12th March 2019

What you need to know when buying a country pile

Buying the local manor house or country estate is an exciting prospect - for most it's the realisation of a dream - but there is more to consider than one might imagine. 

Such architectural gems and trophy houses – something that could set you back £8m-plus – tend to come with a substantial property and grounds, cottages and land.

Country piles are more rare than you might think. For example, if you are looking for a home up to two hours’ drive from London within central and southern England, you should know that only a small number come to the market each year. At the beginning of a client’s search we often ask them to guess how many properties sell each year for north of £8m: they often guess at 30 to 50. But over the past six years, the average has been in the low teens.

Country houses and estates were often passed down from father to first-born son, so the next incumbent was groomed into the role, growing up understanding their responsibilities to the rural community around them. But the demise of primogeniture means this is not necessarily the case. Many of the new ‘country squires’ are first generation, self-made and blissfully unaware as to what they could be getting themselves into.

The maintenance and running of such homes is easy to understand and quantifiable at the outset. But more than that, you need to be aware that your manor house or estate will have traditionally provided amenities for the locals as well as the lord of the manor. Making sure you don’t fall out with the locals is crucial so Prime Purchase has some top tips for buyers to bear in mind:

* Seek professional advice before buying. At the very least you will need a property adviser, a good lawyer and the right tax advice. The family lawyer who advises on general family affairs or the free legals you get with a mortgage won’t cut it - a cheap lawyer will cost you so much more in the long run than the right lawyer.

* Assemble the right team. This means another layer of advisers but don’t overcomplicate matters or you risk suffering from ‘consultant fatigue’. A good land agent will be worthwhile, certainly during the first year or two. You may have the opportunity to inherit existing staff, some of whom you wish to keep and some you won’t. The right people on the ground are worth their weight in gold: for example, a farm manager or general maintenance man or even the gardener, who will know the lie of the land and help steer away from problems.

* Your arrival in the village will cause a stir but make sure it isn’t for the wrong reasons. Everyone will be intrigued by the new neighbours and you will find yourself under scrutiny. Old-fashioned face-to-face introductions are best – informally dropping in and saying hello. A flash party for the locals may be the wrong way to introduce yourself. Take your time.

* Get to grips with the unforeseen responsibilities and traditions of the countryside. Did the previous owner hold the village fete on their land or allow the church to park cars on their property for large weddings? Does the cricket club still play on the pitch and is the garden still opened for local and national fundraising schemes? All access to your land, except where it is a public right of way, is down to your goodwill but you need to pick and choose carefully how you manage this, hunting being a good example. Proceed with an open mind – slowly and with caution. One wrong move in the locals’ eyes and they will forget your huge donation to re-roof the church or hosting a gala charity opera evening in the ‘great hall’. Your preference may be to pull up the drawbridge and close your gates to all-comers but remember that even the Queen opens her doors to the public.

* It is important to use local tradespeople and suppliers wherever possible. Is it really necessary to fly your interior designer in from LA? Your desire to see the fields stocked with cattle and sheep will entail employing staff on the farm and assist in providing income to other suppliers of agricultural services. A huge amount of money can trickle down from the new owner so if you can use local trades, staff, butchers etc, then you should. Look after them and they should look after you.