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The Perfect Country Home

The better option may be to build yourself, according to Knight Frank’s James Carter-Brown.

Everyone loves a period property. The character, the architectural style, the classic features…they all give you a warm, homely feeling as you walk up to the front door.

What doesn’t give you such a warm, homely feeling, however, are the draughty rooms, the low ceilings, the leaky windows, and the outdated wiring. Which is why, in the search for their perfect country property, more and more home-buyers are eschewing refurbishment and opting for a completely new-build home instead.

James Carter-Brown is an expert on rural new-build homes. Head of residential building consultancy at Knight Frank, he has overseen the construction of some of the most beautiful new properties across England’s shires. He explains that, however diligently you search through the existing housing stock, you’ll never find the perfect home.

Cadogan House, Wentworth Estate

“We’ve changed the way we love now” he says. “Older housing stock is never going to be exactly what you want. The configuration of the kitchen and bathrooms, the big, open-plan family rooms, the heating systems, the lighting…if you want this to be perfect, you need to build it from scratch.”

He explains how, in previous centuries, rooms were very much compartmentalised. Open-plan living was unthinkable, partly because large rooms were difficult to heat, and partly because food was always prepared behind closed doors.

“In recent years we’ve had this push for open-plan living. Cooking is trendy. We cook in front of our guests, standing at the kitchen island. It’s a complete u-turn.”

When it comes to heating and lighting, new-build homes are far more efficient. Carter-Brown points to automated under-floor heating, air-conditioning and lighting, all of which would be a logistical and costly nightmare to retro-fit into a Jacobean farmhouse, for example.

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For home buyers at the higher end of the market, this is just the start. Carter-Brown recently worked on an 80,000 square-foot new-build property in the Thames Valley where the client pulled out every stop possible.

“He had an exhibition space built for a number of exquisite cars,” he says. “1960s Ferraris, that sort of thing; the very best of the best. Then there was the private collection of art. After that there was an indoor swimming pool, steam room and sauna. Also an indoor tennis court and squash court. It was really unusual.”

In the course of his work on new-builds, Carter-Brown has witnessed some truly eyebrow-raising designs: party spaces with dance-floors and state-of-the-art sound systems; a greenhouse with its own under-floor heating system; car ports with photovoltic roofs and Tesla charging points; even a helicopter hanger. But the most surprising of all was a chicken coup flanked by Corinthian columns. “It was basically a minature Buckingham Palace for chickens.”

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Follies notwithstanding, new-build properties often make more financial sense than refurbishment of existing homes. Buy a huge Georgian farmhouse and the stamp duty will likely make your eyes bleed. Opt instead for a small bungalow which you plan to demolish and replace and you’ll save yourself a lot of tax in the process.

A more important consideration is VAT. As Carter-Brown explains: “If you’re buying a plot of land and building a new property on it, the construction costs of the house are VAT-exempt.” But he advises buyers to take specialist advice on this since it’s a complicated area.

Often the price difference between refurbishing a period property and building a completely new one can be negligible, especially if you’re installing ambitious features and leisure facilities. In fact, digging a basement beneath a Tudor farmhouse to accommodate the swimming pool and garage for the classic cars will be significantly ore expensive than incorporating the sames facilities into a new build.

A Newly Built Summer Room With Classical Detailing

Carter-Brown cites the example of a house construction he recently oversaw in the Hertfordshire town of Tring. On the site had been a 1970s house which they had knocked down, replacing it with “a really impressive home with a sedum roof. clever shading, a ground-source heating system, and glass walls on two sides, with views across the surrounding countryside”.

“It wasn’t worth it financially to do a refurb,” he adds. “The buyer would have spent loads of money knocking the structure around to achieve a property with 80 per cent satisfaction. In the end, the whole construction cost, including fit-out, was slightly trimmer than the refurb would have been. And they got exactly what they wanted. When you’re procuring a new-build house, you always have more cost certainty.”

Of course budgets for new-build homes vary enormously depending on the location and specification. Asked for some ball park figures, Carter-Brown uses the the example of land prices in West Berkshire, at the western edge of the home counties. Here, he knows of several parcels of land with planning consent agreed so that the existing property could be demolished and replaced with “an executive home”. For an acre of land, he would expect buyers to pay between £700,000 and £1million. On top of that they are looking at house construction costs of £2,500 to £3,000 per square meter.

Queen Anne House, Eaton Park

“For your home you might want 600 square meters which, at the top end, could therefore cost £1.8million in construction,” he adds.

He stresses how, counter-intuitive as it sounds, building your own property can actually require less time than converting an existing one. “Most definitely, if we don’t count the planning and procurement time,” he says. “Working with an existing structure, there’s always the fear of the unknown.” There are things you can’t know until  you start taking it to pieces. So you need a contingency plan to deal with building defects, timber attack, insect attack, wet or dry rot…If you’re looking at a 10,000 square-foot house, by the time you’ve done all the work, and perhaps replaced the roof, time-wise, it’s a closely run race with a new build.”

But can a new-build home ever compete with a period property in charm and style? It’s back to that warm, homely feeling you want as you walk up to the front door of your home. Can a new-build ever give you that?

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Fortunately the UK’s planning laws are so strict that the majority of rural new-builds have to conform to the architectural style of the villages surrounding them. “Yes, the inside of the property may be a blank canvas for any buyer,” Carter-Brown says, “but the exterior must be in keeping with the local style, materials and quality of design and construction.” Which is why, fortunately, you don’t see angular post-modern new-builds dotted around Cotswold villages. There would be nothing warm and homely about that.

Even when new-builds do clash architecturally with the existing housing stick, that doesn’t mean they will forever remain unloved. Every new generation of architecture eventually finds its fans.

“Time never stands still”, says Carter-Brown. “In a hundred years, that property might well be the next heritage style. If you use a well-known and good-quality design team, aren’t you just building a future classic?”

This article was originally published in Knight Frank‘s Private View magazine in 2018.