Country houses for sale

The property market in 2011

This has been a year of extremes, when international buyers ruled the roost from London, and homebred London buyers declined to move to the country. It was a year when an anonymous Russian oligarch paid a reputed £140 million for the spectacularly refurbished Park Place with 200 acres near Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, creating an all-time record for an English country estate. The previous record- also held by Park Place-was set in 2007, when developer Mike Spink paid £42m for the un-refurbished property with 500 acres. It was also a year when many fine country houses in the Shires struggled to find buyers at more than £3m.

As Crispin Holborow of Savills points out, the Arab Spring and the crisis in the Eurozone brought unexpected benefits to Britain in the shape of wealthy foreign buyers who saw London as a safe haven for their millions and rushed to buy top-end property in the capital. International buyers currently account for half of all sales of London houses valued at more than £8 million, as a result of which prices in prime central London have risen by 15.6% since the market peaked in 2007, some 25% up on last year. So we would expect that the gap in values between London and the country will ultimately act as a tipping point-quite possibly in 2012-and attract London equity to the country market, thereby turning viewings into sales, Mr Holborow concludes.

Excluding the gilded gated Surrey enclaves of St George’s Hill and Wentworth, where Knight Frank alone handled private sales of eight houses worth more than £10m this year, the international buyer is a bird rarely seen outside of London. However, the distressed sale of the infamous, 103-room Updown Court at Windlesham, Surrey, to an Asian businessman for £36m (roughly half its original asking price), confirmed the county as the international buyer’s country destination of choice. Meanwhile, the international boundary was pushed westwards towards Henley-on- Thames, where the new Russian master of Park Place joins an exclusive band of estate owners that includes King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, the Sultan of Oman and Swiss financier Urs Schwarzenbach.

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The global appeal of Country Life itself was confirmed at the start of the year, when an advertisement for the prestigious Summertown Villa in Oxford, launched in the magazine in December 2010 at the ‘trophy’ guide price of £7.75m, produced a flood of enquiries from buyers from 13 different countries. A sale was agreed by February to the delight of Damian Gray of Knight Frank, who says: ‘Oxford just keeps rolling on. It continues to attract rich foreign buyers who see the city as “London without the edges” and are happy to buy houses among the dreaming spires- although Summerton Villa, exceptionally, does have two acres of gardens and a proper drive. At the same time, they have the option to buy a weekend cottage in the Cotswolds if they want a change of scene.’

A good year for Scottish country houses and estates kicked off early in the New Year when a buyer was found for historic, 17th-century Kinross House in Kinross-shire. Described in Country Life (February 16, 1951) as ‘the complete expression in stone of the Renaissance in Scotland’, the house, listed Category A, was launched on the market in August 2009 at a guide price of £4.25m by Knight Frank and Strutt & Parker, and eventually sold for more than £4m. Other notable sales recorded by Knight Frank included Midmar Castle, near Echt, Aberdeenshire, for £2.8m, and picturesque Stobhall in Perthshire, which launched in Country Life on September 7, and went under offer in mid October for ‘considerably more’ than its £2.35m guide.

In March, Strutt & Parker,’s coffers were enriched by the sale of the magical Carskiey estate on the Mull of Kintyre, Argyll, which attracted huge interest and sold for ‘well over’ the £2.95m guide price. In August, Edinburgh-based John Clegg & Co announced a closing date for final bids on the gloriously secluded, 5,340-acre Glenstriven sporting estate in Argyll, at ‘offers over £6.47m’. And Savills found a buyer in the autumn for romantic Blair Castle in Ayrshire, which launched on the market in May at a guide price of £8m.

South of the border, the arrival of spring brought the launch in Country Life of the exquisite, Grade I-listed Walton Canonry in Salisbury’s Cathedral Close. Previously sold in August 2007 at a guide price of £3.5m, the Georgian gem was successfully launched on the market in late March, at a guide price of £6m through Knight Frank and Savills. East of London, however, the market for country houses was slow to get off the ground as unease in the City of London blocked the traditional annual migration to the eastern counties. However, two architectural gems that bucked the general trend were the Grade II-listed Georgian Spencers at Great Yeldham, on the Essex/Suffolk border, and Grade I-listed Giffords Hall at Wickhambrook, Suffolk. Relaunched on the market by Savills in March at a reduced guide price of £3.75m, Spencers was eventually bought for close to that figure by the same people who had it under offer in 2010. On the other hand, the enchanting, moated Giffords Hall was launched fresh to the market by Savills in March, at a guide price of £3.5m and, by August, had found a ready buyer at ‘very close’ to it.

In the South-East, country-house sales were generally restricted to the inner Home Counties, notably Surrey, Berkshire and Hertfordshire. In Kent, the absence of City buyers was keenly felt and properties priced at more than £5m had a rough passage. Knight Frank scored a considerable hit with the sale of Great Swifts Manor at Cranbrook, Kent, to an English buyer in August at a guide price of £9m.

But the undisputed star of the rural property scene in 2011 has been the market for commercial farming estates, with the launch by Smiths Gore of the scenic, 702-acre Manor Farm at West Overton, near Marlborough, Wiltshire, in the North Wessex Downs AONB, setting the benchmark for the rest of the year. As selling agent Giles Wordsworth anticipated, the combination of a substantial Georgian house with 638 acres of arable land, paddocks and river meadows, and more than 50 acres of broad-leaved plantations proved to be an irresistible package for potential purchasers.

The farm was sold as a whole within a couple of months. The main house was put back on the market in the autumn and a buyer found with relative ease.
Elsewhere, Knight Frank sold 1,000 acres of farmland in Worcestershire for £9,500 an acre, and a block of 600 acres in Gloucestershire for £11,500 an acre. The farmland season closed with a flourish with the sale of the model, 1,443-acre Brook Hall estate at Long Melford on the Essex/ Suffolk border, which launched on the market through Savills in September and sold within very few weeks for more than the £13m guide price.

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