Practice run for the rural retreat

Are you considering moving to the country but not sure whether you're ready to take the plunge? A rental property might be the solution. Penny Jackson meets one London commuter who is enjoying a slice of rural history for a snip
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The Independent Online

It can be a huge relief to find that the dream cottage in the country you have been searching for is for rent but not for sale. If it is intended to be used only as a holiday and weekend retreat then blissful days stretch ahead, free of any obligation to restore and improve.

It can be a huge relief to find that the dream cottage in the country you have been searching for is for rent but not for sale. If it is intended to be used only as a holiday and weekend retreat then blissful days stretch ahead, free of any obligation to restore and improve.

Since we are all conditioned to the idea that a property, even in the remotest of spots, can only be appreciated after it has undergone a massive refurbishment, it might seem unusual for a country retreat to be valued purely for its location. But for those people who value the setting more than the house itself, renting is an ideal means to an end.

Paul Vinycombe, who lives and works in south-east London, started to look at ways he could spend part of his week in the country. He was drawn to Sussex, a county he knew well, and in particular to one of its largest estates where he knew they had a number of properties. Within a surprisingly short time one became available - but only for renting.

"I didn't hesitate because it is unique," he says. "You would never find anything like this for sale. It is an old gamekeeper's cottage surrounded by farmland and where no other house is visible. You have to go down a mile-and-a-half of farm track to reach it - nothing like a made-up road.

Vinycombe was happy to take the cottage in its simple state - a trade-off for its wonderful position. "It has been maintained to a minimum level and is workmanlike, which is exactly the right approach. I have a bathroom from the Fifties with lino on the floor, but that doesn't matter because there is something honest about it. If I owned it, I would be tempted to improve it and there is a danger that in doing that I would damage the very thing that makes it so special," he explains.

"You learn to just sit quietly and watch the wildlife in some of the best landscape in England. It takes a lot of patience to do things so slowly but it doesn't seem right to rush into any kind of job. I realise that just because you can make changes doesn't mean that you should."

This would be music to the ears of most country estate owners, who need to find tenants sympathetic to their job of managing, in some cases, thousands of acres. Their main purpose is to keep the estate together and make the properties pay for themselves. They have no need to make expensive alterations when there are people waiting to take on a cottage with charm in a beautiful location and pay as much as £800 a month for it.

The overriding advantage of renting somewhere as a weekend place or a main home is not having to shoulder the responsibility of maintenance. Nicholas Rooke, head of residential lettings with Strutt & Parker in Canterbury, says that people are not always aware how much work is needed on the upkeep of an old house. "It is good to know that someone else has the job of cutting the grass and cleaning the gutters. Also, once a place has been found, everything can be set up in a couple of weeks. There is usually a waiting list for the choicest places."

Apart from those tenants who have no intention ever of buying a property, renting is a useful way to get to know a village or wider area first. The rather uncertain economic climate is further reason to delay buying, especially if the prospective purchaser is sitting on the proceeds of a property sold at the top of the market.

In east Kent, Nicholas Rooke says that anything commanding more than £2,000 a month would be exceptional. Rental prices reflect the fact that it is beyond easy commuting distance to London. A good farm cottage would be around £500 to £600 a month and a farmhouse between £1,000 and £2,000 a month.

"It is not wasted money for anyone who has failed to find the right house to buy. Some people rush into a purchase and then regret it later and that can be an expensive mistake when stamp duty alone might be as much as £30,000," he says.

Another advantage of renting is the prospect of living in a beautiful home that would rarely, if ever, come on to the market and even if it did would be the subject of competitive bidding.

One such property is available for rent on a private estate near Cranbrook, Kent, just 12 miles from Ashford and in the hills of High Weald. Halden Place is a Grade II-listed manor that was built on the foundations of a much earlier house associated with Lady Jane Grey, Queen of England for nine days in 1554. Offers, through Strutt & Parker, in the region of £3,500 a month.

In the Cotswolds, another area sought after by purchasers seeking a country retreat or weekend cottage, it is possible to rent for around £700 a month, according to Jacqueline Smith from the Oxford office of John D Wood. About 70 per cent of those renting intend to buy eventually, she finds, and at present those rents are pretty much negotiable.

Close to Oxford and Woodstock, a cottage has just come up for rent in Kirtlington, opposite a park that has its own polo ground. The cottage, known as the Granary, has four bedrooms, two bathrooms, two reception rooms and a pretty walled garden. It is also furnished with lovely antiques. The monthly rent is around £1,850.

Although a property on a country estate is unlikely ever to be sold, there are those landlords who would welcome an offer and are only letting until such time as a purchaser comes along. Paul Vinycombe is happier knowing that any offer for his cottage would be rejected. "If it were for sale I could not resist joining the queue. But I think it far better that it stays in the hands of the estate."

Strutt & Parker: 01227 473708

John D Wood: 01865 311522