Country houses for sale

The country-house market in 2010

In January last year, Liam Bailey, head of residential research at Knight Frank, advised country-property watchers to ‘expect the market to weaken in 2010, but don’t expect Armageddon’. In the end, things turned out rather better than that, as the market chugged valiantly though the choppy waters of a year plagued by political uncertainty and financial turmoil at home and abroad. It marks a surprisingly positive trend, given the overall state of the nation, which was reflected in a 42% rise in the number of country properties advertised in the pages of Country Life in 2010, compared with the market’s nadir in 2009.

There has been sold, if unspectacular, progress of the UK country-property market, set against the backdrop of a steadily rising prime London market, and in sharp contrast to the erratic performance of the FTSE 100 and the soaring price of gold-always a sign of market nerves when times are bad.

Even the dearth of ‘trophy’ house and estate sales, a significant feature of 2010, appears to have been reversed in recent weeks. Knight Frank and Savills both report a late surge in the sale of high-value properties, suggesting that those elusive City buyers may at last be emerging from the shadows.

At the upper end of the country house market, where access to mortgage finance is rarely a major problem, sales were hampered earlier in the year by ‘a conspicuous lack of realignment’ between the aspirations of vendors and those of buyers, with vendors of high-value properties quoting prices at levels ‘between 30% and 40% above reality’, says Edward Sugden of buying agents Property Vision.

But that didn’t prevent a handful of exceptional properties being sold in the autumn, among them Heads Farm, racehorse trainer Charles Egerton’s splendid 703-acre estate at Chaddleworth on the Berkshire Downs, through Fisher German and Knight Frank. It went to a buyer with strong City connections, and, reputedly, for more than its £9.25 million guide price.

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Hard on the heels of a busy late autumn in 2009, the country house market in Hampshire got off to a solid start in January 2010 with the launch onto the market, through Savills, of the delightful, Grade II*-listed, Georgian Ropley House near Alresford, Hampshire. It went under offer in mid-March for more than its £4.25m guide price. A month later, in snowy February, Knight Frank found a London buyer for elegant, Grade II-listed Apsley House near Andover, Hampshire, a substantial 18th-century manor house set right at the heart of the Apsley estate.

The big guns were also out early in East Anglia. Savills launched Worlingham Hall, with a secondary house and 100 acres of parkland near Beccles, Suffolk, on the market in early March with a guide price of £3.9m for the whole; a buyer was signed up by June. And Louis de Soissons of Savills in Norwich scored 10 out of 10 for artistic merit with the sale of two fine houses previously owned by well-known painters. The picturesque, Victorian- Gothic Grange at Little Plumstead, east of Norwich-former home of the late Bennett Oates, an oil painter renowned for his classic flower studies-was successfully offered in May at a guide price of £3m. And the classic Regency Clermont Hall at Little Cressingham in Breckland, south Norfolk, sold quickly following its launch in mid September for more than its £1.85m guide price, after years of painstaking restoration by the late Philip Jones, the talented, but little-publicised, abstract painter. Throughout 2010, landowners, farmers and investors alike kept their eyes on the eastern counties, where land values continue to outperform the national average.

Savills set the pace for the UK estates market in mid-March with the launch onto the market of the peerless Chadacre estate near Long Melford, Suffolk, at a guide price of ‘excess £10m’. For centuries the seat of the Plampin family and later of London banker Thomas Hallifax, the 680-acre property is the epitome of a grand English country estate, with a magnificently restored Regency hall, surrounded by gardens, parkland, estate farmhouses and cottages, farmland and sporting woodlands. The response was electric, and Chadacre sold within four weeks for an estimated 60% more than the asking price.

Meanwhile, Strutt & Parker tied up the loose ends on the biggest estate sale since Easton Neston-that of the prestigious, 2,050-acre Kiddington estate near Woodstock, Oxfordshire, which came to the market in September 2009 at a guide price of £42m for the whole. Contracts were exchanged in March on Kiddington Hall, with its core buildings and surrounding 466 acres of land, at about £15m-the rest of the estate was sold to a single buyer.

In all, more than a dozen estates were sold for more than £10m in 2010, with Knight Frank and Savills generally sharing the spoils. In addition to Heads Farm, Knight Frank found buyers for the Enstone Manor estate in Oxfordshire for close to the £12m guide price, and the spectacularly beautiful, 866-acre West Lodge estate at Iwerne Minster, Dorset, which came to the market in July with a similar £12m price-tag. Prospective purchasers jetted in from Europe, Australia and the USA to view the immaculate sporting estate with its iconic, Grade I listed house, built in 1753 by John Pitt, the architect of nearby Encombe, and the last surviving royal hunting lodge in the Cranborne Chase. In addition to Chadacre, Savills took the honours with the sale of the historic, 780-acre Moor Place estate at Much Hadham, Hertfordshire, which failed to find a buyer at a guide price of £17.5m when launched by a rival agent in September 2009. A revised guide price of £14m was eventually exceeded when it came back to the market in June 2010. And the guide price of ‘excess £12m’ quoted by Balfours and Savills for the 1,300-acre Shakenhurst estate on the Worcestershire/ Shropshire border, launched in Country Life in June, was also surpassed after strong bidding from a number of parties.

The market for country houses valued at more than £5m was just as tricky, and only the best were deemed good enough by some increasingly demanding purchasers. Nevertheless, Rupert Sweeting of Knight Frank reports an increase of 12% in sales of houses in this price category compared with 2009, most of which were centred on the Home Counties, where the ripple-effect from the London market has been most closely felt. The Surrey market also perked up with the sale of Dalegarth in Esher (guide price: £9.75m), Hawks Hill near Guildford (£6.95m) and Hollow Lane House near Virginia Water (£8m). Further afield, enquiries ‘flooded in’ from the UK and overseas following the launch in April of the elegant Regency Crowe Hall with 30 acres of historic gardens and grounds overlooking Prior Park in Bath, Somerset, resulting in a sale for more than the £6m guide price. But it’s not too surprising that the highest-priced country house of the year, historic Cowdray Park, with its surrounding 100 acres of parkland and polo grounds, at Midhurst, West Sussex, has yet to find a buyer at an asking price of £25m, following a September launch.

Savills sold 49 houses for £5m-plus, among them Grade II*-listed Conock Manor with 472 acres near Devizes, Wiltshire, which fetched more than its £7.325m asking price, and Holt Manor, also in Wiltshire, which sold for less than its £5.95m guide price to the successful vendor of The Nunnery estate in West Sussex. A final flourish at year-end saw the sale of imposing Chesters House with 87 acres near Hexham, Northumberland, after more than a year on the market. Built by John Carr for John Errington of Warwick in 1771 and extended by Norman Shaw in 1891, the 11-bedroom mansion was sold in November for close to its £6.5m guide-the highest price paid in years for a house of its type in the North, says Crispin Holborow of Savills.

Generally speaking, the further you went from London, the harder things got in 2010. Even in the Cotswolds, local agent Sam Butler has been weathering one of the most difficult periods of 30 years of trading. Yet demand still outstrips supply, and his area remains one of the most buoyant in the country. It’s a view confirmed by Atty Beor- Roberts of Knight Frank in Cirencester, who has agreed 18 sales in recent weeks, including that of the highest-priced house offered on the open market in the region this year, Farmington Lodge at Northleach, Gloucestershire, at a guide price of £8.5m.

After years in the pipeline, Kent’s high-speed rail link is finally up and running, and, according to Simon Backhouse of Strutt & Parker in Canterbury, it has been the saviour of the country-house market this year, not only attracting commuters to the area, but conveying them safely through the recent snow, thanks to its overhead power line.

One sale that underlines the unpredictability of the current market was that of Denne Manor at Chilham, near Canterbury, which sat on the market for more than six months following its launch in September last year, then suddenly found a buyer, at around the £3m guide price, at his firm’s Open House Day in April 2010.

Mr Backhouse’s East Sussex counterpart, Tim Page-Ratcliff in Lewes, celebrated the creation of the new South Downs National Park with the sale in June, at £4.4m, of The Gallops at Ditchling, a pristine, 140-acre equestrian paradise and one of few trophy houses offered in East Sussex this year. The market for coastal houses in the South and West has also been subdued, perhaps because most of the best coastal properties are second homes, whose owners are disinclined to sell in a falling market unless they absolutely have to. But Robin Thomas of Strutt & Parker in Exeter managed to find a buyer, for the fifth time in 12 years, of Regency Upper Cobb House at Lyme Regis, Dorset, for close to its £2.45m guide price. The north-south divide in the UK property market has been well aired in the media this year, but north of the Border in Scotland, it has been a very unusual year, reveals Jamie Macnab of Savills in Edinburgh. ‘It started with great promise and some very high-value sales including 9, The Links at St Andrews, which was bought by a Canadian for in excess of £3.75m. Disruption in the spring caused by the General Election and Emergency Budget left the top end of the market worst affected, whereas houses in the £450,000-£750,000 price bracket continued to sell. However, there seems to have been a sea change in recent weeks, with buyers who viewed properties weeks or even months ago coming back with offers, and sellers of houses that have been on the market for months beginning to accept them.’

Other Scottish agents who found the second half of 2010 more rewarding than the first include Andrew Rettie of Strutt & Parker, who presided over the sale of three prime sporting estates. Firstly, the Dalness estate at Glen Etive, Argyll, which came to the market at ‘offers over £2.7m’ in April, and sold for a 20% premium after competition bidding among buyers from the UK, Scandinavia, the Netherlands and the Middle East. Then, the Ardfin esate on the Isle of Jura, launched in July at ‘offers over £5m’, which evoked interest from the UK, Europe, the USA and Australia, and sold for ‘substantially’ more than the asking price. As did the Glenprosen estate at Kirriemuir, Angus, launched in September at ‘offers over £3m’, which attracted buyers from the UK and Europe, and also sold for considerably more than its asking price. Finally, the end of the year brought an early Christmas present for Michael Jones of Knight Frank with the December 1 completion of the sale, to a Scottish buyer, of the historic 3,173-acre Leys Castle estate near Inverness, which launched in July at a guide price of £7m. At its heart sits a Category A-listed Tudor Gothic castle built by the architect and theatre designer Samuel Beazley for Col John Baillie in 1833.