best houses continue to sell at a premium, we now need to work a lot harder to place anything that isn’t quite A-list’.

Knight Frank (01865 790077) are set to re-launch historic, Grade II*-listed Manor Farmhouse at Woodstock, eight miles from Oxford, onto the market at a reduced guide price of £1.4m, following its transfer from a rival agent. The impressive three-storey house, which dates from the 13th century, has four reception rooms, a kitchen/breakfast room, six bedrooms and two bathrooms.