The pandemic is having an unexpected side effect. Suddenly, Britons are eager for the space and grandeur of a country manor house. They are breathing life into Britain’s prime country house real-estate market after a malaise in that sector that has lasted for more than a decade.
Sales volume of country homes priced between $4.1 million and $5.5 million was up 70% between May and November 2020 compared with the five-year average, while sales of homes between $5.5 million and $6.8 million were up 78% in the same period, according to Chris Druce, senior research analyst in Knight Frank’s residential research team.
“It has been a complete shift,” said Philip Harvey, a buying agent and senior partner at Property Vision. “We are incredibly busy. People are making decisions. They are bringing forward five-year plans and focusing on lifestyle. They want to be safe, and they want their families to be happy.”
Mr. Harvey’s optimism is echoed by the latest Knight Frank prime country house index, which monitors the performance of rural real estate. It found that homes priced between $4.1 million and $5.5 million have enjoyed the strongest bounceback, with sales price growth of 2.9% during the third quarter of 2020. The homes priced $5.5 million to $6.8 million rose by 2.4% in the same period, while property costing $6.8 million and up increased by 1.4%.
Country houses that are within commuting distance of London have done particularly well: In the $2.7 million and up sector for country homes in the south and southwest of England, approximately one to two hours commute to London, price growth hit 8.4% and 8% respectively in 2020, according to Savills.
These price rises mark a reversal in fortune for the prime market. In 2019, the sales prices of country houses in the $4.1 million to $6.8 million bracket fell by around 1%, according to Knight Frank, while those priced at $6.8 million and over were down by just over 5%. The long-term trend was even worse: The average sales price of prime country homes worth $2.7 million or more was down 18.7% between the peak of the market in 2007 and 2019, according to Savills.
As a result, buyers can get a lot of house for their money in the English countryside, including the 9,462-square-foot Tormarton House, listed with Strutt & Parker at a guide price of $8.88 million. This Georgian country mansion in South Gloucestershire is 106 miles west of London and just 12 miles from Highgrove, the country home of Prince Charles. The house, on 10.31 acres, has 11 bedrooms, five bathrooms, and its former stable block has been converted into an office.
Savills is currently listing Belvedere, a landmark, castellated Georgian home overlooking the estuary of the River Exe, in the county of Devon, 170 miles southwest of London. The eight-bedroom, four-bathroom property is set on 13 acres and it has a large wine cellar, indoor swimming pool, sauna, and gymnasium. Belvedere measures 7,743 square feet, and is listed for $6.83 million.
The change in mood is good news for Mark Venn, 51, whose country house has been for sale since November 2019. Triscombe House—which is in the county of Somerset and 174 miles southwest of London—has been a full-time home to him, his wife Deborah Venn, 46, and their son Andrew, 13, since 2010, although they bought the property as a fire-damaged wreck in 2003. After overseeing the landmark house’s restoration, it was used as a holiday home before the couple decided to leave London for good and move in full time.
The seven-bedroom, five-bathroom main house measures 16,636 square feet and has almost 20 acres of grounds. Mr. Venn runs a software company and pre-pandemic was spending large amounts of time working in North America, leaving his wife and son home alone. He anticipates a return to traveling at some point, and so late last year the family decided to sell and downsize locally. Triscombe House is listed with Strutt & Parker for offers in excess of $5.4 million. Mr. Venn’s hope is that with growing interest in country properties, and improvements in the area’s train times, buyers will be enticed out of London.
This miniboom in country living has been something of surprise to agents since, until 2020, the prime country house market had not fully shaken off the financial crisis of 2007/2008, a situation subsequently exacerbated by Brexit and increases in buying taxes. Anyone spending $6.8 million on a second home in the U.K will face a $913,700 tax bill payable to the government.
Overseas buyers, meanwhile, tended to focus their attention on London, not the countryside.
While country house prices currently appear enticingly low, particularly when compared with London, inevitably a landmark house costs far more to run than a modern city apartment. Regardless, “people are sensing an opportunity,” said Edward Rook, partner in Knight Frank’s country department. “In the previous three or four years, there have been consistent bumps in the road and [the perfect conditions] people were looking for never came…people have simply decided it’s now or never.”
And the move toward working from home appears to have had a particularly strong impact on the mind-set of Londoners.
“People do not think they are ever going to have to go to the office so often again,” said Mr. Harvey. “They are looking at locations further down the train line.” What they want, said Mr. Harvey, are renovated, low-maintenance houses in proximity to good schools and a pretty village with amenities; a school, shop, and pub are crucial. “They want space to work from home,” he added. “And they don’t want to lose everything they had in a more urban environment.”
Whether the country market can sustain its current momentum depends on imponderables like the aftermath of Brexit and how the pandemic plays out. Mr. Harvey believes demand will continue although price growth may level off. “People’s earnings are not going to go up particularly for the next little while,” he said. “On the other hand, for the last few years country property has been cheap.”
Since the early summer, Jonathan Harington, director of Haringtons buying agency, has been busy helping buyers eager to move to the country. A short national lockdown in November, and the announcement of a third lockdown in early January, underlined the discomfort and boredom of living and working in a small urban home with little or no outside space for weeks upon end.
“I had a lady on the phone yesterday who is desperate to get out of London,” he said. “And in London there are just streets and streets of people living in houses and apartments worth £2 million, £3 million, £4 million. The money is there. It only takes a tiny proportion of them to decide to leave and the country market is busy.”