Country houses for sale

The rise of the urban downsizer

In a surprising trend reversal, older country-house owners are moving back to London to enjoy city life, finds Carla Passino.

Twenty years after they moved to the countryside to raise their families, baby boomers are returning to the city. The numbers of these urban downsizers are still relatively small, but they’re growing steadily. ‘We are certainly seeing an emerging trend for urban downsizing in London,’ confirms Charles Lloyd of Savills Mayfair. ‘In the past 12 months, there has been a noticeable spike in queries from vendors looking to downsize who are currently living in the traditional commuter family pockets and are looking for a pad in the very heart of the city.’

These buyers tend to be people who are returning to London and have family there ‘rather than dyed-in-the-wool country folk being lured by the bright lights’, according to Roarie Scarisbrick of Property Vision. Some, drawn by the spectacular appreciation seen by London homes in recent years, are keen to regain a foothold in the capital’s property ladder. Many want to live closer to their children and grandchildren, but others move back into the city simply to enjoy the vibrant atmosphere London has
to offer.

Harry Wigram of Strutt & Parker in Chelsea calls them the second honeymooners. ‘After their children have flown the nest, they find themselves rattling around a big country house in the shires and a smaller, more manageable flat in London, where they had a fabulous time in their twenties, often starts to appeal again.’

A typical example is the couple to whom Matthew Fine of Hunters sold a Marylebone flat a few months ago. ‘On selling their country estate in Gloucestershire, they downsized to a cottage near their old home and also bought a small two-bedroom apartment through us. He was a retired solicitor, she a retired headmistress and, although they loved the country- side, they wanted a city lifestyle.’

Like this couple, most urban down- sizers head for prime central London boroughs such as Marylebone as well as Mayfair, South Kensington and Chelsea. Mayfair and Marylebone are particularly attractive to people who prize having world-class theatres, art galleries, Michelin-starred restaurants and excellent shops on their doorstep.

Further south, Chelsea and nearby Battersea Park are sought after because they combine village-style charm with a selection of London’s finest restaurants, cafes and shops, according to George Franks of Douglas & Gordon.

Wherever they choose to buy, urban downsizers are primarily looking for flats that are easy to maintain. ‘Crucially, a property must be a turn-key, ready- to-go, lock-up-and-leave, secure apartment,’ explains Mr Lloyd. ‘It’s the hassle-free factor they’re looking for.’

Mr Franks adds that many London-bound buyers tend to opt for luxury new-builds or conversions rather than retirement homes, which ‘don’t offer the pace of life that they’re after’. Nonetheless, most downsizers want to live somewhere with a porter or a caretaker.

‘Older people like the feeling of security a porter brings and it’s also useful if the Ocado van is delivering as he will help carry the shopping,’ adds James Watts of Prime Purchase. ‘A porter is a friendly face when you go to get your newspaper in the morning and you can chat about all the local goings-on.’

However, when you’re used to the open spaces of the countryside, some London blocks can feel a little claustrophobic, which is why downsizers often prefer flats that have or are set close to some green area. ‘Many like the idea of having outside space, but they don’t want the work of looking after a garden,’ says Simon Hedley of Druce Marylebone. ‘As a result, new-builds with small, low-maintenance gardens, balconies or communal space are popular.’

Finding a property that’s easy to man- age, but is also large enough to entertain in and to accommodate furniture that was originally conceived for a spacious country house often requires a fine balancing act. Many buyers ‘seek properties with generously proportioned living areas, but which perhaps have fewer or smaller bedrooms’, advises Mr Franks. ‘That’s generally where space is reduced.’

Dogs present a harder problem to solve for downsizers because they’re rarely welcome in portered blocks. ‘Officially, they don’t allow pets,’ says Mr Watts. ‘Over time, a porter may turn a blind eye to a small dog, but it’s a no-no when you move in.’ Indeed, most buildings have rules about pets, notes Mr Scarisbrick. Often, they’re allowed on a licence, ‘so if Mutley misbehaves he can be evicted’.

For this reason, suggests Mr Wigram, buyers with cats or dogs may prefer to look at ‘small houses with patios’. It means sacrificing that extra help and security, but it’s better than having to give up your beloved pet.


How to avoid inheritance tax

How can you pass on an estate worth more than £1 million to your children without surrendering a large chunk