Theo James-Wright has been a UK-based Property Sales Negotiator for almost 10 years and covers the prime country desk within Savills Country Department Team. Theo has extensive knowledge of luxury rural real estate and vast experience selling some of the finest country homes, residential estates, farms, agricultural and equestrian properties across the UK. As a high-net-worth property advisor focusing on properties in excess of £3m, Theo has specialised local knowledge of Rural Surrey, East Hants, and West Sussex. According to data from Savills' quarterly prime house price index, country properties have seen an increase in value and as luxury property buyers crave lifestyle shifts, the market has seen its most active year since the 1980s. In this conversation, Theo discusses what factors are driving this surge in interest for rural properties, and the many things to consider when making an investment purchase of this nature.
Luxury Rural Real Estate In The UK
What is most appealing about owning a home in the British countryside?
British country homes come in all guises, the ‘quintessential’ Georgian house I would say appeals the most, and certainly with Netflix shows like Bridgerton, that’s only enhanced the demand for these ‘Jane Austen-esque’ homes.
Traditionally, moving out of the city and out to the country is considered something people chose to do in later life. Is this still the case, or are you seeing younger homebuyers?
We’re seeing younger buyers moving out, a lot of Wandsworth/Clapham-based buyers making a sideways move financially with kids due to easing of needing to be in London for work.
How has Covid-19 impacted the UK property market for countryside real estate?
Covid has absolutely impacted the country market, both sales and lettings. This year alone Savills Country Department has had a 91% increase in buyer activity, stock levels have been their lowest in a long time, we have something like 5 buyers per available property in the country department.
With more people working from home, do you think homebuyers are less hung up on purchasing a property that’s near a train station or easily commutable into the city?
Absolutely, there is a big compromise being taken towards train station proximity now that Mon-Fri commuting has reduced massively.
Investing In A Countryside Property
What are the most popular areas that London families look at when investing in a countryside property?
A lot of key commuter areas can usually be traced back to London, and a lot of areas like South West London or West London usually give an easy pilgrimage to follow. For example, we get a lot of wealthy Wandsworth-based families who move out to Surrey or West Sussex, both permanently or for second homes away from the inner city. More West London-based families seem to focus around the M40 corridor, up to Oxford for the Soho Farmhouse set, and a lot end up in the private estates in North Surrey/Berkshire.
Buying Land vs Buying A Property
When it comes to investing in the countryside, what would you say is a smarter option: buying land or buying a house?
If you have a clear plan as to what you want to build, and you’ve had experience before, and you’ve got patience, then land is fab (and also like hen’s teeth, for the good plots). One of the main problems is the conservation area you might be in, so Surrey Hills AONB, The South Downs National Park which covers most of West Sussex and bits of Hampshire. You may have to deal with major grief going through planning with SDNP (South Downs National Park) and if the house exists and it’s listed, some architects won’t even take you on because of the stress the planners can apply. If you can get an unlisted house in a conservation area, this is a great middle ground.
Renting vs Buying a Country Home
What should people consider when deciding between renting vs buying a country home?
I honestly don’t know why more people don’t rent first, when you think about the unholy figures some end up paying on stamp duty, buying a big lump in an area they’ve never lived in, it’s terrifying! For any family moving out who doesn’t have a firm grip on the community and area, I would say rent first, see how you feel, and if you like the area, then go for it. Second homeowners I think can be a little bit more relaxed, as it’s less focused on the community and more about the setting and enjoyment of the house.
What leisure facilities are most sought after within countryside properties?
Pools have become increasingly popular as of late, even more so amongst second homeowners. We get a lot of those looking for equestrian searches, but the ultimate search is for a house in the most peaceful setting, with open views, and sat in the middle of its own unspoiled land! (hen's teeth!)
Future Predictions for the UK Property Market
What are your future predictions for the UK property market? Do you think there will be a post-pandemic exodus from London, a rise or fall in house prices?
This is such a difficult one to answer. I personally think there are a lot of potential sellers who have wanted to sell to make a lifestyle adjustment but have just spent the past 12 months falling back in love with their country home, reinvesting time, energy and money into it. They are probably not planning on going abroad much until the threat of Covid-19 is over the hill, travel can resume and life goes back to normal. I think those ‘lifestyle adjusters’ will re-engage with the world and make their move to downsize, allowing more stock to become available and possibly softening the premium some properties are achieving, due to lack of stock.
What should a potential buyer consider when embarking on purchasing a country residence?
I think buyers need to consider what’s important to them, many of those moving out of London are used to having every lifestyle choice available under the sun to them. There’s no Deliveroo or Uber in most parts of rural life! Some people can think bigger is better, but actually going from a 3,000sqft house to a 10,000sqft house is a huge seismic change to living and living costs. Also remember some houses are on oil and have private drainage, so some new life admin which some may find tedious.
As an expert property agent who specialises in acquiring country properties, what is your opinion on purchasing a property which requires renovation vs finished homes?
This one is so personal and case by case, because I’ve had buyers seek out one and end up with the other. Renovations, again, can be a nightmare if it’s listed and if you’re in a strict conservation area. Buying a finished home, particularly now, can come with a serious premium attached.
Environmentally Conscious Homebuyers
Designed by Woulfe is increasingly committed to sustainable interior design practices, both within our operations and our design choices, and we are seeing far greater interest in this from clients too. Would you say homebuyers are becoming more environmentally conscious, for example looking for homes that utilise renewable energy sources such as solar panels, etc?
Can you tell us a bit about some of the factors people are installing/finding the most appealing? Buyers are becoming more conscious, but I don’t think we’re there yet with buyers taking a negative view and it becoming an active factor in deciding to not buy a house. Many of my buyers are focused on renewable energy, with a huge focus on ground source heat pumps, which can hugely reduce running costs.
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