Divide and rule?

Buy a wing of a grand house, and you get a passport to the country life for the price of a London flat. Now developers are trying to get in on the act, discovers Graham Norwood
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The Independent Online
Bury House, a Grade-II listed mansion, sits at the foot of the South Downs. Its gravel driveway releases the crunch of rural affluence underfoot, while the arched entrance and mullioned windows of the house create a historic Jacobean feel in this most beautiful part of West Sussex. A blue plate tells us that The Forsyte Saga author John Galsworthy lived and wrote here, and his ashes are scattered over the grounds.

Country houses like this are the stuff of British period property and remain beyond the pockets of all but the very few... or do they?

Bury House, or at least a part of it, can be yours for just pounds 395,000, because it is the latest rural retreat to be refurbished and sliced up into more affordable sections (on sale through Cluttons, 01903 882213 and Henry Adams, 01798 872432). Like most other conversions of this kind, the division has been into apartments, but a few houses are split into wings to retain more of their original grandeur.

Take Ty'r Arfon, a country house near Dolgellau in Wales, where you can buy the entire south east wing for pounds 445,000 (Jackson-Stops & Staff, 01244 328361). You get a four bedroom family home spread over two floors of a house, the totality of which was built in the 17th century as a hunting lodge for a Northamptonshire family.

At South Brent in Devon, Marley House - once the home of the Carew family, one of the county's most illustrious landowners - has been split into flats with prices from pounds 215,000 (Luscombe Maye, 01803 863811) to pounds 275,000 (Marchand Petit, 01803 847979). Buyers have large rooms and country views, and can impress friends by inviting them to row the lake or play tennis in the grounds.

What these examples illustrate are just some of the advantages of slicing up a property. "Due to high maintenance costs, repair fees and the often impractically sized living areas of many large houses, there's been a dramatic increase in the popularity of living in just part of a country estate," says Tim Sargeant, of City & Country Group, a developer specialising in such conversions.

Buyers get genuinely unusual homes, often with original mouldings and fireplaces, grand staircases and large private grounds. But they also get all the mod cons (Bury House even has a lift, for example), and some even have a 10-year warrantee from the National House Building Council, as with most brand new homes today.

Sergeant says: "Strict planning means sub-division within mansions and manor houses is kept to a minimum. This ensures a room's original proportions will be incorporated. Therefore apartments will typically be more spacious than their modern counterparts."

His firm has just converted Cheverells, the Hertfordshire mansion that played the role of Virginia Woolf's home in the film The Hours, into 10 apartments starting at pounds 250,000 (01279 817882).

But this house-splitting trend - which has been given fresh impetus by government targets for more homes to be built, and by developers wanting units that can sell for a period premium - has its downsides too.

"You get odd legal situations like flying freeholds, where one flat extends over part of another, although most problems are physical ones such as noise," cautions surveyor Roy Ilott (ILOTT), who has seen a sharp rise in the number of divided country properties.

"New building regulations are strict, but controls over how changing listed buildings - which many conversions are - mean there has to be compromise. Buyers should realise the noise between apartments would be greater than in new flats," he says.

Ilott also believes the running costs of distinctive but eccentric properties can be under-estimated. "You may have a colossal bedroom, made from a former dining room, which looks great but requires heating. Likewise there may be big charges for roof repairs or managing the grounds."

A government planning directive called PPG3 demands more high-density developments on existing sites instead of building brand new homes from scratch. Therefore conversions are looked upon favourably. In many regions of the UK, the proportion of new homes (including conversions) that are flats has risen from 14 per cent in 1997 to over 45 per cent in 2003 and may hit 50 per cent when the 2004 figures are collated.

Now mainstream developers are trying to get in on the conversion act. Try Homes is currently converting Coombe Hall at East Grinstead in Sussex, a 19th century Tudor Revival style house that was used as a school until the 1980s before it became derelict (from pounds 249,000, 01342 410972).

"One of the major problems we encounter is the level of skills available. When these houses were built, tradesmen were tradesmen. They had served apprenticeships and had a high level of craftsmanship. This level of skill is a lot harder to find today and when plasterwork or gilding needs to be repaired we have to bring in the experts," says Try's MD Paul Cooper.

Compared with the price of a full house, a flat may be a cheap way of buying into the country set - but the pound per square foot cost of an apartment in a converted mansion is usually 30 per cent or more above that of a totally new-built one in a similar area.

"You're paying for lifestyle, but it's also very expensive," says Roy Illot. Now, where did I put my tweeds?

For Against

l You'll impress your friends

l Fabulous, distinctive country properties with large rooms

l All mod cons in period homes

l Usually good car parking facilities in generous grounds

l Stunning communal gardens and facilities

l Higher service charges for communal areas

l High heating charges, as rooms can be much larger

l Perhaps less than good sound-proofing between apartments

l Eccentric legal

status for some

units, such as

flying freeholds