As anyone who has ever watched a classic period drama will know, if there is one thing the British do well it is the grand country house.
Over the past decade, the market for these architectural gems has suffered a series of setbacks, from the banking crisis and global recession to tax increases and Britain’s exit from the European Union. But real-estate experts are finally reporting early signs of a new dawn for historic rural homes.
The latest prime country-house index from Knight Frank, a real-estate brokerage and research firm, reported price growth of just 0.4% last year. But it noted an uptick in both property viewings and buyers. With a shortage of stock coming onto the market, the firm forecasts that prices across England and Wales will rise by 1.5% this year and by 2% in 2019.
And even in a feeble market, big deals are being done. In December, for example, a buyer snapped up Chinthurst Hill, a 10-bedroom house set in the Surrey Hills, rolling countryside 35 miles southwest of London. The house, designed by the great English architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, had a guide price of $22.65 million.
Sales like this give Lindsay Cuthill, head of Savills’ country department, reason for optimism. Now that property prices in the British capital appear to have peaked, he explained, buyers are willing to leave the city.
“They can’t see their house in London going up in value any more, and they are saying, ‘OK, let’s get off the gravy train,’ ” said Mr. Cuthill.
The huge price differential between London and rural homes means buyers are able to sell a city home, buy a substantial country property and have enough money left over to invest in a London apartment and perhaps have some change left over, too.
For example, $1.91 million would buy either a modern, one-bedroom apartment in central London, or Godfrey House, an Elizabethan manor house set on just over 4 acres. This 16th-century timber-framed home, listed with Strutt & Parker, measures 5,157 square feet with six bedrooms and four bathrooms. It is in the county of Kent, 40 miles southeast of London.
The market for a prime country-house market farther from London is undoubtedly weaker. In Devon, a coastal county in southwest England 170 miles from the capital, agent Pru Martin said 2017 had been a “challenging” year, particularly for homes priced at £2 million ($2.83 million) or more, which attract stamp duty of 15% if purchased as a second home. “Many of the buyers who purchase in this desirable area are highly successful business people who prefer certainty to uncertainty in all markets,” said Ms. Martin, a director at Marchand Petit estate agents.
Potential buyers also increasingly prefer a turnkey country house over one with historic authenticity, said David Williams, director of Grantley Group estate agents, based in Surrey. “Buyers seem to be seeking these homes only when they have been renovated already, suggesting that the hassle and inconvenience of obtaining planning for landmark homes is starting to have an effect on the market.”
An excellent example is Ripley Grange, a 15,092-square-foot house in the county of Essex and 18 miles northeast of London. The house dates from 1928 and has since been extensively updated. The nine-bedroom, four-bathroom home, listed with Savills for $11.25 million, sits on 17.8 acres of grounds that are in immaculate condition.
Savills’ research department forecasts stability in the country-house market over the next two years, followed by more serious growth of 4% in 2020 and 2021, and a further 3.5% in 2022.
Dawn Carritt, director of country houses and estates at Jackson-Stops estate agents, is hopeful of a steady sort of rebirth. “Now that Brexit is well on its way and Theresa May seems to have weathered the bad election result,” she said, “I think people that have been sitting tight for three years will think: ‘Let’s go for it.’”
Buying agent Charlie Wells has found that what clients really want is peace: no noise from roads or aircraft, no light pollution and enough land to create a buffer around the property, for privacy and seclusion. Many are returning to their roots after years spent working in cities.
“You get people who want to return to what they see as their spiritual, childhood home,” said Mr. Wells, managing director of buying agency Prime Purchase. “People often crave what their parents gave them, and want to give their children the same. They want to share their good memories with their children.”