Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and, as we move into autumn, many perfectly good country houses that looked well-enough priced when they were launched in the spring, but have so far failed to sell, are now seeing their prices reduced-often by substantial amounts. In most cases, the reductions reflect the urgency of the vendor’s need to move on, and are probably a last throw of the dice in a bid to secure a sale before the end of the year. ‘This seasonal change of tune has tipped the scale in favour of buyers, who are definitely out there waiting for the right house-but only at what they perceive to be the right price’, says Nick Warner of buying agents Prime Purchase.

Ah, but what is the ‘right’ price in the kind of stuttering country-house market we have seen all year? Although no two country houses are exactly the same, rural property agents tend to rely on the prices achieved by roughly comparable properties within a given area when advising vendors on setting a guide price. Generally speaking, that comparable evidence has been lacking this year, even in the very best locations.

Larkstoke

An example of the conundrum faced by country-house agents in the current market is provided by pristine Larkstoke Manor (pictured) at Ipsden, near fashionable Goring-on-Thames, south Oxfordshire, launched in March this year at a guide price of £6 million through Knight Frank (01491 844900) and Strutt & Parker (01189 845757). A few weeks later, the same agents launched Grade II*-listed The Ham, the late Sir Simon Hornby’s country home near the slightly less fashionable Wantage, Oxfordshire, at a guide price of ‘excess £6 million’.

The Ham found a buyer; Larkstone Manor did not, despite ticking nine, if not 10, of those famous ‘boxes’. Set in 24 acres of immaculate gardens and parkland at the foot of the Chiltern Hills AONB, the recently extended six-bedroom manor house, which comes with a coach house, swimming pool and tennis court, is now ripe for the picking at £4.9m.

In normal times, the launch onto the market by Knight Frank (01962 850333) of a classic Hampshire manor house of the calibre of Grade II*-listed Woodcote Manor with 101 acres at Bramdean, near Alresford, would have seen a stampede of London buyers heading down the M3. But these are not normal times, selling agent George Clarendon notes ruefully, and, despite plenty of interest and lots of viewings, no potential purchaser has so far felt sufficiently pressurised by rival buyers to commit to a deal. Mr Clarendon hopes that the recent reduction in guide price, from £7.75m to £6.9m will do the trick.

Illustrious Woodcote Manor certainly has everything going for it. In medieval times, occupancy of the manor was linked to custody of the king’s jail in Winchester, before it was bought by the Venables family in the 17th century. In 1911, the present Queen Anne-style façade was built around the original 15th-/17th-century core by Sir Reginald Blomfield, who also added the splendid reception hall, with its wonderful oak panelling and ceiling plasterwork. Blomfield also redesigned the gardens and parkland.

The imposing, 14,000sq ft house has been completely renovated by its current owner, who now wants to downsize. It has three grand reception rooms, a sitting room and study, a superb kitchen/breakfast room, five bedroom suites, two further bedrooms, two self-contained flats and
a three-bedroom cottage. Out-buildings include a coach house, stables, and a barn.

The gardens include a tennis court and pool. When Dunmore House at Four Elms, near Sevenoaks, Kent, was launched on the market at a guide price of £5.75m in February this year (Country Life, February 16, 2011), few houses had been sold in the UK for more than £5 million since the recession began. At the time, I suggested that ‘a successful early outcome in the case of Dunmore House would provide a powerful shot in the arm for the top end of the country house market not only in Kent, but throughout the Home Counties’. That didn’t happen (at least, not in Kent), and, following a change of agent, Dunmore House is now on the market with Knight Frank (01732 744477) at a revised guide price of £4.95m. ‘No matter how good a house is, buyers are simply not prepared to pay a premium at the moment’, comments selling agent Ed Rook.

Despite its lack of history, there’s no question that Dunmore House is a good property. Built as a holiday home for the clergy in 1938, it was sold after the war to become the main house of the Greenaway family’s 2,000-acre Dunmore estate, which was broken up and sold off in 2004. The house was bought with 25 acres of grounds by Yorkshire-born businessman Colin Graves and his wife, Sharon, who have completely renovated it, adding a substantial new wing, and luxurious leisure facilities, including an all-weather tennis court, an indoor pool and spa, and state-of-the-art equestrian facilities, such as an Olympic-size floodlit arena. But they now wish to move back north, hence the sale of 8,200sq ft Dunmore House, which has four reception rooms, an orangery, a kitchen/breakfast room, four bedroom suites, two further bedrooms, a family bathroom and a separate three-bedroom cottage.

Autumn is also the season of ‘musical chairs’ in the country-house market, as owners change agents, together with prices, in a bid to revive interest in their properties. ‘Some people are delighted to play “second agent”, as it means they can cash in on the work put in by the original agent, who probably wasn’t allowed to reduce the asking price,’ says William Duckworth-Chad of Savills, who has taken over the sale of charming Abbotshay Farm at Ayot St Lawrence, near Welwyn, Hertfordshire, from a rival agent who launched the property earlier in the year at a guide price of £4.5m.

Savills (01582 465000) are now asking £3.95m for the Grade II-listed family house set in 12.5 acres of gardens, paddocks and woodland in ‘arguably the best village in Hertfordshire’. Lovingly maintained by its present owners, who have lived there for 22 years, roomy Abbotshay Farm has four reception rooms, a study, a conservatory, a kitchen/breakfast room, nine bedrooms, five bathrooms, an indoor pool, a tennis court, a two-bedroom cottage and a large entertainment barn. Outbuildings include a stable yard with three loose boxes and a hay store.