British buyers are obsessed by Georgian architecture, the Chinese will only have new-builds and the Russians want urban bling. National stereotypes of prime property buyers abound, but is there a kernel of truth in them?
The consensus among agents is that, although cultural differences do exist, the global elites are beginning to embrace the breadth and diversity of British property- starting with country houses. Philip Harvey of buying agents Property Vision believes that the primary requirement for all international buyers is an exceptional calibre of finish. From high ceilings to luxury fittings and lighting, ‘they really want very high quality. Style is not as important’.
Standards need to be just as high in the garden. Unlike the British, who often ‘want a house at the centre of 500 or more acres’, according to Rupert Sweeting of Knight Frank, the international market doesn’t usually look for much land. However, what little they buy must be perfectly manicured. Russian buyers can be very demanding on this front, according to Mr Harvey, who reveals that one of his clients set up several tea houses in different parts of his garden so he could soak up whichever leafy view was best at each time of the day.
A breathtaking panorama is obviously high on the wish list of affluent buyers from virtually every country, including the British, but, says Mr Harvey, it’s something that’s especially prized by foreign nationals. In particular, the Chinese value being close to a body of water because ‘it adheres to the principles of Feng Shui,’ according to Phillippa Dalby-Welsh of Savills.
Indeed, adds Ed Tryon of property search agents Lichfields, bad Feng Shui can be a deal breaker for many Far Eastern buyers. He’s currently inspecting properties for a Chinese client and, as part of his role, has to provide ‘piles of information’ to the buyer’s Feng Shui master, including the date of the property’s construction, the date the roof was last replaced, the compass direction of the front door and a full grid reference. ‘The majority of properties don’t pass his critical eye and are therefore disregarded.’
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The cultural gap between homegrown buyers and those hailing from Russia or the Far East also emerges clearly in their predilection-or dislike-for period properties. ‘British buyers are often particular about architecture: requests for Georgian or Queen Anne are usual at the top end,’ says Mrs Dalby-Welsh. Similarly, adds her colleague Crispin Holborow, Western Europeans favour historic homes: ‘Be they Spanish, French, Belgian or Italian, they tend to prefer traditional architecture.’
By contrast, the Chinese and former CIS nationals are partial to contemporary interiors-the Russians, bucking their reputation for glitz, are often fond of monochrome palettes, according to James Gilbert-Green of Strutt & Parker-and would ideally like to buy a ‘lock-up and leave’ house that hasn’t been lived in by anyone else.
Mr Harvey shares an insightful anecdote about a Russian client with whom he had been discussing a newly built property at which the developer had stayed for a time while the works were being carried out. ‘He was genuinely puzzled by this and asked me “Why would anyone pay a premium for a house where someone else has lived before?”.’
That said, notes Edward Heaton of buying agents Heaton & Partners, growing numbers of Russians are starting to look for historic houses. They are the harbingers of a behavioural change that could potentially have a deep impact on the country-house market, which, until now, has primarily been the preserve of the British. That’s because these buyers aren’t just showing increased appreciation for period properties, they’re also widening their geographical horizons to the countryside.
Although the British ‘will often be wedded to where they were brought up,’ according to Mr Sweeting, with the Cotswolds and Hampshire proving especially popular at the top end of themarket, most foreign nationals used to resist venturing far into the regions. Instead, they opted for pleasant locations withinvery easy reach of London, such as St George’s Hill and the Wentworth estate in Surrey and parts of Buckinghamshire. However, this is changing rapidly.
‘I’ve noticed a big increase in the number of buyers from BRIC [Brazil, Russia, India, China] countries looking much farther from London than you would’ve historically expected, including Hampshire and Dorset,’ explains Mr Heaton.
Lack of supply is one reason people are looking at areas they would have previously discounted. ‘One of our Russian clients was sure he didn’t want to be more than 30 minutes from London,’ recalls Mr Harvey. ‘Eventually, he bought a house almost an hour away from the capital because we were able to demonstrate to him how much more he could get in terms of quality.’
The trend, he adds, is further fuelled by the ever-growing global appetite for a British education, with affluent buyers choosing a regional base close to their offspring’s school. ‘There are only so many places available at Eton, Wellington or Sevenoaks, so people are now prepared to look further afield for schools – and property.’
Although global interest in country houses is not yet comparable to the demand for London homes, agents believe it will soon become very substantial-and may even help revive sale activity in price brackets where the market is currently a little fallow.
‘For several reasons, there has been a decrease in the number of British buyers looking to spend £2.5 million to £4 million,’ notes Mr Harvey. ‘Not all of that slack will be picked up by international buyers, but some of it will.’
Perhaps best of all, however, is the fact that this new breed of international buyers genuinely relishes the prospect of educating itself about Britain and its countryside. ‘In the past, there was a sense of urgency to their purchase,’ maintains Mr Harvey. ‘Now, they enjoy the process of buying and, as a result, make better decisions.’
He thinks the main reason for this shift is that ‘people are now looking at the UK as more of a long-term destination. They want a true home, as opposed to somewhere to put their money as an investment’. And this, he concludes, can only be a good thing for the British country-house market
The perfect house for an American buyer
American buyers value traditional English properties, particularly if located close to a good American school. This Grade II-listed house, on the market for the first time in 52 years, combines original period features with a convenient location in St John’s Wood, within reach of the American School in London. £4.495 million, Aston Chase (020-7724 4724)
The perfect British house for a Russian buyer
Situated in Farnham, Surrey, just a little further out than the traditional comfort zone of St George’s Hill and the Wentworth estate, Unicorns is a contemporary six-bedroom property built to an exacting finish in 2008.
The bespoke travertine and glass staircase, cutting-edge kitchen with black-granite work surfaces and beautifully landscaped gardens will appeal to many international buyers. £2.995 million, Strutt & Parker (01252 821102)
The ideal house for a Scandinavian buyer
Unlike most foreign buyers, Scandinavians have always shown interest in the British countryside, with a particular penchant for East Anglia. Easterwood Farm in Wickhambrook, Suffolk, would suit a Nordic buyer with an interest in horses-this modern, six-bedroom country house, designed to look like a traditional Suffolk farmhouse, has a 14-box stable yard, a manège and 44 acres of gardens and grounds.£3.5 million, Savills (01223 347241) and Jackson-Stops & Staff (01638 662231)
The perfect British house for a French buyer
French buyers look for properties with high ceilings and a South Kensington, Chelsea or Fulham location, according to James Gilbert-Green of Strutt & Parker. This elegant two-bedroom flat in Queen’s Gate Gardens has the added benefit of a roof terrace and attractive views across the communal gardens. £3.25 million, Strutt & Parker (020-7373 1010)
The perfect country house for a British buyer
New to the market, the Abbotswood estate, near Stow-onthe- Wold in Gloucestershire, has everything to entice a British country-house buyer. Set in the Cotswolds, this Grade II-listed, nine-bedroom property comes with 11 farmhouses and cottages, magnificent gardens, trout fishing on the River Dikler and 774 acres of pasture, arable farmland and woodland with the potential for a pheasant and partridge shoot. £27 million to £30 million, Knight Frank (01285 659771)