Sick of stressful inner-city living? Do you yearn to wake up to rolling meadows, rambling tracks and the chirping of more than just pigeons? Fancy swapping your cramped conditions for the sprawling grandeur of a country manor but lacking the 30 million investment capital to do so? Fear not, for there are more ways than one to move up in the world and into the country manner, and this short guide to buying a country house conversion is the place to start.
Accessible Country HousesWith local authorities under pressure to find ways to preserve the UK’s national architectural heritage, land owners are being forced to assess their properties and make them habitable. Country house conversions are just one of a variety of ways that landowners in possession of large, hard-to-sell country houses are finding to alleviate their situation, see that their properties do not fall to rack and ruin, and make a tidy sum in the meantime. During the last century innumerable historic country houses were demolished, in 1955 the rate was one house every five days. Now, several official bodies, including English Heritage, actively catalogue at-risk historical buildings and have the power to exert pressure on owners to renovate or sell. This is great news for prospective country house home buyers - never before has living in a country house been so accessible.
Types of country house conversionsNothing short of a national obsession, a home in the UK countryside is a lifetime dream for people across the social spectrum, and at last it is becoming accessible to more than just the silver spoon brigade. There are many different types of country house conversions available for purchase, or you may even want to undertake your own conversion. Let's take a quick look at the main varieties.
- Farmhouse conversion. Better still if the farmhouse comes with a barn and stables, depending on planning permission you could change all of these into habitable spaces. If you want to find out more about this, see our guide to Buying a Barn Conversion
- Country house conversion. Country house in this case refers to a grand country house, also known as a manor house, or if you are moving up in the property stakes - a stately home. You are unlikely to be converting this yourself, but check our links section later in the guide for where to find specialist Estate Agents dealing in country houses.
Who wants to live in a country house conversion?
With their vast and sprawling layouts comprising east-wings, west-wings, split levels and servants' quarters, country homes make an excellent conversion prospect for developers. In many cases, potential buyers can opt to invest in one or more segments of the original house, according their means and requirements. Owning a wing in a country house conversion is not for everyone, but the huge, high ceilinged rooms and original fittings will be a draw for a certain kind of buyer. In the case of neighbours sharing the other wing, the whole point is that any such house should be big enough for the both of you!
The prospect of large, inter-connected rooms and big gardens tends to attract families with kids. The added security of living in the country, away from urban crime hot-spots is another big draw for families and the elderly alike. Although a fraction of the entire house cost, a wing in a country house conversion will not come cheap. Original fittings, such as leaded windows, oak panelling, cupboards and doors, and original fireplaces, are a massive draw and command a high price. If it is too much for you, but you still long to be lord of even just a little piece of the manor, consider buying an apartment.
Country houses converted into apartments attract a different crowd than those divided into wings. It could be a second home or an investment property for some people. The lack of a garden to upkeep would attract those who only use the apartment part time. The ease of use combined with quiet countryside living certainly attracts those moving into retirement - to attest to this fact, some companies now make country house developments specifically aimed at the over-55s. It is worth noting that service charges on country home conversion apartments are quite high.
Take into account the extensive grounds that have to be maintained, in addition to the historic building materials, and the fact that many such properties come with included leisure facilities and it won't seem quite so harsh.
Country house considerations
Before you leave the Big Smoke behind you to live in a country house conversion, it is worth taking a few points into consideration first. Let's look at the pros and cons of country living and how these could affect your way into the future. Remember - country life is very different than city living, the devil is in the details!
- Is your intended country house conversion near to local amenities? For example, you may want to check out the supermarket run before you buy. The original owners had servants to do the running around but in this case you will be both master and slave!
- If you have children of school age you will want to check out the local school and the surrounding built-up environment (if there is any to speak of). Crime and drug problems are not limited to the inner-cities. Indeed, rural poverty and teenage boredom can breed similar problems in many small communities. So check first and don't move your kids out of the frying pan and into the fire.
- Has your country house been converted with care and consideration to the original features? There is little point in moving into what could be effectively a box room with a grandiose shell, far away from everything.
- Heating bills can be exorbitant in big houses, check that modern insulation materials have been used in the conversion.
- What are the local transport links like? If it is ok for you to go about your daily business, fine, but what about friends and family? You don't want to end up being cut-off in the country.
- Access could be difficult in the winter months, you may need to stock up on canned provisions to see you through snow-ins, floods, or fallen trees blocking the road.
- Due to the fact you will have adjoining neighbours, a country house conversion will be likely listed as a terraced house on any insurance document - with any luck this will help keep the price of home and contents insurance down!
- Check the situation with sewage. The house is unlikely to be on the mains, how old is the septic tank? How often is it emptied?
- Far away from the smoke-free zones of the city, install a wood burning stove in the kitchen and enjoy energy efficiency levels of up to 90%. Get fit from all the wood chopping too!
- Going truly organic and growing your own vegetables could at last be a possibility!
- If you have the stomach for it, so could growing your own meat. Rabbits and chickens breed fast - you get eggs with the latter, they are easy to look after and relatively easy to kill. Compared to a cow that is! Then again, there is nothing but a bit of time, some grass and the odd veterinary visit between you and pounds of organically reared, free-range steak. Local slaughterhouses will be happy to do the dirty work for you and bring back the proceeds for a cut of their own.
- Far away from cinemas and other distractions you will have lots of time to really get into country living. Set up your kitchen as a regular country larder replete with sterilised jam jars ready for autumn berries. Spread on home baked bread - breakfast will never be the same again!
Get that English country house look correct
Your country house may come with gorgeous original features, but ultimately it is up to you how you decorate. The general feel should be warm, welcoming but ultimately lived-in without being overly messy or casual. Choose your furnishings carefully and make sure you get the country look right with a few handy pointers.
- Walls. English country houses are adorned in luxuriant floral wallpaper, failing this stay at the darker end of the colour spectrum. Only the servants' quarters would be covered in anything as simple as paint!
- Floors. In the main areas of the house, dark polished wood, buffed to an ambassadorial gleam, is the only thing that will do. In areas of high traffic such as the entrances to kitchens, dark coloured mosaic tiles should be used, not that you are going to have dozens of maids scurrying around but with any luck the tiles should still be there - if not, check scrap yards for second hand replacements.
- Furniture. Obviously wood not plastic! Opt for hardwood tables, chairs and cabinets with dark colours to match the overall autumnal theme of a classic English country house. Soft chairs, chaise longues and sofas should be ostentatiously overstuffed for that touch of Victorian grandeur. For the ultimate in country house lounging seek out a Chesterfield sofa but be prepared to pay the price for these sought after items. Ultimately, your furniture should be hard-wearing to endorse the lived-in look that comes with hardy country living.
- Drapes, curtains, cushions and table coverings. Like the walls, all fabrics should be either richly floral or dark and sombre. Cover small tables with floor length cloths and set fresh flowers on top. For the overall colour scheme of a country house, think dark, musty and autumnal - like the deep woods all around.
- Ornaments. Cram your country house to the hilt with brass and bone china. Remember, minimalism is a modern concept and as far removed from an English country house as can be. Search out antique markets and scrap yards for what could quickly become an enjoyable obsession.
- Picture Hanging. Rural scenes of hunting in the reception rooms and ancestors lining the hallways (adopt some if you don’t know what yours looked like). In the reception rooms go for the Victorian ethic of hanging them all up and letting each one fight for itself amongst the competition.
- Fireplaces. Keep the fire roaring, peat is an excellent option for a slow-burn where available. Ornament your fireplace with brass candlesticks to finish off the look.
For further information on English country house style check out the biography on the very person who created the look, Nancy Lancaster: English Country House Style, by Martin Wood
Or browse the online collection at Colefax and Fowler who stock a range of classic country house fabrics and furnishings.
Useful LinksReady to make the next step and turn theory in practice? Below is a list of links to specialists working in the area of country homes and country home conversions.
- Beechcroft Developments Beechcroft develop country house conversions specifically for the over 55 market.
- Wilkinson Estate AgentsHave a specialist department that deals solely with the sale of country houses, farms, land and equestrian property throughout Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire and the surrounding areas.
- Churchods Estate Agents A no-nonsense property service based on heritage, integrity, honesty and outstanding customer care.
- Richard Saunders Estate Agents Richard Saunders and Company is an independent, professional estate agency for the sale of residential property over a wide area of the Surrey Downs, from studio flats to mansion apartments and from cottages to prestigious homes and country houses.
- Featherstone Leigh Have a network of sales and lettings offices in Richmond, Chiswick, Battersea, Kew, East Sheen, Twickenham, Teddington and Kingston.