The recent period of instability in equity markets around the world, caused by a rising tide of defaults in the US sub-prime mortgage market, has surprised commentators and policy-makers alike both in terms of its severity and its duration, says Liam Bailey, head of research at Knight Frank, who expects financial markets and institutions to encounter further turbulence in the coming weeks and months. Global stockmarkets have lost 10% of their value in the past month alone, and there is a concern, Mr Bailey admits, that the prime UK property market, particularly in London and the South-East, ‘could cool rapidly’ should the financial services sector see a substantial downturn in profitability, jobs and income. City bonus earners in the worst-affected divisions are being warned to downgrade their expectations for this year by 10% to 20%.
However, leading country-house agents are adamant that, given the continuing strength of demand and shortage of supply in the country-house sector, this worst-case scenario is unlikely to happen, or, at any rate, not in the foreseeable future. Patrick Ramsay of Knight Frank views the turbulence as ‘a squall rather than a storm’ even if this year’s bonuses don’t match last year’s record £8.8 billion, they will, however, still be generous enough which should have little adverse effect on what promises to be a busy autumn. ‘So far,’ Mr Ramsay insists, ‘there are no signs of buyers, City-based or otherwise, putting their purchasing on hold, and, although the City bonus net may not be spread as wide this time round, at worst, I can see the market changing down a gear, not coming to a grinding halt.’
Nor does Michael Fiddes of Strutt & Parker see cause for autumn gloom and doom, pointing to high levels of unsatisfied demand among purchasers who have not yet managed to buy a property with bonuses earned last year, or even the year before. ‘People tend to forget that whenever a “crisis” occurs in the financial sector, it’s never one-way traffic there is always someone who is making money out of it, and that is the case now.’ So with the Bank of England under pressure to keep interest rates on hold for a bit longer, Strutt & Parker expect to see ‘business as usual’ for at least the next few months.
Crispin Holborow of Savills is also bullish about the short-term prospects for the country property market. He cites the example of the last stockmarket crash in 2001, the effects of which took a full 18 months to filter through. Obviously, no right-minded estate agent would ever talk the market down, but Savills will be backing brave words with positive action in next week’s Country Life, when no fewer than 100 individual properties, worth a combined total of about £150 million, will be launched on the market simultaneously to kick-start the firm’s autumn campaign.
Whatever happens in the City, a good country house will always sell. For years, Tim Waring of Knight Frank in Harrogate wondered what lay behind the high stone wall surrounding a house in exclusive High Bond End, Knaresborough, North York-shire. Now he knows, as Knight Frank (01423 530088) are handling the sale of one of the North’s ‘hidden gems’, the classic Georgian Kirkman Bank, built by the Collins family in the early 1700s, and currently on the market for the first time ever, following Lady Collins’ death last year at the grand old age of 87. The unlisted house (described by Mr Waring as ‘elegantly tired’) has three reception rooms, nine bed-rooms and five bathrooms, plus a cottage, outbuildings and 8.4 acres of gardens, parkland, orchard and paddocks, and comes with a guide price of £1.75 million.
Like an oil tanker, it takes time for the country-house market to change course or slow down. For one thing, the logistics of buying or selling a house in the country are more complex than a move from one part of London to another, so having made their decision, country buyers and sellers are less inclined to change their minds. Baroness van Tuyll, for instance, will be taking with her ‘a whole menagerie of dogs, horses, pigs and goats’, when, early next year, she moves from Felix Place at Kelvedon, Essex, her home of the past 35 years, to a new country property in Suffolk.
Meanwhile, Strutt & Parker (01245 258201) are selling Felix Place with a guide price of £3.2m on behalf of the van Tuyll family trust. During her tenure, the baroness has considerably improved the 4,500sq ft house, which was built in 1895 as a secondary house to nearby Felix Hall. She created superb equestrian breeding and training facilities within the property’s 50 acres of paddocks and pasture, from where her daughter rode a string of top-level event horses to international success. Coincidentally, selling agent Adrian Bagnall reveals a 300-acre farm abutting Felix Place is also on the market, which means a new owner could create a serious country estate in this sought-after corner of Essex for a further £1m, or less.
Old rectories rank high on every country buyer’s wish list, and Savills celebrate the launch of their new Cheltenham office (01242 548000) with the sale of two fine examples of the genre. The Georgian Olde Rectory at Whitbourne, Worcestershire, has three reception rooms, seven bedrooms, five bathrooms, five holiday cottages and three acres of gardens and grounds, and is for sale at £2.2m, with a separate four-bedroom house available at £525,000. Across the county boundary in Herefordshire, offers over £1.5m are invited for the Grade I-listed, seven-bedroom Old Rectory at Eastnor, built by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1849, which stands in 8.5 acres of landscaped gardens and pasture.