The tectonic plates upon which the country-house market operates are shifting as the credit crunch bites down hard on private finances. On a positive note, this means that buyers with a budget of £1-million plus—in agents’ speak, the prime market can definitely expect to get more for their money than they could 12 to 18 months ago, as the market corrects the spiralling prices of recent years.

But where are they heading to take advantage of such bargains? One would expect that prices and demand for prime country houses would decrease as the distance from the capital increased, but research for Country Life by Savills has found that buyers are prepared to put up with a longer commute to live somewhere they perceive to be more rural than many of the Home Counties.

What £1 million buys outside of London London currently accounts for just under a third of all the £1-million-plus demand that passes through Savills’ offices. Outside of the capital, the next five most popular counties are dominated by those that immediately abut London, including the commuter belt villages in Surrey, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire.

In these areas, those moving out of London will find that their money buys roughly the same number of bedrooms as in prime areas of outer London (such as Weybridge, Esher, and Oxshott), but the bonus is more than 200sq ft more interior space. It’s often taken as a given that the £1-million-plus market is fuelled by City buyers who need to be on a fast line to Waterloo, so it comes as rather a surprise to discover that Oxfordshire attracts the greatest interest from the prime-country-house buyer. ‘This reflects the draw of good schools in the area and the abundance of ‘trophy’ towns [attractive market towns with good shops and services], such as Henley, Watlington and Burford,’ says director of residential research Lucian Cook.

Tessa Carnegie from property search agents Garrington’s Henley office reports that Oxfordshire is showing more resilience to the market downturn, and puts that down to its ability to provide everything that a country-house buyer desires. ‘It has excellent transport links, is within easy reach of London, has good schools, glorious countryside and some really beautiful properties that aren’t too remote. It ticks a lot of boxes for many purchasers.’

The South-West is best More buyers are choosing to live in the South-West rather than the commuting counties of Kent and Sussex. Indeed, the demand for properties in Dorset, Wiltshire, Somerset and Gloucestershire means that you actually buy less house for your money than in the East of England (5.11 bedrooms versus 5.34 bedrooms and about 500sq ft less space). ‘It’s an amazing phenomenon, but reflects buyers’ aspirational demands,’ says Mr Cook. ‘People are accepting longer commutes so that they can live somewhere that they see as truly rural. They believe that they’re more likely to find a house and location that lives up to their imagined idyll in Dorset and Somerset than in Cambridgeshire and Essex, which are perceived to be busy and not the “real” countryside.’

Dawn Carritt of Jackson-Stops & Staff adds: ‘The South-West strikes the right note for those wanting to escape the hectic pace of London and the commuter areas of the South-East. Many come to know the South-West first as a holiday destination, and gravitate there when the draw of London starts to fade.’ Meanwhile, the highest-ranking northern county is Cheshire (‘the Surrey of the North’) followed closely by Northumberland. Buyers in the £1-million-plus bracket are still more likely to head north to these counties before they consider taking their money to Norfolk. However, it’s in rural Scotland where it’s possible to get the most from your £1 million: on average, 6.47 bedrooms and 5,520 sq ft.

Top 20 counties for £1m-plus-house applications

1 London 31.4%
2 Oxfordshire 16.5%
3 Surrey 15.0%
4 Buckinghamshire 13.3%
5 Berkshire 13.0%
6 Hertfordshire 11.7%
7 Hampshire 11.4%
8 Dorset 11.4%
9 Wiltshire 10.8%
10 Somerset 10.3%
11 Gloucestershire 9.5%
12 Kent 9.1%
13 West Sussex 7.7%
14 Bristol, City of 7.2%
15 West Midlands 7.1%
16 Cambridgeshire 6.9%
17 East Sussex 6.8%
18 Devon 6.6%
19 Essex 5.8%
20 Bedfordshire 5.2%

The figures are the proportion of all buyers who are looking in each location, bearing in mind that many will spread their search across several counties
Savills Research