As Russia’s economy booms, a new generation of Russian billionaires and millionaires continues to pour into London in search of a safe haven for their post-perestroika wealth. An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 Russians now live in London, but unlike the first wave of high-profile ‘oligarchs’ such as Abramovich, Berezovsky and the oil-baron Leonard Blavatnik?who in 2004 paid a reputed £42 million for a 10-bedroom mansion in Kensington Palace Gardens (still the highest price paid by a Russian for a London home)?the new, younger breed of Russian super-rich is increasingly well-educated, financially astute, and, above all, discreet.
Liam Bailey, head of residential research at Knight Frank, has been tracking the progress of London’s ‘Russian revolution’ and he finds that ‘in the 12 months to the end of July 2006, Russians were buying one in every five properties priced at, or above, £6m?an incredible position for a single nationality, given that UK buyers only account for just over a third of buyers at this level. In five years, Russians have gone from nowhere to being the biggest single overseas purchaser-group in central London’.
Getting to grips with the peculiarities of the central London property market has been a steep learning curve for many wealthy Russians. The concept of leasehold has been particularly foreign to them, says Noel Flint of Knight Frank. ‘Russian buyers have found it hard to get their heads around the notion that you could pay so much money for something you didn’t own. They also didn’t like the idea that you had to ask a landlord’s permission to make changes to a property you had paid a fortune for.’
But they quickly adapted to the notion that nearly all the best properties in their first-choice locations of Belgravia, Mayfair, Kensington and Knightsbridge could only be bought on a leasehold basis. Living on more than one floor is another concept alien to most Russians, hence their predilection for large lateral apartment conversions?with a few large, rather than many small rooms?in exclusive locations such as Eaton Square, SW1.
‘These days, Russian buyers are not only familiar with the best streets, but the best sides of the best streets,’ adds Mr Flint, who recently sold a large lease-hold apartment on the favoured sunny north side of Eaton Square to a Russian buyer for more than £10m. To put this in perspective, Chesterfield (020?7581 5234) and W. A. Ellis (020?7306 1610) are currently asking £12m for the remaining 115-year lease of the pristine, 3,929sq ft Flat 3 at 76, Eaton Square. Meanwhile, just up the road, a rooftop view of Harrods was enough to persuade a Russian buyer to part with about £10m for the penthouse at Cheval House in Knightsbridge, SW7. And another made the quantum leap into multi-storey living with the purchase of the elegant, newly-renovated 55, Cadogan Place, SW1, with its own mews house and garage, at £12.5m.
Russians have also bought their fair share of The Knightsbridge apartment block, a mere totter away from Harrods, and built by the Hong Kong-based Cheng family with a demanding cosmopolitan clientele in mind. Savills (020?7581 2323) have only eight properties remaining at the complex, at prices ranging from £750,000 for a studio to £2.3m for a chic mews house.
With more than 90 properties sold in London for £5m-plus already this year, shortage of high-value stock is now a major headache for leading London estate agents, says Ed Lewis of Savills.
Roland Khmaladze, the 33-year-old, Georgian-born founder of Black Sea Estates (020?7243 6161) in Kensington, W8?a stone’s throw from the Russian embassy?agrees. He has several families prepared to spend £30m, or whatever it takes, on a house in Kensington Palace Gardens, W8?and a further £10m to £20m doing it up.
At the same time, increased confidence in the bona fides of their British advisers and their own ability to negotiate a good deal in this rarefied market-place have persuaded some Russian buyers to venture into the outer reaches of Chelsea and Kensington.
Chelsea-based buying agents Garrington (020?7349 7030) found a three-bedroom, first-floor mansion flat by the river in Old Chelsea for a 19-year-old Russian student at London’s Imperial College. The brief stipulated a property close to Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant and good transport links, ‘as the young lady couldn’t walk very far in her Jimmy Choos’. Her father paid just under £1m in cash for the apartment, and plans to spend another £500,000 on refurbishment.
This new spirit of adventure could produce a Russian buyer for one of Chelsea’s most remarkable houses, the 19,000sq ft Old Swan House on Chelsea Embankment, SW3, for which Knight Frank (020?7591 8600) and Simon Barnes (020?7499 3434) quote a guide price of £32m. Built by the Victorian architect Richard Norman Shaw for the art collector Wickham Flower, a patron of Whistler who lived in nearby Tite Street, the former headquarters of Securicor has been lavishly restored by its current owners. The mansion, listed Grade II, has six grand reception rooms, nine main bedrooms, seven bathrooms, a leisure complex, garaging for five cars, and a separate 11-bedroom staff annexe.
The green spaces of leafy Holland Park are no longer a postcode too far for wealthy Russians who would previously not have considered living beyond the boundaries of Kensington, W8. Few dachas in Moscow can boast the specifications of the newly renovated 5, Holland Park, W11, and its adjacent two-bedroom mews house, for which selling agents Knight Frank (020?7938 4311) quote a guide price of £28m. The main house has 12,583sq ft of accommodation, including five reception rooms, eight bedrooms, nine bathrooms, a swimming pool, a gym and staff quarters, and an elegant 130ft garden which backs directly onto Holland Park.