Russia's super-rich: What the agents saw...

For the specialists who deal with Britain's most exclusive homes, business is booming. Graham Norwood steps into a world of rich Russians and diamond doorknobs
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The Independent Online

For most homeowners, the credit crunch has left the nasty smell of a downturn hanging in the air. It is not, you might think, a wise time to be spending big. Will house prices come down? Will tens of thousands be wiped from the value of our major asset? These are cautious times. Or at least, they are for some.

But it seems that no one has told the super-rich. At the top end of the market, it's business as usual. The fortunate few are still buying, selling and renting with lavish abandon, and the people who control that market – matchmaking millionaires and manors – are not tightening their belts just yet.

"We've never been busier" says Lucy Russell, managing director of Quintessentially Estates, the property-finding arm of the lifestyle management consultancy Quintessentially, run by Ben Elliot, nephew of the Duchess of Cornwall. The company dipped its toe into the waters of big property deals more than a year ago, and the other-worldly requests have not dried up.

"When Damien Hirst created his diamond-covered skull, one of our clients asked for the doorknobs of their new house to be similarly bejewelled. We used Swarovski crystals – at a cost of £257 for each knob. But for their favourite rooms, the master bedroom and reception, we created two knobs each studded with 4,328 diamonds, and costing £20,000 for each knob.

"Another client requested a bright orange Cinderella pumpkin bed for her daughter. It cost £80,000," continues Russell, giving a flavour of the work that Quintessentially Estates undertakes. "Then there was an adventurous client who didn't like stairs, and asked us to install a fireman's pole from the top floor of his London home to his front door."

Security is another area of big business. For a Russian client, Russell recently installed a panic room. "And a lot of clients want biometric access control systems based on face recognition and fingerprint matching," she says.

Russell specialises in finding the right property for her buyers, covering the whole of Britain, and indeed, elsewhere, but covering London particularly. Then she takes care of all the details for them – including the conveyancing.

A similar service is offered by Property Vision, the oldest and most respected of Britain's buying agencies. If you want a supersized country estate, PV are the people to see. Ed Sugden runs the rural side of things. He describes clients who want to spend up to £7m as "mainstream". You'll need to fork out £25m or more on a house before he flatters you with the description "super-rich". And you've guessed it – business is good.

"This is the most resilient sector of the market. Almost everyone here has made their money already so aren't that worried about Northern Rock or interest rates," he explains. "I had a rock star who wanted a house that faced north because he slept during the day and another buyer who insisted on having a dog shower fitted."

Sugden describes his customers as "an absolute cross-section", although that seems at odds with his subsequent breakdown of them as 25 per cent City-bonus types, and the rest made up of media moguls, actors, art dealers, sports stars and IT entrepreneurs who have sold up and are moving out. "They don't want to hear noise when they're in the garden or playing with their kids. They tend to buy a house with perhaps 25 acres around it as a buffer zone," he adds.

But if traditional grandeur is not your your idea of luxury, perhaps an architect-designed modernist masterpiece is. Albert Hill runs The Modern House estate agency, which deals with "apartments and houses of architectural distinction", as he puts it. "There's no sign of a downturn here. We haven't noticed any significant change in the market, but then our clients don't look at bricks and mortar in terms of cost per square foot. They look at a house as a piece of art," Hill says.

"There's always a shortage of appropriate properties to meet demand, so prices are never seriously squeezed," says Hill, whose agency is so exclusive it does not have a high street office, but instead operates via meetings, viewings and website promotion, and has around 30 homes on its books at a time.

Hill is currently selling Heathwoods, a 1970s home at Walton-on-Thames in Surrey, with six bedrooms, a suite of offices, an indoor pool and a gym, plus the obligatory floor-to-ceiling glazing and a separate lodge house, too. The price tag? A snip at £2.85m. Or for a mere £1.295m there is Vista Point, a 1960s house on a private estate in West Sussex. It has five bedrooms and that inevitable pool, but what is wowing the prospective buyers is the wood-panelled spiral staircase and glass-domed roof that dominate the building.

Or if you want a house by a big-name architect, try the Lost House, a recent conversion of an industrial building in London's King's Cross, by David Adjaye. For £2.7m, you get three bedrooms, a dramatic pool – and stunning design. "The only problem we've had has been the reluctance of sellers to sell such beautiful homes when they have to subject them to Home Information Packs," says Hill. "HIPs are standardised and for standard houses, not individual ones like these." The irony is that the dip in the number of architectural gems put for sale through the agency because of HIPs merely serves to boost the prices of those that are on the market.

So are any of these property professionals worried about a slowdown? Ed Sugden speaks for them all: "There's a lot of wealth around. There's pent-up demand and a shortage of homes good enough for these people, so 2008 should be OK."

Property Vision:, 01488 669 900 and 01344 651 700; Quintessentially Estates: , 0845 224 3658; The Modern House:, 0845 634 4068