Escape to the country: the race for equestrian property post-pandemic *H&H Plus*

  • For those hankering after the idyll of paddocks and stables, competition is fiercely stiff as the post-lockdown “race for space” takes hold, finds Madeleine Silver

    “THE demand from buyers at the moment is quite phenomenal,” says Charlie Stone at Wiltshire-based agent Rural View, with some properties attracting 25 or more viewings in a 10-day to two-week period. “I’ve not seen demand like this for nearly 15 years, since before the 2007 financial crash.”

    A year of lockdowns has seen Britons running for the hills – or some green space at the very least – and in November last year, Knight Frank reported that demand for prime country houses had pushed price growth to a four-year high.

    “What we’re experiencing post-Covid is people reviewing their work-life balance. I just can’t see that people are going to be back in their offices from 8am until 6pm, five days a week, and so I think there’s only going to be more of a sustained demand for rural property,” adds Charlie, who has seen prices for what he describes as “the best houses” rise by 15 to 20% since March 2020.

    As Rupert Sturgis at Knight Frank in Cirencester says: “Equestrian buyers are now up against people who maybe aren’t horsey, but they want a few acres, they want a cottage with a paddock, or they want a manor house with 10 or 20 acres so that they can have a bit of ‘the good life’.”

    WHILE sprawling equestrian set-ups designed to be run as businesses with extensive facilities have been spared the inflation, it is properties that fit the bill of what buying agent Bobby Hall of Heaton & Partners describes as the “classic” request “to be on the edge of a village with access to a good school and a train, somewhere that is very private, perhaps with a cottage as well and maybe a couple of paddocks”, that buyers are scrambling for.

    For the farmhouses and manor houses in the £1.5m to £2.5m price bracket, Rupert estimates 30 to 40 viewings in a month now to be the norm in the area of north Wiltshire and Gloucestershire that he operates.

    “What you find with those properties is that you have people looking for a professional or hobby yard, where you have hunters or competition horses, but then you’ll also get those looking at the barns, the stables or the cattle sheds as something that they could convert and put the business in – whether that’s an architecture practice or a small manufacturing business,” he says. “It means that suddenly those who want stables are having to pay a bit more for their outbuildings.”

    With the advent of flexible working, buyers are relishing the chance to wave goodbye to eye-watering rents in London and other big cities, says Rupert, with the option to have their home and business in one spot.

    “Many more buyers are now seeing value in the outbuildings and the land, and so for properties sensibly priced we will get competitive bidding and they’ll exceed the price, and for those that are ambitiously priced then the guide price will be achieved. Either way, buyers are having to step up to the mark,” he says.

    WHEN property finder Kate Vincent, the East Midlands regional partner at Garrington, spotted a property that had been offered to her before Christmas being relaunched this spring with £500,000 added to the price tag, the reality of the “race for space” hit home.

    “A lot of the prices are sky high at the moment – some of them do make you think ‘Wow,’” she says. “I think many sellers and the agents are probably taking the view that ‘it’s worth a try’ because they might get away with it. Ultimately a property is worth what someone is willing to pay for it, and you are competing against people who are moving out of the city and probably have generous budgets.

    “And just because a property has lovely equestrian facilities, it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what it’s going to stay as – which, of course, for those of us who ride and are interested in horses is absolutely horrifying!”

    With a shortage of supply, property finders like Kate who are able to sniff out off-market deals are an increasingly attractive option. As she says: “Not everything that is being sold is online.”

    The extension to the stamp duty holiday until the end of June might have added impetus to this property frenzy in the sleepiest corners of Britain, but agents can’t see momentum waning after that.

    “It is just such a competitive market,” emphasises Bobby Hall, who advises buyers across Berkshire, Hampshire, South Oxfordshire and Wiltshire. “Our clients are going to viewings with the mindset of ‘this is what I have to spend’; they have everything teed up. There’s only space for people who are set up and ready to go – the window shoppers are not even getting invited to viewings.”

    How to fend off the competition

    Put pen to paper

    “If you have the time and the inclination, you could do a drive round and pick off properties that you think would be suitable and write a nice letter, approaching the homeowners directly,” says property finder Kate Vincent at Garrington, who sources properties for clients in the East Midlands. “It’s labour intensive, but you can get lucky.”

    Spread the word

    “It can also come down to using local networks, if you’re involved with a hunt, the local branch of the
    Pony Club or have a very strong veterinary contact, for example,” adds Kate. “People hear about things before properties hit the market and if you’re in there early, then you have a good chance of snapping something up.”

    Widen your search

    Looking beyond your original search area can be the answer to finding what you want in a tough buyers’ market, suggests Kate.

    “For example, Rutland is always highly prized and any of the villages surrounding Stamford are extremely popular,” she says. “But actually, people are beginning to look into the Vale of Belvoir because it’s beautiful and it’s not an awful lot further north than Stamford, where there’s a lot of competition and people with generous budgets. So you may need to look a bit further afield to secure something.”

    Look beyond the particulars

    When space permits, being prepared to add your own stabling is something buyers should consider, suggests
    Charlie Stone at Rural View, using stables on skids that can be moved around, which are usually an option until planning is permitted.

    “The other thing not to overlook is the possibility of buying an adjacent field,” he says. “You never know when a neighbour could be a willing seller, so if you catch them at the right moment, they may be happy to sell you a field or as a first option rent it to you on a long lease.”

    Have your ducks in a row

    Once you’ve found “the one”, a buyer has to be ready with their finances in place, says Rupert Sturgis at Knight Frank.

    “They need to be prepared to come and view the property as soon as they can and then, if seriously interested, keep the selling agent informed and submit a strong offer – this will help avoid competitive bidding situations. Vendors favour a buyer who can clearly demonstrate their interest and ability to proceed to completion should their offer be accepted, otherwise they will lose faith and interest.”

    A slice of the rural dream

    Church Farm, near Chippenham, Wiltshire

    An edge-of-village farmhouse built in picturesque Cotswold stone, approached through a stone barn with an arch that is thought to date back to medieval times. From the main reception room and bedrooms inside (five in total), there are views over the semi-walled garden, paddocks and River Avon to the south, where the house has fishing rights. Besides well laid-out courtyard stables, there’s an all-weather arena and extensive barns among the 20 acres, which could be converted subject to consent.
    £1.7m, Knight Frank, 01285 882001, knightfrank.com

    Pinns Farm, near Romsey, Hampshire

    A pretty Grade II-listed farmhouse tucked away in a corner of the village of West Wellow, with scope to upgrade or convert the farm buildings – which include barns, stables and stores – to create a dream country home, subject to consent. Inside are four bedrooms and an impressive 20ft drawing room with a central fireplace and views over the mature gardens. Within the five-acre plot are orchard areas complete with fruit trees and raised vegetable beds, as well as two paddocks.
    £1.85m, Savills, 01962 841842, savills.co.uk

    Shorts Farm, near Tenterden, Kent

    SET on the outskirts of the village of Biddenden in the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Shorts Farm is approached through double five-bar gates, with the gravel turning circle giving access to a detached outbuilding with a one-bedroom annexe and double garage. Three stables are found in a detached barn, and there is also an all-weather tennis court within the 3.5 acres. Inside the red-brick house, where there are four bedrooms, exposed beams, panelled walls and inglenook fireplaces have been carefully retained.
    £1.45m, Strutt & Parker, 01732 466941, struttandparker.com

    You can also read this feature in the 27 May issue of Horse & Hound magazine.

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