Slow, Slow, Quick-Quick, Slow

According to the latest Land Registry figures, the number of properties sold in England and Wales for more than £1 million rose in the final quarter of 2004 to 765?slightly more than the number sold in the final quarter of 2003. The figures bode well for the country-house market in 2005?

a market which set off in great style at the start of 2004, only to fade when the going got tough in the latter part of the year.

Crispin Holborow of Savills reflects on a year of ups and downs: ?The start and end of the year were the greatest surprises. The start because the top end of the market bounced back so quickly after a quiet 2003. Despite a much-reported downturn in mainstream property prices, the end of the year surprised us again, with a spate of contracts exchanged at the upper end of the country-house market.? In the last three months of 2004, his firm clinched sales of 21 country houses valued collectively at £83.2m.

Naturally, these elegant houses?and many others, some 3,577 in all?graced the advertisement pages of Country Life in the course of the year. Quite a few more than once, it must be said. This is the real story behind the graph (see Country Life, February 17, 2005) showing a slight increase in the volume of property advertising placed in the magazine in 2004, compared with that of the two previous years.

On the face of it, the twin peaks shown for each of the past three years show the traditional spring and autumn periods of major trading in the country-house market. In 2004, however, the first surge represents the rush of new properties in May and June last year; the second, autumn, surge is based on the reappearance of many of these properties, with a significant drop in the numbers of new country properties being offered for sale. As usual, the regional of property advertising in Country Life show the continued dominance of the South-East, followed by the South-West.

Yet, despite difficult trading conditions, the list of major sales achieved includes some of England?s finest country properties?among them the Harewood estate in Berkshire (£27.5m), the Eydon Hall estate in Northamptonshire (£11m), Chedington Court, Dorset (£7.175m), Pythouse (£7m) in Wiltshire, Ven House (£6.5m) in Dorset and Moundsmere in Hampshire (excess £6m), and the Drewton Manor estate in Yorkshire (£6m).

A sale is said to be ?imminent? in the case of last year?s highest-profile country property, Lord Hesketh?s Easton Neston estate in Northamptonshire (guide £50m), and the £9m Trewarthenick estate in Cornwall. Notable properties still on the market include the Chobham Park estate in Surrey (£15m), Mount House at Wentworth, Surrey, £10m and Hartlands in

St George?s Hill, Surrey (£9.5m), Old Titness at Sunningdale, Berkshire (£9.5m), and the Rushmore Hill estate in Kent (£8m). Having sold much of the outlying land, Bidwells are now offering the 727-acre Rowler Manor estate near Brackley, Northamptonshire, at £20m.

Despite the hiatus caused by the Governor of the Bank of England?s July bombshell and subsequent media predictions of gloom, a quick tour of England?s richest counties suggests that last autumn?s sudden ?reality check? will lead to a healthier, more sustainable, country-house market this spring.

According to John Denney of Hamptons International in Guildford, buyers of trophy houses in Surrey were conspicuous by their absence last year, and most houses priced at more than £5m failed to sell. Among them was the classic Chobham Park Estate (guide price, £15m) which is waiting quietly in the wings for this year?s expected upturn, Mr Denny says. And ritzy Park Close at Englefield Green was withdrawn from the market at £8m.

Below the £5m ceiling, it was much more ?business as usual?, and Logmore Farm at Westcott was one of several traditional country properties to find buyers in the £4.5 to £5m price bracket.

Whatever happened elsewhere last year, country-house buyers in Hampshire showed no sign of wobbling, and the county?s star properties all found buyers within weeks of appearing in Country Life. They included the splendid Deane House and Moundsmere, mentioned above, and the exquisite South Hall at Preston Candover, sold through Knight Frank for £5m.

It is a measure of the level of City jitters last year that the rural county of Sussex had more £1m-plus houses for sale in 2004 than the royal county of Berkshire. In Sussex 36% of houses were offered at between £1 and £2m; 27% at £2 to £5m.

Oxfordshire is another perennial source of good country houses and 2004 produced no exceptions. With few major estates on the market in Oxfordshire (or anywhere else, for that matter, with one or two notable exceptions), the eventual sale of the Buckland Park Estate near Faringdon, through Knight Frank at £3.95m, was a source of quiet celebration.

The highest-priced house currently on the market in Oxfordshire is Bolney Court, in fashionable Henley-on-Thames, offered at a guide price of £6.5m through Knight Frank.

With the exception of the glittering Harewood Estate in Windsor Great Park?sold with a guide of £27.5m?the trophy-house market in Berkshire took a bit of a hammering in 2004, with rich international buyers sitting on their hands to see which way the wind would blow. Top-of-the-range houses in the exclusive enclaves of Wentworth and Sunningdale were the county wallflowers, with classic rural properties in much greater demand. Knight Frank found a buyer for Hillfields Farm at Basildon at £6.4m.

It was a measure of the autumn slow-down in the Home Counties market that 49 country properties valued at more than £1m came on to the market in Kent between January and June 2004, and only 29 between July and December. But Savills found buyers late in the year for

the Dunmore Estate, at £6.25m, and Mersham Le Hatch at £3.4m.

The grass was much greener in rural Wiltshire, where the pick of the year?s crop of fine country properties all found buyers. Historic South Wraxall Manor, near Bradford-on-Avon found a buyer (or rather buyers) through Knight Frank and Lane Fox, being sold in lots for about £5m. The beautiful Eastcourt Estate near Malmesbury was brought to the market in June by Knight Frank and Butler Sherborn, and found a ready purchaser at £4.75m.

There were fewer high-profile country-house deals done in Gloucestershire last year, compared with previous years, with most activity concentrated on the £1.25m to £3m price bracket, says Rupert Sweeting of Knight Frank. A measure of the general lack of confidence was the breakdown of six or seven potential sales for minor reasons which would normally have been resolved by negotiation, Mr Sweeting says. Last year?s success stories include the sale of Edgeworth Manor, Sapperton, at £6m and Poulton Fields near Poulton for more than £4.75m.

Devon has been the darling of the country-house market in recent years, but even here, country-house agents found the going tough in 2004, struggling to find buyers for any property priced at more than £3m.

Robin Thomas of Strutt & Parker in Exeter can think of few sales which eclipsed that of the picturesque Endsleigh Estate, near Tavistock. On the market at a guide price of £3.25m, it has been bought by hotelier Olga Polizzi as a future bijou country-house hotel.

The farther north you go, the less the market appears to have been affected by the mood swings of the Capital. Canny northerners know not just the price, but also the value of things, and they hate the thought of paying over the odds. Yorkshire has many gorgeous country houses, the majority of which come on the market only once in a lifetime, and when they do, they fetch good money. The highlight of last year was the sale by Strutt & Parker of the Drewton Manor estate, for about £6m.

The same could be said of Cheshire, where the market last year was strongest in the £750,000 to £1.25m bracket, says Stephen Cheshire, of Jackson-Stops & Staff. High-profile properties valued at more than £3m were rather more difficult to place, especially in the latter part of the year, although Savills were able to find a buyer for the year?s most expensive Cheshire country property: Cogshall Hall and Grange, at Antrobus, at a guide price of £9m for the whole.

This article first appeared in COUNTRY LIFE on February 17, 2005. To subcribe, click here .