Property: Welcome to expatriate country

The Home Counties are becoming decidedly cosmopolitan and landlords are delighted, reports Robert Liebman

RAISING THE white flag is the only sensible option for most British families thinking of renting a house in the Home Counties. Hordes of multinational managers have invaded, and, in a war whose weapons consist exclusively of money, they are winning hands down. According to Canterbury estate agent Christopher Hodgson, "localised situations drive the lettings market. East Kent is driven by Pfizer Pharmaceuticals and Canterbury University, and west Kent is a dormitory for London". In the Surrey, Berkshire and Buckingham corridor, multinationals such as Sony and Procter & Gamble are the magnets, but "regardless of where the husband works, it is the school that determines where the family rents", says Terry Ward-Hall, of JSC Lettings, in Virginia Water.

The school is usually American, even if the family isn't. "For the international expatriate community, the one constant, regardless of which country they are sent to, is the American school," Mr Ward-Hall explains. Linda, a well travelled American who used to work for the Surrey multinational that employs her husband, confirms this view: "Our children's schools are primarily American, but a total of 42 countries are represented."

In the early 1990s, Linda, Don and their three teenage children lived in a large rented Sunningdale house, until the recession meant that they and thousands like them were repatriated. When the recession ended, overseas placements picked up again, in even greater numbers. Back on English soil three years ago, Linda quickly saw the consequences of huge demand chasing limited supply: "We knew what the rents had been only a few years earlier, and they had gone up pounds 2,000 a month."

Expats were so desperate that they immediately rented any property which was minimally acceptable. Some of the desperation is due to the constraints of corporate house-hunting. Despite excellent relocation support service provided by Don's firm, they had only one week in which to find and secure a home. Linda had become worried when "nothing seemed available except Virginia Park in Virginia Water. They call it the expat ghetto". However, they preferred Agas over Americans and rustic over suburban, and they were fortunate in finding an ideal home at the last minute.

Other families were not so lucky: "We hear of many families who had enormous difficulty finding a nice house, and even now our friends ask us to notify them if we are leaving," Linda says. Even for them, a tenant's life can be fraught: "We have a lease, although not everyone does. The leases are typically for a year minus a day with renewal clauses. At renewal, the owner can come back. I know people who have had to move every year."

Linda and Don have not been inconvenienced by returning landlords. But when the boss says it is time to up sticks, they have to do so, in fairly short order: "Minimum notice from Don's company is three months. That's the part that is hardest for the children." If they vacated now, Linda has no doubts that the house would be relet immediately and at a higher rent.

"After we left England in 1993, we heard that our house was vacant for nine months, but there are far more expats here now. The American Women of Surrey has about three times more members than when we were here before. Traditionally the wife follows the husband, but now I see more women managers coming, trailing husbands."

Many multinational firms contribute to at least part of the rent and, as the rents soar, they have little choice but to do so. Victoria Lamb, of Oak Residential Lettings, in Weybridge, says that monthly rentals greater than pounds 10,000 are not unusual, "and the going rate for 10,000 sq ft in the exclusive St Georges Hill, for example, is pounds 15,000". Rent of pounds 10,000- plus usually means a mansion, indoor swimming-pool and spacious grounds. More typical rents are in the pounds 5,000-pounds 10,000 range, and, these days, furniture may not be included: "Since the new fire regulations a few years ago, some landlords are starting to rent unfurnished properties, and many Americans are bringing their furniture with them," says Ms Lamb. Tenants and their employers are also pressuring landlords to provide longer leases. Ms Lamb says: "The typical lease used to be for six months or a year, but now people want to rent longer, they don't want to be chucked out after a year. Increasingly the company wants an employee to sign a lease with options to renew for a second and third year."

She also believes that some property owners are cheating themselves by harbouring old-fashioned views of the landlord-tenant battlefield: "More and more people are coming over to work and live here, and landlords should realise that the law protects them today much more than in the past." Some landlords are all too well aware of the balance of forces. "I had a tenant who was so desperate to find a place that she agreed to rent a flat as soon as we opened the door. The landlord doesn't do any maintenance, and the tenant is doing the maintenance herself. Some landlords are taking advantage."

The few British renters in this area tend to be transients of one sort or another, says Fiona Honey, residential letting manager of Curchods: "They are between houses because of divorce or young couples just starting out or someone returning from an overseas posting. They expect to pay pounds 1,000 or pounds 1,200 maximum, and when they discover the extortionate amounts of the actual rents, they are stunned." If they stay for any length of time, it is as owners, not tenants.

Christopher Hodgson Estate Agents, 01227 266441

Curchods, 01932 857705

JSC Lettings, 01344 845535

Oak Residential, 01932 821 611

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