Country lifestyle

The country house market has been affected by the economic climate, but there is good news for buyers and sellers alike. By Robert Liebman

To explain the turbulence that is beginning to swirl in Britain's property market, the butterfly of chaos theory is inadequate. Asia is in economic crisis, banks are folding and, recently, flutters in Brazil caused anxiety in America. The critters that are bugging the global economic air currents are hippos with wings. Buckle in.

The country-property market is strongly influenced by City sons and daughters of toil, whose bonuses routinely run to six figures and who buy properties for seven.

"If someone who has just got a bonus is competing on a purchase, anything can happen," says Patrick Doyne of Stacks Relocation Services. "Not long ago, six different buyers bid over pounds 2m for a country house. We ended up with five unsatisfied unrequited buyers who then pushed prices up elsewhere. But for the foreseeable future, these bonuses may not continue."

Also affecting the country market is a subtle geographical shift as previously remote areas are brought closer to the cities. "Train links to Yorkshire, with only two-hour journey times to York, provide great flexibility," says Henry Holland-Hibbert of Lane Fox estate agents. "The new road linking the M4 to the M5 via Cirencester and Gloucester has brought parts of Herefordshire and west Gloucestershire within a two-hour drive of London, and prices can be 30 to 40 per cent lower than in the Home Counties.

"The prime areas are popular parts of Berkshire, Hampshire and West Sussex within a 50-mile band, closely followed by the Cotswolds, which because of their charm and architectural beauty can be up to 100 miles."

Improved travel links mean that an outer area moves closer to the centre circle. Put south Wales on your map, suggests Paul Greenwood of Stacks. "It is closer than Dorset, and infinitely cheaper." He also recommends North Somerset, between Bristol and Taunton. "Train service is not very good in Herefordshire, but is excellent between South Wales and London. You can buy a decent cottage with a nice garden for pounds 150,000-pounds 200,000."

Longer drives are also becoming acceptable to buyers who, thanks to modern technology and sporadically empty nests, can take long weekends. Mr Doyne says: "Some buyers are using telecommunications links to work from their country home on Fridays and Mondays. They are planning for a time when their kids are in boarding school, and they no longer have to do the school run every day. They won't have to be in London five days a week." Instead of Friday and Sunday night tailback trials, they can drive off-peak.

Regardless of journey times, urbanites buying country properties are generally disadvantaged during the viewing process. "I often recommend that, if people are doubtful about an area, they rent for a while, and you can see which are the nicer villages," says Mr Holland-Hibbert of a strategy which works for single people as well as families.

"A few years ago, three single men rented a nice country house for about a year in Wiltshire. They wanted to get away from London, and, by pooling their resources, they got a bigger house with a larger garden than they could have afforded individually."

Money also goes further if the property itself is in reduced circumstances. For their primary residence, most purchasers want an off-the-peg house requiring no work at all. But a country retreat, needing even considerable refurbishing, might be acceptable to an owner who intends occasional use and doesn't have to occupy immediately.

Hoards Park needs to be reawakened. In its day, the 400-year-old house near Bridgnorth in Shropshire billeted Oliver Cromwell's troops, was remodelled after a fire, and has remained pretty much unimproved since then. The fire was in 1847. The main house has seven bedrooms, and planning permission has been granted for use of the outbuildings as private dwellings. For the estate and 15 acres, the vendors hope to pocket about pounds 500,000.

Also in Shropshire, dating from the early 16th century but much cheaper, is Royal Oak, a Grade II five-bedroom part-timbered farmhouse on two acres, with a bread oven, cheese room, and bedroom that King Charles may have slept in. The asking price is pounds 220,000. Both are available through Lane Fox.

Market movement has been slowed by lack of supply, hurting buyer and seller alike. Mr Greenwood says: "I expect substantially more family homes on the market by spring 1999. Vendors will sell without the fear of finding themselves homeless, and purchasers will have more choice and won't be pressed into buying unsuitable property."

"Confidence in the current market has been knocked by the turmoil in the City and economic world instability. However, the country house market doesn't change overnight and it may take some time for the true picture to become clear," says Mr Holland-Hibbert.

"We are still receiving a good flow of properties to sell, but overpriced properties or those with problems will be harder to shift."

Lane Fox (Shrewsbury): 01743 353511; Stacks (Warwickshire): 01608 661594; Stacks (Wiltshire): 01666 860523

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