Autumn Property Survey: Foreign clients shop for castles and cottages

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Anyone with a castle to spare? Stephen Pirrie would welcome a call, as he is looking for seven. Mind you, an ordinary family home in Esher or a flat in Bath would come in useful as well.

The flood of overseas interest in UK property has thrown up a wide range of demand. Pirrie, from estate agents Hamptons, needs the castles to satisfy a surge of interest from Taiwan. Meanwhile, he is still running around trying to satisfy demand from Russians, Turks, Italians, Americans and Far Eastern buyers for more modest abodes.

Modesty is a relative term, however. The Greeks like quietly understated neo-Georgian homes. 'Ex-King Constantine bought the most inconspicuous house in Hampstead garden Suburb,' says Trevor Abrahmsohn of Glentree Estates. But they pay between pounds 1m and pounds 3m for the privilege.

So is there a chance for less well-appointed owners who have had problems convincing local buyers to open their wallets? That depends on what is on offer. Far Eastern buyers are mainly investors, who see Britain as a safe place to stash their cash. But they have a habit of sticking to certain types and locations.

Most of the homes they buy will be rented out, so they must be attractive to tenants. That usually means a spick-and-span home in a good location with a well-known address.

'It must be new or recently refurbished and very good looking,' says Mr Pirrie.

Flats in the posher parts of central London such as Knightsbridge, Kensington and St John's Wood sell like hot cakes - a major reason why prices have raced ahead by around 20 per cent over the last year. The norm would be a two-bed apartment on the upper floors ranging from pounds 200,000 to pounds 400,000.

But a good deal will draw buyers out of these golden areas. Barratt has transformed its image in the last few years from brick-box manufacturer to purveyor of neo-Georgian crescents. That has led to pounds 20m worth of deals with overseas buyers over the last 18 months.

'They want classical elegance and good parking,' says the Barratt South chairman, David Pretty. A third of the 280 flats at Sovereign View, overlooking the Thames in London's Docklands, have gone to Far Eastern buyers at prices between pounds 60,000 and pounds 130,000. Foreign investors have even taken houses in a similar price range in an unglamorous area like Hendon.

But there is still hope for owners falling outside these criteria. Many foreigners buy for themselves rather than investment. A Middle-Eastern buyer, for instance, has just paid pounds 385,000 for a five-bedroom family home in Kingston, and an American has taken a 1930s home in Esher for pounds 340,000, says Pirrie.

Surrey is a favourite area because it is accessible to Heathrow and Gatwick -always a comfort for overseas buyers. It is also a short hop from London and the Thames Valley, where many forign-owned businesses are based. Barratt has sold four of the 33 homes in its Imperial Crescent in Weybridge to foreigners at between pounds 350,000 and pounds 400,000 Other magnets include Bath and Tunbridge Wells, where expats buy for future retirement.

Education is influential. The Japanese gravitate to their car plants, so they can turn up on doorsteps in Swindon and Derby. London is the favourite, however, where they insist on being near Japanese schools.

In fact, education is a powerful all-round influence. Foreigners often buy flats around Oxford and Cambridge, where their children are are studying.

Or they may hark back to their own days at public school. Two Egyptian brothers retain such affection for Marlborough College that they have just bought two nearby cottages as their UK base for pounds 70,000 and pounds 100,000, says Hamptons.

(Photograph omitted)