Country house buyers coming out of London are looking to the Home Counties for viewings, while younger couples often want to see modern properties
Whether they see their glass as half full or half empty, estate agents around the country are toasting the arrival of 2016—if only because it means that 2015 is now history. With no major political events on the horizon apart from next year’s EU referendum, a lack of fresh stock is probably the concern uppermost in most agents’ minds and many are hoping that the April deadline for the introduction of a further 3% Stamp Duty (SDLT) on buy-to-let and second homes, will spur vendors and buyers alike into action in the first three months of the year.
A recent analysis by Savills Research of the prospects for the UK real-estate market in 2016 highlights the low level of house-price growth (3.9%) recorded in the first 10 months of last year, despite continued growth in the economy and record low costs of borrowing.
The lack of momentum in the market is further indicated by the low level of annual housing transactions, ‘which appears to have peaked at 1.2 million per annum—still a long way short of the levels seen prior to 2007’. But that was then, and this is now, and, nine years on, expectations that were normal in the heady days before the financial crisis appear increasingly irrelevant as an indicator of future trends, especially at the upper end of the residential market. Then again, history does tend to repeat itself—eventually.
The London market may have gone off the boil, but whatever happens in London will still have a direct impact on the workings of the country market, especially in the Home Counties, which are likely to gain most from any downturn in the capital. Already, prospective vendors who were reluctant to move out of town while house prices were still rising have begun to venture beyond the M25 in search of a base in the country before a shortage of stock sends rural property prices climbing again. This change of sentiment was reflected in a flurry of activity on the run-up to Christmas, with deals being done on several country houses that had been on the market since 2014, or earlier.
An interesting example was the sale, through Hamptons, of The Oaks at Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, a large period family home set in almost one-and-a-half acres of gardens, close to Beaconsfield station and trendy Beaconsfield New Town.
Following a low-key launch in June 2014 at a guide price of £5.95 million, the house—which offered seven reception rooms, eight bedrooms, eight bathrooms, a staff flat and a swimming pool—saw contracts exchanged in July 2015, with completion in November.
For Nick Hole-Jones, who heads up Hamptons’ country-house operations in Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Hertfordshire and north Oxfordshire, Beaconsfield, with its excellent transport links and high-achieving grammar schools, was the undoubted ‘star of the show’ in 2015. However, the town may have to look to its laurels before long, due to the imminent arrival of Crossrail at Maidenhead, which is already seeing increased demand for substantial family homes from City workers, who will soon be able to reach their offices without the hassle of changing trains in London.
Simon Lewis of Humberts in East Grinstead saw prospective buyers make their own autumn statement as they filed out of London in November, in search of the perfect country retreat within easy commuting distance of the capital. A drive across Ashdown Forest led a discerning few to Gale at Chelwood Gate, West Sussex, an elegant, 7,992sq ft, Victorian house of impeccable provenance, set in two-and-a-quarter acres of lovely gardens originally designed by Lady Chelwood, and for sale through Humberts (01342 326326) at a guide price of £3.25m.
The house was built in the late 1800s for Lord Robert Cecil, son of the Marquess of Salisbury, and later Viscount Cecil of Chelwood, a distinguished politician and statesman who co-founded the League of Nations and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1937. Gale remained in his country home for 50 years or so, and was later owned by Conservative peer Lord Ashdown, whose friend Harold Macmillan was a close neighbour at Birch Grove House. Recently refurbished by the present owners, Gale has four main reception rooms, eight bedrooms, five bathrooms and a three-bedroom flat.
Across the county border, Kent’s long-established reputation as a centre of educational excellence has made it a magnet for overseas buyers from as far afield as Brazil, China, Russia and Europe, says Edward Church of Strutt & Parker (01227 451123), who is selling Grade II *-listed, Regency Throwley House on the outskirts of Sheldwich, three miles south of Faversham, on behalf of its French owners, who have educated their children in the county and are now returning home.
He quotes a guide price of £2.5m for the chic, six-bedroom house set in 8.7 acres of landscaped gardens and parkland, which comes with four reception rooms, an indoor swimming pool, a cellar and wine store, a gym, stabling, a manège and outbuildings.
Buyers coming out of London will be impressed by the area’s slick transport network, which includes straight- forward access to the M2, good commuter services to Victoria, Cannon Street and, via the High Speed rail link, to St Pancras. Many local commuters also find it convenient to take the M2 to Ebbsfleet, from where four high-speed trains to St Pancras operate every hour.
The increasingly global aspect of Britain’s country-house market is reflected in Strutt & Parker’s decision to launch Grade II-listed The Old Rectory at Holwell, near Hitchin, Hertfordshire, on the market on Boxing Day at a guide price of £2m, in a bid to grab the attention of potential purchasers on what is generally reckoned to be the busiest day of the year for surfers of property portals on the internet. Built by the then rector for Rand’s Charity Trust in 1831, and described in its listing as an ‘unusually elaborate Gothic rectory house’, the former rectory was sold as a private house in 1959 and has been the much-loved family home of its present owners since 1974.
It stands in more than seven acres of mature gardens and paddock on the edge of Holwell village, surrounded by well-kept farmland, and has three main reception rooms, a kitchen/ breakfast room, eight bedrooms and five bathrooms. Amenities include stabling, a tennis court and a swimming pool, with fast and frequent trains from nearby Hitchin reaching London King’s Cross in 32 minutes.
Beyond the Home Counties, the traditional next stop on the country house trail tends to be the Cotswolds, which is currently being supported from the bottom up, with good village houses priced between £750,000 and £1.25m trading well. However, agents are hoping that, more than a year after the introduction of the new SDLT rates, vendors at the upper end of the price spectrum will take a more realistic view on prices in the cold light of January and try harder to meet buyers halfway.
A ‘special’ house will always attract attention, especially in the Cotswolds, and the pre-Christmas launch onto the market of the exquisite, Grade II-listed Pigeon House at Southam, near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, at a guide price of £1.395m through the local offices of Humberts (01285 650955) and Savills (01242 548000) could provide an interesting antidote to the January blues.
The former medieval manor house, once the heart of the De la Bere family’s important Southam estate, was bought at auction in 1922 by the wealthy T. E. Whittaker, who commissioned the Arts-and-Crafts architect John Coates to renovate the historic building, exposing the original timbers, building the magnificent stone entrance porch and bay windows and adding beautiful stained-glass windows.
Having passed through a succession of distinguished owners, the manor has also been restored and modernized in recent years. Set in one-and-a-half acres of mature private gardens on the lower slopes of Cleeve Hill, Pigeon House has 5,787sq ft of living space on three floors, including four reception rooms, a conservatory, a garden room, an upstairs library and study, five bedrooms and three bathrooms.
In an increasingly demanding and risk-averse country marketplace, successful younger buyers in particular want impressive, well-located houses that are efficient and cost effective to run. This works to the advantage of new or recently built country houses, such as the imposing Barcroft Hall at South Petherton, near Crewkerne, Somerset, which is for sale through the Taunton office of Jackson-Stops & Staff (01823 325144) at a guide price of £3.75m for the 7,973 sq ft, seven-bedroom house with 85 acres of land, or £2.95m with 15–20 acres. Built in the Queen Anne style in 1988–89, the hall boasts impeccable ‘Green’ credentials and glorious views over its own established grounds and the surrounding countryside.
A perfect country house in Yorkshire
Philip Procter of Humberts in York (01904 611828) is already seeing a trickle of buyers who have made their money in the City and are now ready to re-embrace the traditional country lifestyle of their youth. He expects the recently launched Grade II -listed Spellar Park, near Brandsby, close to the magnificent Howardian Hills AONB, to appeal to younger buyers, especially those with equestrian interests.
For sale at a guide price of £1.85m, the house, which dates from the early 18th century with later additions, is an intriguing mix of old and new, with four main reception rooms, a splendid breakfast kitchen, six/seven bedrooms and three bath/shower rooms. It stands in about six acres of established, well-timbered grounds and boasts a purpose-built range of five loose boxes, further stabling, several railed paddocks and an all-weather manège.