Sales are booming for a place in the country

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The Independent Online

House prices may be falling for Mr and Mrs Average, but for the country "set" the housing market is still booming.

House prices may be falling for Mr and Mrs Average, but for the country "set" the housing market is still booming.

Sales of million-pound homes surged in the run-up to Christmas - and January has seen the start of a bidding war thanks to an influx of foreign buyers.

According to figures from the Government's Land Registry, the number of properties sold in England and Wales for more than £1m rose in the final quarter of 2004 to 765, slightly more than in the same three months the previous year.

Unsurprisingly, the top end of the housing market was dominated by London, where 436 houses changed hands for seven-figure sums, - but this was down on 2003. By contrast, the market for country homes at a million pound or more is very strong. In the last three months of 2004, the estate agents Savills sold 21 country houses with a collective value of £83.2m.

The rebound was led by the Home Counties, with Surrey posting 170 sales at £1m or more, while in Hampshire there were 107 such sales, according to Country Life magazine.

The regional breakdown shows the continued dominance of the South-east, with East and West Sussex, Oxfordshire, and Berkshire all seeing at least 80 such sales. The only other region to feature in the top 10 was the South-west, thanks to heavy sales in Gloucesterhire, Wiltshire and Devon. Penny Churchill, property editor at Country Life, said: "The farther north you go, the less the market appears to have been affected by the mood swings of the capital. Canny Northerners know not just the price, but also the value of things." Hamptons International said the demand for £1m country homes was "buoyant". John Denney, the firm's country house director for Surrey, said overseas buyers were back "with a vengeance".

"The Russians are looking to invest their seemingly endless funds in properties around the £5m mark and in close proximity to major airports," he said. "We are also seeing a high level of inquiries from our Middle-Eastern clients and, as the year progresses, we anticipate that demand could reach the high levels of the 1970s."

Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea FC, spent £4m last year when he bought the Surrey mansion of the former television presenter, Chris Evans.

Hamptons forecasted that the top end of the country market would be one of the few sectors to post significant price rises over the next six months.

RISING COST OF A RURAL RETREAT

During 2004, some of England's finest country properties were sold including:

* Harewood estate in Berkshire (£27.5m)

* Eydon Hall estate in Northamptonshire (£11m)

* Chedington Court in Dorset (£7.17m)

* Pythouse in Wiltshire (£7m)

* Ven House in Dorset (£6.5m)

* Moundsmere in Hampshire (in excess of £6m)

* Drewton Manor estate in Yorkshire (£6m)

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