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April 26, 2013 6:31 pm
Of all those acquirements, which more particularly belong to the feminine character, there are none which take a higher rank, in our estimation, than such as enter into a knowledge of household duties,” wrote that doyenne of the Victorian domestic arts, Mrs Beeton. Today her Book of Household Management is better known for its recipes but it offered a wide range of domestic advice to the fast-expanding Victorian middle class. As well as tips on how to choose houses and servants (south-facing with gravel soil, and cleanliness, respectively), the book also explained how to deal with tenants, throw a party and manage the household staff.
Modern-day householders would still be well-advised to refer to Mrs Beeton – much of her writing is timeless – but those in need of more detailed hand-holding these days turn to people like Angus Harley, head of country house consultancy at Knight Frank.
Harley looks after 40-50 clients at a time, arranging all manner of chores from paying their household bills to finding someone to fix their Aga – and even draws up a personalised version of Mrs Beeton’s guide for every house. This manual includes plans of the estate, information on neighbours, profiles of the staff and a local contacts directory – right down to where to buy a Christmas tree. It’s a personal touch that is particularly popular when new clients first move in.
“About half of my clients are British, while most foreign clients already have a London property or have lived in the UK before,” Harley says. “They’re people who have made their money in the past 10-15 years, from the City to film, fashion and the arts.”
Harley began his career as a traditional land agent managing large country estates before being hired for Knight Frank’s budding country house business by the original country house consultant, Philip Eddell, who now heads the team at Savills. Eddell first moved into the field a decade ago. “I always felt the mansion house was the elephant in the room,” he explains. “It’s usually one of the most expensive parts of an estate to operate, and if you’re managing an estate without providing advice on the house you’re missing a trick.”
Sebastian Green also spotted a gap in the market and in 2008 set up his own firm to cater to a new breed of time-poor property owners. “This role is still developing and evolving. A lot of new buyers come from the City. Living in the country is a very different experience, there are pitfalls,” he says.
Shaun Castle, of country house consultants Castle Summerson Wright, argues that a new type of buyer has simply triggered the reinvention of a historic job: “This is very much a role that was in place up to the 1920s and has now come back; the difference is that the past 20 years has seen a broadening of [the sorts of] people who are buying country houses. These are people from successful business backgrounds who don’t come from old money, so they need a very different approach to the old land agent role.”
Burnham Westgate Hall in Norfolk is typical of the kind of house these clients might need help with, and Knight Frank sells about 250 such properties a year. A Grade II* listed Georgian mansion designed by Sir John Soane in the 1780s with 13 bedrooms, a range of outbuildings and 36 acres of land, it is not big enough to employ a local agent but its management and maintenance would be a full-time job for a householder.
The property, currently on the market for £5.8m, comes with a number of tips from its present owner, Baroness Rawlings. “Do not underestimate the importance of the linen closet,” she says, when discussing how to manage a full house of guests. “And always have a second cooker on hand, just in case the Aga goes out.” Other little touches of hospitality include leaving small flasks of whisky by every bed and throwing open the windows on summer nights, so that music and light spill across the parkland: “Never draw the curtains, it’s lovely to see the lights as you drive up – you learn these things over time, very simple things really.”
Annual chores alone are often enough to keep a household manager busy: at Burnham Westgate, the lift is serviced twice a year, the security alarm is checked twice a year, the chimneys are swept once, the Aga is serviced twice and the pond and stream are cleared twice.
Then there are the running costs. In many large country houses heating and lighting can easily exceed £20,000 a year, while council tax and insurance can cost an additional £20,000. And with staff salaries of between £20,000 and £25,000 per person on average, total costs often top £100,000 a year. Meanwhile, Harley charges an hourly rate of between £150 and £175, up to £5,000 for compiling a guidebook of information on a new property, a share of salaries when hiring staff, and up to £5,000 a month for running a payroll system and directly managing staff.
Country house consultants also handle discrete projects, from the mundane – getting planning permission for building works – to the bizarre – sourcing rare-breed sheep to picturesquely populate the surrounding parkland. “I always try to persuade people to have someone else’s sheep, because they look just the same but when they go to the vet, you don’t get the bill,” says Philip Eddell wryly.
At times the role veers towards a concierge-style service. Harley once battled for a refund on a faulty Aston Martin DB5; Castle, who has worked for Kate Moss and the Saudi royal family, among others, has booked flights and restaurants for clients, arranged visits to schools, taken on the restoration of Georgian interiors and stocked a client’s art collection. “The tweeds and the Wellington boots are still there, but there’s more to it now, a more cosmopolitan feel to the country house lifestyle,” he says.
Not surprisingly, some country house consultants discourage comparisons with concierges and prefer to focus on the business aspect of the job. “We’re there to provide good advice on multi-million-pound assets that cost six-figure sums to run, but also to make it a happier experience all round,” says Eddell.
Delivering that service means dealing with happy staff, and staffing is a delicate issue when buying a country house. Most properties come with existing staff who have sometimes lived there for decades. In most cases there is no obligation to retain them, but legal issues such as tenancy rights need to be handled carefully.
At Burnham Westgate the housekeeper and gardener do not come with the house, meaning the new owner can decide whether to keep them on. Harley is often asked to find the right people to work as housekeepers, gardeners and cooks. As well as advertising in The Lady he has a network of contacts – and uses a vetting agency to alert him to potential disasters.
So is there a limit to the powers of a country house consultant? “A Russian client once asked me to stock his Sussex lake with sturgeon and catfish,” says Harley. “It just wasn’t the right environment for them so I put him in touch with a fisheries consultant and said good luck to him.”
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