Such is the shortage of country houses coming to the market that some buyers are copying the tactics of the Minutemen in the American Revolutionary War. Like the highly mobile forces that were able to be rapidly deployed to counter bellicose threats, those frustrated in their search for their ideal country house are choosing to wait in the wings and rent, poised to pounce once a suitable house emerges from the mists of the recession.
Particularly in the case of ‘expatriate’ Londoners moving to the country for the first time, the rent-before-you-buy approach is by no means a second-best option: it affords an opportunity to get to know an area better before settling permanently. With judicious use of time spent in the appropriate places (the local garage, pub or shop), it allows would-be buyers to plug into the local network, which should alert them to a house coming to the market before the official launch and if, as usually is the case, there’s a pressure on to decamp before a child starts at prep school, it removes the temptation of committing the expensive error of settling for the wrong house in the right place.
‘We’re definitely seeing this happen more and more,’ says Alison Bird of Savills’ lettings office in Henley (01491 843022). ‘People have made their decision to let out or sell the house in London and they just thought it was going to be easier to find the country house, so have had to resort to renting.’ What was once the great unspoken option has, over the past few years, become much more accepted. ‘The attitude to renting has really changed,’ adds Miss Bird. ‘Some are asking why they’d want to saddle themselves with a new mortgage, especially during these uncertain economic times. Renting gives you the flexibility to bail out or move elsewhere as the job demands.’
When compared to London prices, it’s also comparatively cheaper to rent a large family house in the countryside. ‘The differential between renting in London and renting in the countryside is great so, if they keep their place in London, it’s extra money in the pocket,’ explains Jonathan Bramwell of Prime Purchase (01608 810662). ‘Some of our clients are choosing to rent out the family house in Chelsea or Fulham, which can bring in £1,000 to £2,000 a week, and test the country water with a five-bedroom house in Hampshire or Oxfordshire that costs between £3,000 and £4,000 a month.’
International buyers who are putting their children through the public-school system and planned to find a base close to the school are now also opting to rent. ‘We’ve seen this happen more and more,’ says Mr Bram-well. ‘Instead, they take a five-year lease on a house (the length of time to put a child through private school), which gives them the flexibility to up sticks to a new school or another country-when term’s over. Taking on a longer-than-average tenancy sometimes allows us room to negotiate a small discount on the rent, too.’
There is a snag, however. The balance between supply and demand of country-house rentals is incredibly delicate and the recent promising signs of a returning market have encouraged plenty of so-called ‘accidental landlords’ to put their houses back on the market. ‘The balance of power has
shifted back to landlords, who are dictating terms and aren’t as willing to negotiate as they were this time last year,’ says Sarah Daly of Property Vision’s rental search service (01344 651700). In areas that are popular, such as the Cotswolds, houses are receiving multiple bids from would-be tenants.
‘There’s also a problem with expectations from clients when it comes to country-house rentals,’ explains Jane Russum from Strutt & Parker’s letting office in Banbury (01295 672095). ‘They have a certain image in their head-a period house with an Aga in the sticks-and the reality is that the choice is limited. We could do with a lot of people who own large country houses being offered jobs in Hong Kong or the Middle East and choosing to rent out their house in the meantime.’
Furthermore, by its very nature, renting is only a temporary solution, which has an expiry date. ‘We’re beginning to sense that, now that there’s a little more confidence coming out of the City, some wives are putting pressure on their husbands to put their bonuses to good use and settle somewhere more permanent,’ says Mr Bramwell.
* Keep expectations low: this is a temporary option
* Contracts tend to befor one year
* Small discounts are possible when taking on long-term contracts
* About halfway through the contract period,an option to end it may be offered
* Negotiate over any alterations/improvements made to a property
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