They are large, rare and exorbitantly expensive to maintain. But the traditional English country estate has proved surprisingly resilient to the long-term stagnation experienced across the prime housing market. This is largely down to demand from a new breed of global buyer with half an eye on the weak pound and a love of country pursuits. “More country estates were sold during 2017 than for a number of years previously, often off-market and mainly to overseas buyers,” says Crispin Holborow, country director at Savills Private Office.
Clive Hopkins, head of country estates and farm sales at Knight Frank, goes so far as to describe the market for country estates as “robust”. “It is a question of supply, or rather lack of supply,” he says. “Only six properties might come to market in an entire year.” However, analysing the market isn’t easy, as there is no formal definition of a country estate. For Hopkins, the tipping point between a prime country house and a country estate is size. Acreage varies, but is usually a minimum of 200 to 300 acres, featuring cottages, a farmhouse or dower house, forests, farmland and equestrian facilities, as well as opportunities for shooting or fishing. A folly or two, a sprinkle of ornamental lakes, and parkland are also desirable. An estate’s main house can be as small – relatively speaking – as 750sq m, but generally tends to be closer to 1,850sq m.
Architectural style apart, an estate should present the kind of breathtaking good looks that would induce a Jane Austen heroine to feel a little faint. One such property is Hackwood Park, near Basingstoke in Hampshire (price on request through Sotheby’s International Realty). The Grade II* listed 19th-century mansion house is grand, and at more than 4,650sq m has no fewer than 24 bedrooms and 20 bathrooms. It is surrounded by immaculately maintained formal gardens, and there are several lodges and houses within its 260 acreage. Its most recent resident was Lady Camrose, mother of the Aga Khan, who died in 1997.
With a main building of “merely” 1,300sq m and grounds of 68 acres, Nazeing Park House (£8.75m through John D Wood & Co) is more mini-estate than true country spread. Nonetheless, the 18th-century white-stucco house, resplendent with neoclassical columns, is exquisitely pretty and spacious enough to accommodate nine bedrooms. There’s also separate staff or guest accommodation, and the location on the Hertfordshire/Essex borders is convenient for a commute to London.
Sporting estates are a different breed altogether. Often covering tens of thousands of acres in the stunning Scottish Uplands, their setting tends to be much more attractive than the living accommodation, which could politely be described as rustic. “It is a moot point, but fishing and shooting remain mostly male-dominated environments. As such, there is less of a requirement for a sporting estate to be a home,” Holborow says.
Those selling country estates are as varied as the properties. Hopkins’ clients are often traditional families who have fallen upon straitened times, having faced generations of inheritance tax and rising maintenance bills. “A house might have been in the family for several hundred years, but the owners have reached a point where they can’t afford to keep the roof on the property,” he says. At the other end of the spectrum, Hopkins occasionally comes across “upsizers”. “They want to trade up to an even bigger estate with more land, further from London and perhaps with fishing or shooting.”
Joanna Cocking, head of prime and country house at Hamptons International, cites fatigue as a key reason for the sale of country estates. “It may have been a dream for years, but often owners come to realise that the sheer scale of running the estate is overwhelming,” she says. “It consumes too much of their disposable time and income.” Cocking likens running an estate to running a business. Excess land can be rented out to local farmers, but gardeners and grounds staff will need to be hired and managed, as well as cleaners and housekeepers. Maintenance bills will be high and the work will require organisation. An estate manager could be hired to assist, but there will be administration to oversee on a daily basis.
Adding to the responsibilities are the expectations of the local community, who might be accustomed to the “big house” hosting a diary of annual events, from Christmas drinks and hunt meets to cricket matches and open days. “It definitely depends on personality; not everybody likes to do this, and some people have an issue with security,” says Cocking.
On the other side of the proverbial fence are the buyers. Jonathan Harington, director of Haringtons buying agency, has seen a long-term shift from wealthy bankers with country roots “who purchase a mansion of 1,000 acres or more so they can organise a shoot or ask their friends to stay”. He now finds that these financial-sector buyers prefer to rent a shoot and buy a second home overseas.
Sometimes, wealthy farmers step into the breach. Harington cites several cases of farmers selling off land for house building, then reinvesting their multi‑million-pound profits in a country estate with farmland – an arrangement that allows them to avoid capital gains tax. But the main players herald from overseas.
Mark Lawson, a partner at The Buying Solution, says that international buyers are partly motivated by the plunge in the value of the pound following the Brexit vote, but also by a genuine love of the countryside and country sports during years of living in London. “Often, they have been invited to the estates of friends for stalking, hunting and fishing, and they want to return the invitation.” Kingston Lisle Park in Oxfordshire (£18m through Knight Frank) would be a marvellous location for such a weekend party. The house is spectacular and, with 13 bedrooms, provides ample room for guests. The house is set in almost 260 acres and, as well as formal gardens and parkland, there is a golf course and pheasant shoot.
Henbury Hall (£20m through Savills) in Cheshire will appeal to buyers with equestrian interests. The palladian-style mansion – built in the 1980s by the late electronics magnate Sebastian de Ferranti – has an exquisite Grade II-listed stable block and a polo field, and is set within 12 acres of gardens. The property comes with a further 530 acres of parkland, farmland and woodland, and half‑a‑dozen separate houses and cottages.
The uncertainty created by Brexit has done little to dampen buyers’ enthusiasm for the quintessential country pile. “We would have expected more concern over Brexit, but while the income an estate makes is helpful, it is not a commercial venture,” says Holborow. “If an estate costs £200,000 a year to maintain and its income is £100,000, a drop to £80,000 will not dissuade buyers.”
The largest outlay is, of course, the initial purchase of the property. Prices vary with size and location, but agents agree that a country estate is worth more than the sum of its parts. “You might value every element, add them up and then add a “marriage value” because of the desirability of having all those things together,” says Hopkins, who suggests that a top‑notch estate could command a marriage value of 25 per cent.
Lawson concurs that a really special property with wow factor attracts a premium. “It is not a science, but more of a gut feeling that a particular house, or its land, or setting, is so special that it is going to sell really well. I have heard of people offering double what the assets are worth to secure the property.”
Sweetening this pill is an important tax loophole that many estates currently benefit from. A property that incorporates some form of commercial element may qualify for the mixed-use stamp duty rate – although as with any tax matter, professional advice is crucial. “You pay five per cent on the whole property, which is a huge saving,” Harington says. “There is a grey area in terms of how exactly mixed use is defined, but an estate that is farmed ought to qualify.”
Not only is the profile of country-estate buyers changing, but also the way in which such properties are sold. According to Lawson, vendors traditionally prefer the privacy of an off-market sale. As a result, many of the grandest estates change hands so discreetly that even locals have no knowledge of the new owners. “Sellers worry about putting an estate on the market that then fails to achieve the price they want,” he says.
There are indications that there has been a shift in this mindset. “Six months ago, I would have said that most estates are sold off-market,” Cocking explains. “Post Brexit, we are encouraging sellers to be brave and to market their property.”