Manors maketh man

If you've come into a fortune and want an impressive country house, you might find buying it is surprisingly difficult. Penny Jackson investigates why some sellers come across all coy when it comes to selling
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Who hasn't leafed through a property newspaper or magazine extolling the delights of some glorious country house and wondered "what if"? The price could be £2 million, £4 million, £6 million - it doesn't matter because the dream stops short of taking real money into the calculations. A fleeting lifestyle fantasy that is fun while it lasts.

Who hasn't leafed through a property newspaper or magazine extolling the delights of some glorious country house and wondered "what if"? The price could be £2 million, £4 million, £6 million - it doesn't matter because the dream stops short of taking real money into the calculations. A fleeting lifestyle fantasy that is fun while it lasts.

But what if you are struck by good fortune; a wise investment, a City bonus, an inheritance, a lottery win? There are those who find themselves catapulted into a purchasing price bracket that is as unfamiliar as it is unexpected. Suddenly, a substantial property in acres of land with gardens, tennis court, stables, outbuildings and cottages is within reach.

But as the new kid on the block, getting to look around one of these houses is not as easy as picking up the phone to the agents in the hope of arranging a viewing the next morning. They will want to make sure you are bona fide and will not be wasting the seller's time - and even though these inquiries will be conducted in the nicest possible way, you can't escape the fact that you are being checked out.

As well as those people who are merely curious about houses of this kind and would be satisfied after a good snoop, there are fantasists who present themselves as plausible buyers. And, of course, there are those whose interest in looking around an expensive house full of expensive possessions has a more sinister purpose.

From the outset, the estate agent who is selling the property uses the marketing process to build up a picture of the buyers. They may not realise it, but even the simple step of sending out a brochure is an important one.

"We always make sure someone has a brochure before we allow any viewings," says Rupert Sweeting from property agents Knight Frank. "We then have the buyer's address, and if they have given us one that seems odd we can ask some more searching questions. We might like to know how long they have been looking and why they are moving. Without offending them you can tell whether they are for real. As further security we always get a landline as well as a mobile number." With good reason, if the experience of David Forbes from Chesterfield estate agency is anything to go by. "I had a chap telephone saying he ran the Middle East desk of an investment bank and wanted to make an offer on a house around £3.5 million," Forbes says. "He instructed lawyers and surveyors and the seller was delighted. But his business line was always on answer and referred us to his mobile. He would say he was travelling and promised to call back , which he did, although nothing moved forward. Eventually someone picked up the work phone and said it was the computer storeroom at the bank. Our chap was a cleaner there. But he was so plausible."

That said, most buyers come with a track record and the agent will know where they work and more than a little about their finances. New money laundering legislation covering the property market makes that all the more essential. Those who appear out of the blue will undoubtedly find themselves being asked for a financial reference and the person who objects will immediately set off alarm bells. While estate agents are familiar with tax efficient methods such as buying through an offshore trust, they still have to weigh up the risks on behalf of the seller.

"I am very nervous of anyone using an off -the- shelf company with no assets," says Rupert Sweeting. "There must be something tangible there." When it comes to showing properties to buyers, Knight Frank use a specialist team who are sharp at picking up anything untoward. "Their radar is on and they have a good instinct if things don't stack up," says Sweeting.

But as with any sale, nothing is certain until contracts have been exchanged, and while the reasons for a buyer's pulling out of one of these multi-million-pound sales are often trivial and unfathomable, the effects on the seller of having a potential buyer getting cold feet can be as traumatic as those affecting the seller of the average "semi".

The owners of Morebath Manor in Bampton, Devon which is currently on the market with Knight Frank with a guide price of £2 million, were let down twice last year by buyers. One, who left all the decisions to his wife, discovered at the last moment that it was too far from Heathrow airport. Wealthy, remote buyers whose heart is not in it also come with a health warning even if it is different in nature from the person with shaky finances who falls in love with a property. At present there has been a keen interest in the Victorian Grade II-listed mansion, which is in immaculate condition. Close to Exmoor, it is in 21 acres, with walled gardens and lovely views.

One type of buyer who is popular comes via a buying agency. Rupert Bradstock who heads up Property Vision - part of HSBC private bank and one such agency - says the company can run exhaustive checks on clients who aren't referred to them. "Sellers can be certain we will have established that everything is in place for a quick sale, sometimes within 48 hours," he says.

In the country-house market, agents often recommend a seller gets a survey. Lane Fox is selling a particularly fine listed Georgian house that is in need of refurbishment. Stags End House in Redbourn, Hertfordshire with its impressive neo-classical façade, has outbuildings and an overgrown pool and tennis court. The £2.5 million price tag includes more than seven acres of land. A second lot of 13 acres is being sold separately for £100,000.

Also through Lane Fox is Broomfields in Frensham, Surrey, a small estate in 100 acres of its own pastureland. The house dates back to the 1750s and has many exposed oak timbers, although unlike many beamed houses, it has good sized windows and ceiling heights. It has eight bedrooms and five bathrooms as well as a coach house with a flat. It also has a billiard room, tennis court, swimming pool and a lake and its guidehas a guide price of £2.5 million.

Henry Holland-Hibbert, head of the country-house department with Lane Fox, says that selling large country houses often involves particular discretion if someone famous is involved. "We might ask people to sign a confidentiality clause. Some clients will move out altogether while we market the property in order to protect their privacy."

It certainly isn't advisable to take buyers at face value. David Forbes knows of one agent who must be rueing the day he ignored a scruffy young man wearing a baseball cap. "The young man went round the corner and spent £4 million."

Knight Frank: 020-7629 8171; Chesterfield: 020-7581 5234; Property Vision: 01488 669 900; Lane Fox: 020-7499 4785