After death, debt and divorce, downsizing is the last of the d-words that move the country-house market, but when is the best time to decamp? Roderick Easdale finds out

By Roderick Easdale

All but the most determined country-house owners are faced with the question at some stage during their tenureship: is it better to address the inevitable head-on and give up the reins early, or hold on tight so that the next generation of grandchildren can enjoy the house, too? But recent Inheritance Tax legislation, which penalises properties worth more than £2 million, might bring this consideration into clearer perspective.

The over-65s have property wealth of more than £1 trillion tied up in properties with no mortgage debt and more than half of this group is estimated to be living in homes bigger than they need—or so the figures state.

This equity is increasingly being released either to fund the family’s younger generations—channelled into private-school fees or deposits for children’s properties—or to buy two properties instead, with one maybe overseas or a pied-a-terre in town. There are, of course, many practical considerations involved, including whether your current home may now be too large and expensive to run, but also where you are moving to. Those staying locally can probably move later in life, as they already have a local social circle and support network.

Those going to a new area may want to do it when young enough to throw themselves into new societies and clubs, to be able to share driving duties and so on, thereby establishing a network for when they may become more dependent on others.

David Carter of Savills in Guildford (01483 796827) says his office has seen a large number of downsizers taking the opportunity to move back to the city: ‘Over the past year, we’ve seen a huge increase in retiring sellers in rural areas moving into a town or closer to London, having, at one point, moved out for schools and bigger houses. The appeal is the ease of lifestyle and not being reliant on a car. Our downsizers are increasingly attracted to leafy yet bustling south-west London areas, such as Barnes, Richmond and Clapham, and some look to include a small overseas purchase, too.’

Be they in towns or the countryside, new-build houses are an attractive option for downsizers for two practical reasons: they’re easier to manage and often come with better security, so can be left for longer periods. Plus, adds Camilla Dell at Black Brick (020–3141 9861), urban new-builds have added conveniences: ‘New-builds are popular, as they can often offer lateral living with a porter, parking and a lift.’

The other option is to go for a—take a deep breath—‘retirement community’. Richard Barber of WA Ellis (020– 7306 1624) thinks these are worthy of consideration, because ‘they offer a lifestyle, sense of community and access to in-house care, should it be required’. Yet properties ideal for discerning elderly downsizers still aren’t plentiful, especially in comparison to the US, where one in six over-60s lives in a dedicated retirement community, or Australia and New Zealand, where one in eight does.

It’s not just the location and type of property that make finding the perfect downsize house difficult, says Richard Brooks of Savills in Bristol (0117–933 5803): ‘Downsizers are more discerning than most. Those moving from a substantial house don’t want to compromise on room dimensions—they just want fewer rooms. They’re also looking for a shop and bus stop within walking distance and a sense of life around them.’

Getting the balance right is tricky, as Robin Chatwin of Savills South West London (020–3430 6905) points out: ‘Downsizers want a property with flexible space that’s still big enough to host Christmas, but doesn’t feel so big that the space is redundant for the rest of the year.’ With this in mind, Mr Barber says: ‘My number-one tip to anyone contemplating downsizing is to de-clutter rigorously first, so you can gauge properly how much space you’ll need in your new home.’

‘But the question must be more about enjoyment of life than anything else,’ reckons James Grillo of Henry Adams (01428 644002). ‘Is the family home still a joy to live in or is it now an expensive concern? That short-lease flat in London, with its restaurants, shops, theatres and galleries, may well be looking more attractive, especially if the landlord is responsible for the fabric of the building. But if you can’t stand the thought of giving up your space, garden and life among the memories of the family home, then why move?’

Perfect downsizer: The White House is within walking distance of all the amenities in Framlingham, Suffolk. It has four bedrooms, wellproportioned reception rooms and a courtyard garden. £650,000 through Jackson-Stops & Staff (01473 218218)