Who Buys Britain’s Best Country Houses?

For more than a century, the property advertisement pages of Country Life have been a source of fascination for the magazine?s readers, and the world at large. But what happens to all those ?drop-dead gorgeous? houses once the spotlight has moved on? Who buys Britain?s best country properties? What are buyers looking for? Where do they concentrate their search? And having found the house of their dreams, how much do they pay for it?

In a bid to provide some answers, the Country Life Property Buyers Survey analyses the details of 100 prime country properties sold in 2004 for £2 million or more using data extracted from the Country Life Elite Property Index (CLEPI) which logs every property advertised in the magazine. For reasons of confidentiality, we cannot identify the buyers of individual properties, but we can offer an intriguing insight into the arcane workings of the exclusive upper end of Britain?s country-property market.

In 1985, £2m was a huge amount of money which would have bought a grand Georgian house with 250 acres in the Cotswolds; today, that same property would cost about £10m. In 1985, the archetypal buyer with £2m to spend on a country house would either have had inherited wealth, or been a captain of industry or a City merchant banker; in most cases, he would have been British, and aged between 45 and 55.

According to Rupert Bradstock of buying agents Property Vision, today?s country-house buyers are a different breed: nowadays, only about 10% have inherited wealth, 10% are captains of industry, 20% are bankers, and a further 20% City traders, lawyers, accountants or other professionals. But by far the greatest proportion?40%?are entrepreneurs in their thirties and early forties?something ?almost unheard of? 20 years ago.

Just as today?s £2m-plus buyers come from a wide variety of backgrounds, so today?s £2m-plus houses can be found scattered throughout the UK, and no longer solely in the richest counties of the south-east of England. So great is the current demand for ?the right house? anywhere in the country that prospective purchasers are prepared to rent in an area for three years or more, until that right house comes along. But the record for patience surely belongs to a client of Northamptonshire agents Berrys, who spent 16 years in rented accommodation before buying the house he really wanted.

James Laing of Strutt & Parker attributes the recent phenomenal rise in country-property values to three main factors: a revolution in communications and technology, the expansion of provincial cities such as Exeter, Bristol, Leeds, Leicester and Cambridge, and competition among families to live close to Britain?s best private schools.

?Ease of communication has always been the driving force behind the country-house market,? Mr Laing points out. ?In the 1930s, the introduction of commuter trains sent City businessmen to live in the countryside in Surrey, Kent and Sussex; in the 1970s and 1980s, the motorways sent high-powered Londoners out along the M3 and M4 corridors; now, thanks to email, mobile phones and the internet, international high-flyers can run their businesses from anywhere.?

On the other hand, high-earners in the City who need to be at their desks by 7am are either buying large family houses in trendy parts of London to live in during the week, with a cottage in the country for weekends, or are commuting daily from a large family house in the inner Home Counties. With 187 houses for sale at £2m or more in 2004, Surrey is the first choice of many City high-flyers. ?This is PAYE country par excellence,? says Mark Wheeler of Hamptons in Guildford, many of whose clients are City-based workers in their thirties with £3?4m to spend on a family house.

Chelsea footballers are high-profile purchasers of large new houses within a few miles radius of their new training ground near Cobham. ?They wouldn?t dream of driving round in a second-hand car, so why would they want a second-hand house?? asks Richard Winter of Savills. Brompton Court in Oxshott?a seven-bedroom mansion with a swimming pool, a spa complex and automatic irrigation for the garden?was the answer to one footballer?s prayer in 2004.

Bankers and ?top-end professionals? will push the boat out for an Arts-and-Crafts house in the Surrey hills, or a Queen Anne gem such as Old House at Pyrford, which sold last year for about £4m. Members of the legal and medical professions were among those who bought 17th-century Surrey farmhouses with land and stabling in 2004.

Overseas buyers (mainly Americans, Russians, Europeans and, to a lesser extent, those from the Middle East) tend to choose east Berkshire for its proximity to the West End, Heathrow airport and international schools. Ascot, Sunningdale and Windsor are prime target areas; one of last year?s major sales was that of Old Titness at Sunningdale, sold to a Russian businessman for about £10m. In the west of the county, the £2m-plus market is driven by well-off British families looking to buy close to the best English public and prep schools.

A property developer in his thirties, a clutch of city bankers in their forties, and a forty-something lawyer were among those who bought multi-million-pound houses round Newbury in 2004.

According to buying agent Colin Mackenzie, the country-house market in West Sussex is driven by a mix of West End-based entrepreneurs, senior finance directors and CEOs, who need fast access to London, via Gatwick, and the two main international airports. In East Sussex and Kent, however, half will be City ?high-rollers? (brokers and bankers), the other half locally based entrepreneurs running their own specialised businesses, with the occasional ?gentleman? who runs his own portfolio from home and travels to London for sporadic meetings, just to leaven the mix.

With few exceptions, rich people are intensely media-shy, and tend to steer clear of areas which become popular with celebrities. These days, buyers with ?old money??merchant bankers, company chairmen, and the like?are more likely to pay £5m or £6m for a classic Georgian house in Hampshire than an Elizabethan manor in the Cotswolds.

Stately Hamp- shire is still very much ?a family county? which draws well-heeled Londoners back to their roots once they start to have children. Good schools and civilised surroundings make Winchester attractive to Fulham-based families moving out of London.

In 2004, some 66 houses were for sale in Hampshire at more than £2m, either privately, or on the open market. In 2004, a 40-year-old City trader from Hampshire was one of several who traded up last year to a £2m-plus village house.

Ease of access to London is the main reason why ?City boys? choose to live in the still-rural counties of Buckingham- shire and Hertfordshire. In the former, the market centres on Beaconsfield which, in house-buying terms, now rivals Guildford as one of the most expensive towns in Britain. With Denham still a focus for the film and television industries, media people are drawn to rural Buckinghamshire, where last year, Vale Farm at Kimble Wick was sold to a media professional. A property developer in his forties and a 50-year-old entrepreneur were among those who bought large country properties in Hertfordshire.

Countrywide, Knight Frank sold more than 100 houses for upwards of £2m in 2004, and had another 500 applicants waiting for the ?right? £2m-plus house at any one time. Many of the firm?s best sales were in the Cotswolds, where the market is increasingly ?school- led?, says the firm?s Rupert Sweeting. No fewer than 128 houses were on offer at more than £2m in Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire last year, a measure of the area?s sustained popularity, in spite of its much-trumpeted change in demo-graphics. A property developer in his thirties was one of several new squires who bought manor houses in the Cots-wolds last year.

With good motorway and rail connections, Wiltshire is increasingly the preserve of ?the three-day commuter??senior London-based bankers and professionals who can afford both a city pied-à-terre and a family home in the country, where their children can attend the best schools. Surprisingly for such a rural county, 23 houses in Wiltshire were priced at more than £2m last year. Buyers of properties sold in the county for more than £3m also included a businessman in his fifties, and a pop star in his forties. On the other hand, a farm in rural Somerset was the choice of more than one successful businessman retiring from the fray.

Buyers for serious properties at more than £2m were relatively thin on the ground in Devon last year, and the sale of the idyllic Endsleigh Estate at £3m to hotelier Olga Polizzi was one of the season?s highlights. But the West Country sale of the year was undoubtedly that, through Savills, of the £9m Trewarthenick Estate on Cornwall?s Roseland Peninsula to a London-based British businessman.

West Midlands businessmen lead the market for country houses at £2m and upwards in Worcestershire; just such a buyer bought the historic, Grade II*-listed Rous Lench Court, near Evesham, last year.

A good illustration of the current mobility in the country-house market is provided by Worcester-based Andrew Grant who last year sold the Great House at Leigh to a lady from North Shropshire, who was down-sizing following the death of her husband. He had previously sold the same house to a builder from the south of England, a footballer, and a company director from Yorkshire and his wife, whose marriage ended in divorce.

Over in East Anglia, the country-house market is still driven by the London buyer, although Cambridge?s flourishing technology sector has created its own micro-market locally. In the northern counties of Cheshire and Yorkshire, however, the market is driven almost exclusively by buyers from within their own counties.

The market for Cheshire?s trophy houses is dominated by successful businessmen from Manchester, and footballers?not just from Manchester United, but also Liverpool, Everton, Blackburn and Manchester City. Local

businessmen and property professionals were among those who bought historic country properties in north Cheshire last year.

Yorkshire country-house buyers, meanwhile, are getting younger by the year. Among those who bought houses in the county for more than £2m in 2004 were a businessman in his twenties, another in his early thirties, and a third in his forties. This being Yorkshire, they were all British, of course.

This article was originally published in Country Life magazine, June 9, 2005. To subscribe click here.