There have been plenty of times over the years when it has seemed that the only people interested in buying very large houses wanted them for business, not pleasure. If these fine period homes were to survive, they had to start paying for themselves - and that meant anything from hotels to corporate headquarters.
But now the tide is turning. Buyers with deep pockets but a limited choice are taking a hard look at properties that have outgrown their commercial usefulness but have all the inherent qualities of a grand family house.
The easiest to imagine making the transition is the country hotel, designed to look like a sumptuous home. Take Chauntry House in Bray, Berkshire, which is in the heart of the Thames-side village, adjoining the church and overlooking the cricket ground. Until a few months ago it was a hotel and restaurant, but is now in the final stages of being turned back into a house.
The owner bought it with the original intention of living in it but, after having been granted permission for change of use, decided to sell it after going through with the alterations. It is on the market with FPDSavills for £2.65million, while the asking price for the hotel at the end of last year was £1.8million.
"It was top-heavy with 10 bedrooms and that is where the main internal alterations were made," explains Emma Smith, spokeswoman for FPDSavills. "Instead of smaller rooms it has a fantastic master bedroom suite with a dressing room that runs from the front to the back of the house. They also created an upstairs drawing room. Little bedrooms at the back of the house have been turned into a teenage pad."
In the one-acre grounds with its walled garden, garaging has been put in and the car park has disappeared, replaced by an attractive driveway. But the house itself, Grade II-listed and dating from the 18th century, has the features of its period: an impressive reception hall and staircase with part-panelled walls, deep bay windows and decorative cornices.
Many of the substantial houses that fell out of residential use are listed, but for the others a commercial use might well have protected them from cosmetic and sometimes ruinous "improvements". Too much money has not always been good for houses, but the remodelling necessary in setting up a nursing home, hotel or school was more likely to involve dividing rooms than tearing out architectural features.
Millfield school in Somerset is selling Etonhurst, used as a boarding house at Ashcott near Bridgwater. According to Rose Lock of FPDSavills, additions such as dormitories can easily be dismantled, and the staircases, panelling and flagstones are among its untouched features. The house and ground have an asking price of £950,000 and a coachhouse and stables with planning permission has a tag of £400,000.
In Windsor, New Lodge, a Grade II*-listed Tudor-Gothic mansion, is currently being used as offices, and is on the market for in excess of £7 million. "It would make an outstanding country home. The quality of building is superb," says James Lawrie of Strutt & Parker, the selling agent. "Although it has been well looked after, it needs restoring. It also has a courtyard, coachhouse and stables with enormous potential as well as a cottage and a lodge."
Modern mansions may be more to the taste of the Russian oligarchs buying in the area, but the 150-year-old house has a more interesting history. It was built in 1857 by the Belgian ambassador Jan Silvain de Weyer on land granted, it is said, by Queen Victoria - 52 acres of landscaped parkland, which include some very old oaks. During the Second World War, it was used for refugees and afterwards a Dr Barnado's Home, a training school for railway staff and, latterly, as offices.
The house itself, some 20,000sq ft over three floors, has large but not enormous rooms, according to Lawrie. "It also has 5,000sq ft of wine cellar. There is a sense of arrival about this house." It has lovely views and a countryside feel about it, yet is only four miles from Windsor.
The cost of maintaining large properties tended to be the last straw for owners struggling to keep them in the family. When these white elephants of the property market sold during the 1960s and 1970s, buyers offering the best prices often wanted them for enterprises such as nursing homes, which were going through a boom. But now the cost of complying with new regulations has seen many of them close down.
In Amberley, near Stroud in south Gloucestershire, a quintessentially Victorian country home that until recently was a family-run nursing home is for sale through Murrays, the Cotswold agents. Whitemoor was built by the renowned church architect, Gambler Parry, who included a number of ecclesiastical features such as a detailed arched wooden screen in the reception hall and the stained-glass leaded stone-mullioned windows. The accommodation is arranged over three floors and retains many of the orginal ceiling mouldings, fireplaces and pitch pine block floors. It also has planning permission for an extension. Guide price for the house, which is in a lovely village setting and surrounded by garden, is £1.3million.
FPDSavills: Windsor, 01753 834600; Bristol, 0117 910 0300
Strutt & Parker: 020 7629 7282
Murrays: 01453 755552Reuse content