We had almost stopped hoping it could happen. During the slump, some home owners despaired of ever selling their houses and felt they could never move on. Then in December, when the market should have been as quiet as a hibernating dormouse, potential buyers appeared in large numbers. Hamptons International says new applicants are up 42 per cent compared with the same time last year.
People whose properties had languished in estate agents’ windows for one, two, or even three years are now surprised by the number of viewings. Rake Hill House, a classic Georgian house with paddocks at Liss in Hampshire, which has been on the market since May last year, suddenly had 98 viewings and has just sold through Jackson-Stops & Staff. Similar stories are being told across the country, and owners are switching agents and reducing their prices to catch the wave of interest.
It’s not that these houses had anything wrong with them in the first place. Vine Cottage, with five bedrooms in Chilton Foliat near Hungerford, is full of charm and close enough to trains into London, but still couldn’t find a buyer last year. After it had been on the market at £1.1 million for six months with Chesterton Humberts, Edward Hall of Smiths Gore stepped in as joint agent.
“Last summer a lot of people were looking but not making offers and they seemed to think that things might get worse,” he says. “So a lot of stuff just sat around. We decided the price here had to be reduced to £995,000 but the sad thing was that the seller had turned down an early offer of over £1 million. This is a lovely house with a barn made into a one-bedroom annex so that it can earn an income and help pay for itself.” Suddenly in December there were five viewings and repeat viewings are continuing. “It is as if people have suddenly realised we haven’t fallen off the world and they still need to move,” he says.
Even so, there isn’t a huge choice. Eager buyers spurred on by talk of economic recovery and rising prices can find themselves suddenly pitched into competitive bidding. Johnny Morris, head of research at Hamptons International, says stock is down on last year by five per cent across England and Wales, and down by 17 per cent in London and across the south.
House prices in the European Union fell by 0.1% in the fourth quarter of 2013 compared with the same quarter the previous year, according to the latest index from Eurostat.
Prices were also down in the Euro area, that is countries that use the currency, with a quarterly fall of 1.4%, the House Price Index also shows.
Compared with the third quarter of 2013, house prices fell by 0.7% in the euro area and by 0.3% in the EU in the fourth quarter of 2013.
Among the EU Member States for which data are available, the largest annual falls in house prices in the fourth quarter of 2013 were recorded in Croatia with a fall of 14.4%, followed by Cyprus down 9.4% and Spain down 6.3%. The highest increases were in Estonia with growth of 15.6%, Latvia with a rise of 7.9% and Sweden up 7%.
The largest quarterly falls were recorded in Hungary with a fall of 1.8%, Spain down 1.3% and Denmark and Italy both down 1.2%. The highest increases were in Latvia where they increased by 2.7%, then Estonia and Lithuania both up by 2.6% and Ireland up by 2.5%.
Meanwhile, a new report from international property firm Savills shows that the French residential market fared well compared to some other European countries in the years immediately following the global financial crisis.
Modest price falls of 10% were recorded between 2008 and 2009, and France continued to enjoy foreign investment in its high end leisure hotspots.
The report says that while in recent years the country’s residential markets have battled with stop start economic recovery and negative sentiment associated with some of President Francoise Hollande’s policies, 2014 has seen stability begin to return to the market once again.
It points out that mortgage driven, international buyers are becoming active again as the lending environment becomes more favourable and interest rates remain low.
Meanwhile, a temporary reduction of 25% on capital gains on second properties has been introduced in a bid to bring greater fluidity to the French market. In the most exclusive Riviera locations, Cap Ferrat and St Tropez, transaction volumes are starting to recover off a low base.
‘The French Riviera remains among the world’s most exclusive and desirable destinations for second home ownership. An extremely limited pool of stock, for example there are just 500 homes in exclusive Saint Jean Cap Ferrat, coupled with demand from buyers around the world, means that the long term outlook for prices in this area are positive. Prospective purchasers will need to compare current pricing with the likelihood of a changed economic, Eurozone and political outlook. Demand and prices could recover quickly,’ it explains.
It also points out that more peripheral Riviera locations such as Valbonne and Mougins have already seen British buyers return. Meanwhile, Russian and Middle Eastern buyers, central to the Riviera market, have demonstrated strong demand for rental properties.
Inland, Provence continues to stand the test of time and attracts buyers from across Europe, particularly from the UK. In South West France, the market for renovation projects has largely disappeared.
‘Buyers now are favouring turnkey properties, reflecting a search for convenience. Vendors have become realistic on pricing in the last five years. This is just as well because prospective purchasers are seeking good deals. Non-euro denominated purchasers find themselves in a particularly strong position against the weaker euro which is fuelling interest from Nordic and British buyers in particular,’ the report says.
An emerging trend in the ultra prime markets of the Bordeaux region has been the purchase of vineyards by Chinese investors. ‘These are business ventures but fall firmly in the ‘investments of passion’ category as they reflect the growing fashion for fine wine appreciation, particularly claret, and are the ultimate addition to a prestige cellar.
As yet, there is no evidence of Chinese buying vineyards, or other types of real estate in Europe purely for leisure purposes,’ the report adds.
‘This is also reflected in an early trend we are observing in the purchase of French hotels by Chinese nationals, a business rather than a lifestyle choice. Both trends do however echo the expansion of Chinese tourism in France. France led Europe in receiving 1.2 million Chinese tourists in 2012. This could still be an early indicator of second home investment in the region to come,’ it concludes.
Three centuries ago, those who set foot inside the Court House in Chelsea did so with a sinking heart. It wasn’t just the 30ft-high ceiling that left them feeling small and defenceless, but also the fact that they were up before a magistrate, on charges that ranged from robbery to tax dodging.
If convicted, they would be taken, first, on a short journey by foot to a prison ship moored nearby on the Thames. Later, they would be taken on an altogether longer journey, by sea, to a British penal colony.
Even today, people still gulp as they enter the old courtroom. The wooden doors were so heavy that it took 14 men to hold them in place when they were installed. What is so daunting for the 21st-century visitor, however, is not the prospect of a hazardous voyage to the Antipodes, rather the size of the asking price – £14.5million.
We are not merely in Swinging Sixties, SW3, territory here, but also in the heart of historic Chelsea. The house is just around the corner from the home of the Victorian philosopher Thomas Carlyle, and no more than a teacup’s throw from the old Chelsea Porcelain Works, where the novelist Tobias Smollett once lived.
This, too, is the old stomping ground of the two Fieldings. Author Sir Henry (Tom Jones), lived 50 yards away, in Lawrence Street, and his younger half-brother Sir John.