Rush on to find a rural retreat

Country homes boom: Return of the big City bonus means that demand for the grand old houses outstrips the number for sale
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The Independent Online
Wanted: period house in the country, five bedrooms, three bathrooms, paddock, private grounds, near to mainline station and motorway, within two or three hours of London.

Country homes are in short supply. Estate agents say there is growing demand for a house in the country - particularly from City workers as top-level bonuses rise to Eighties levels - but few grand properties are coming onto the market. The result is that houses are snapped up within days of being advertised and gazumping has returned with many potential buyers waiting months for a suitable home to appear.

In the latest residential property survey of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, over one third of agents reported a sharp increase in the value of country properties, with 70 per cent of agents marking the trend in London and the home counties.

Rob Thomas, a housing market analyst for the stockbrokers UBS, said: "The country homes market is certainly buoyant at the moment and increased size of City bonuses is a major factor. We're not seeing the silly salaries of the late Eighties, but bonuses can be very good. This is not necessarily a new thing, but the higher salaries have been masked until recently by the numbers of people being made redundant."

Recent figures have shown that 110,000 people in Britain now earn at least pounds 100,000 per year, he says, many of whom earn substantially above that figure. He estimates that around 100 people earn above pounds 1m.

Another major factor is the improving fortunes of the Lloyds names. "There is light at the end of the tunnel now for the Lloyds names," he says, "a large number of whom live in big houses outside London." Many had been forced to sell up over the past three years, which affected the market.

Graham Waterton, of Strutt and Parker in Salisbury, said there was an acute shortage of country properties in his area. "The housing market is polarised at the moment: the country house market is experiencing a mini-boom, while the rest of the market is fairly stable," he says.

Buyers are less likely to get trapped in the high mortgages that were the trend of the Eighties, he explains, and more likely to make large down-payments, where the capital could be one or two years' bonus. "I had a chap come in here once and buy a house with his year's bonus of pounds 650,000," he says.

One family hindered by the boom are the Robinsons. When their children reached school age they decided to sell their two houses in west London to make their principal home in the country, perhaps keeping a flat in the capital. Three years later, they are still looking for a suitable property and the current boost to the country house market is not making things any easier.

"It is just terrifying," says Mrs Robinson. "We had a place to move to, but we were gazumped. Since then we have been renting in the Salisbury area, where we eventually hope to live. The problem is that no-one can find anywhere to buy, so everyone is renting and there is now a shortage of places for rent." The family were living in holiday cottages until a house came up for six months rental while the owners went abroad. That house was the country home the Robinsons had been gazumped trying to buy.

"So, now we live in the house and it's perfect: ten minutes from both the girls' schools, near a good road, private grounds, close to a mainline station," says Mrs Robinson. "The trouble is, come October and we're homeless again. There's just nowhere to buy."

This is bad news for buyers like the Robinsons. "When a house does eventually come on the market, people like us have to go and agree a mortgage with bank and go through all the paperwork," says Mrs Robinson. "These bankers just come in with their pounds 50-100,000 bonuses, slam them down on the table and the house has gone."