x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Middle East buyers to the manor drawn

Country estates in the rolling hills of England are attracting investors from the Middle East. One can be yours for a snip under Dh30 million.

The Kingston Wood Manor Estate has a guide price of £8.5 million. The 738-acre property has a seven-bedroom manor house, parts of which date from the late 15th century. Courtesy Savills
The Kingston Wood Manor Estate has a guide price of £8.5 million. The 738-acre property has a seven-bedroom manor house, parts of which date from the late 15th century. Courtesy Savills

The British love a stunning country house. How else would you explain the UK television success of the autumn, Downton Abbey?

From Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, home to the Duke of Devonshire, to more modest £5 million (Dh28.8m) homes less than 40 minutes from London, there is a place in many hearts for the landed estates that multiplied during the 18th century, on the back of the industrial revolution.

And as money poured into central London's prime markets this year, there had been hopes it would spill out into the prime country-house territories of Berkshire, Surrey, Hampshire, the Cotswolds and beyond.

However, the anticipated rush to buy country properties has failed to materialise this year, as over-ambitious vendors have reached a stalemate with deal-hungry and cautious buyers.

Crispin Holborow, the head of the country department at Savills,an upmarket estate agency, says the historic imbalance between the prices of prestigious London properties and country estates means there is a significant opportunity for country-house buyers.

While prime London residential markets showed price growth of 4.3 per cent over the past six months, the prime regional markets recorded price falls of 2.5 per cent, according to Savills. Knight Frank, a property consultancy, says average prices for country homes have fallen by 1.7 per cent over the past 12 months.

Country vendors whose properties need some work are having to accept price cuts of, on average, 7.5 per cent and purchasers are becoming increasingly cautious.

"The cream of properties are still selling very well. But people are now concerned about buying anything that may need money spent on it. No one buys a country house because they have to, there is always some investment element of the deal," Mr Holborow says.

Meanwhile, for many there is little reason to go to market. Low interest rates are helping them as much as owners in other market segments.

The volume of available stock in the prime country-house market has risen by 24 per cent over the past 12 months, while the volume of applicants has dropped by 4 per cent. However, Knight Frank says the number of properties going under offer has risen sharply, up by 32 per cent, suggesting that stock volumes should begin to decline slowly in the coming months.

One aspect helping to underpin values is the rising cost of land. Amenity land for shooting, equestrian use, hunting or fishing has been rising in price steadily over the past decade. Farmland is now valued at an average of just less than £7,000 an acre, according to the latest survey by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, about double the average price six years ago.

Historically, amenity land was worth about £2,500 per acre, now it is averaging £7,000 to £7,500 per acre and in some sought-after estates in Berkshire, with close proximity to London, some sales have gone through at £10,000 an acre, according to Mr Holborow.

Most buyers for country estates tend to be British nationals. According to Knight Frank, outside of the main Surrey estates such as Wentworth and St George's Hill, international buyers are a comparative rarity. Where the £1m-plus market in London is comprised of almost 50 per cent international buyers, for rural properties that figure is closer to 12 per cent.

Those international buyers in the market tend to come from Russia and the Middle East - "the same sort of buyers as you find in central London", says one agent - but there have been some Chinese buyers, particularly close to sought-after schools or Oxford and Cambridge, as well as some wealthy Indian families, who seem especially attracted to Leicestershire's Charnwood Forest.

A few buyers from the Middle East and Greece have also invested in country houses.

Middle East buyers, says Will Matthews, a consultant in charge of the residential country department at Knight Frank, still favour polo estates, if they can get them, or some other sort of equestrian facilities.

They hunt for properties in Berkshire, Surrey and Hampshire, preferring not to venture much further from London than Ascot and Virginia Water. Only rarely can they be tempted as far west as the Cotswolds or further north than Hertfordshire.

John Denney, the country-house director at Hamptons International, which sells properties up to a 90-minute drive from London, says he has never known a market quite like it. "We know that there is plenty of money out there, but people are looking for a deal."

He expects many buyers will finally take the plunge next year, but still he is not confident of house price growth.

Talk of land taxes and mansion taxes has had a negligible affect on buyers' attitudes. Some politicians are suggesting an annual levyof 0.5 per cent on the capital value of land over a certain acreage.

It is not yet clear whether this would be on top of a proposed mansion tax at a rate of 1 per cent on properties worth more than £2m.

"As most of the sales now being agreed are for 'must-sell' properties, as opposed to 'might sell', these taxes are having no impact. People seem to pay what they have to pay," says Simon Bradbury, a partner at Fine & Country's Cambridgeshire office.

One factor that may make a much bigger impact are proposed rail improvements, including a high-speed route to Birmingham and electrification of the line to Leicester, both in the UK Midlands.

While this may not appeal to the chauffeur-driven, a train journey time of 35 minutes from London to Leicester could open up new swathes of rural Nottinghamshire, Rutland and Leicestershire, says James Warne, a residential partner at Bentons, an estate agency.

Although at least another 10 years off, faster train connections would certainly increase the appeal of country houses to the top-earners in the City.


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