September 30, 2011 9:54 pm

Mews from nowhere

Buildings designed for horses are now among the most desirable homes in London

Readers of a certain age may recall the London of the 1970s, when the capital was identified around the world with people as diverse as the artist Francis Bacon, the charismatic racing driver James Hunt and cockney actor Michael Caine. But those celebrities have more in common than their era-defining reputations. They were all identified with a type of home: the mews house.

Over the past half-century, mews houses have retained their image as chic places with sought-after addresses, but they were not always so highly regarded. Indeed, the history of mews – terraces of small one- or two-storey homes built in Victorian times – is inextricably bound up with the history of central London development.

As squares and crescents were built for wealthy families in the “new” 18th- and 19th-century areas of Mayfair, Hyde Park and Kensington, space was required for maids and butlers to sleep, as well as storage for carriages and horses.

The more egalitarian 20th century, combined with the ravages of two world wars, took a toll on these mews homes. Aristocratic families declined and mews houses fell into disrepair. In the 1950s some were squatted in or bought for tiny sums by struggling artists who did little to stop the properties from deteriorating further. Then, in the 1960s, a small revolution happened.

“People suddenly realised that these buildings could become homes. Many are in very charming cobbled streets and conservation areas, yet the buildings themselves rarely have listed status so they can be radically altered inside,” explains Melanie Backe-Hansen. She is known in the UK property industry as the House Historian, tracing the heritage of properties for estate agency Chesterton Humberts, and is the author of a short history of mews homes in London.

A chart of mews house prices

Early pioneers of turning these old stables into homes found themselves on the crest of a publicity wave in the 1960s. The Profumo crisis – when a UK government minister was discovered to be telling state secrets to a prostitute – centred on liaisons at a mews in Mayfair. And cult TV series The Avengers reinforced the edgy image of mews houses with a leading man-about-town character living in one. Then real-life celebrities started moving in to them.

As a result, prices soared and mews houses completed their rags-to-riches transformation. Lurot Brand, an estate agency specialising in mews sales, chronicles one home close to Hyde Park. Described in the 1950s as “a pokey four-room flat above a garage”, by 1982 it had sold for £200,000. By 1988 it had almost doubled in value, selling for £389,000 and in 1995 it had risen to £525,000. The agency sold it once more in 2003 for £950,000. When the home was last assessed in 2007, its estimated value was close to £2m.

Mews houses now routinely breach the £1m mark. Lurot Brand has a modernised two-bedroom, three-bathroom property at Grosvenor Crescent Mews in Belgravia on sale for £4.2m and a three-bedroom mews house a short walk from Kensington High Street for £2.5m. Many long-term owners, however, are reluctant to cash in.

“A mews is an oasis separating you from the turmoil that is London. It’s enclosed, usually a cul-de-sac, and provides a community where everyone knows everyone living nearby,” explains businessman Nigel Wills.

Wills bought a house in Princes Gate Mews in Kensington in 1974 and snapped up the one next door in 1982 as space for an expanding family. Now the children have left he has downsized back to one, recently modernised “to serve out the rest of my life”.

His 37 years of mews living has convinced him of the property style’s ability to reinvent itself. “When we first bought it, no one wanted a mews. Then they became fashionable and gained a celebrity status. Now they’re entirely capable of being 21st-century homes,” says Wills. To prove his point he has fitted photo-voltaic panels and an air-source heat pump to his roof and generates so much electricity he sells the surplus to energy companies.

Another mews property, off Primrose Hill close to Regent’s Park, demonstrates similar versatility. Paxton House began as a four-room mews but was expanded by the late architect Richard Paxton into offices for his company. The vast 6,000 sq ft space has now been transformed again, this time into a home, and is on sale for £6.75m through Knight Frank.

The changing character of these buildings is not unusual, suggests Kati Lurot, a director of Lurot Brand and owner of a mews near Hyde Park.

“They don’t have serious architectural merit but they’re quite unlike other properties in London. A key component is the fact that many have garages. We value the parking space at the same price per sq ft as the residential accommodation,” she says.

Those values can be £1,250 per sq ft or more. With many mews having been extended sideways into adjoining properties or upwards through the addition of another storey, roof terrace or both, asking prices can be eye-watering.

Knight Frank is marketing a mews house with its original façade but transformed by a developer into a four-storey home with 4,000 sq ft of internal space, plus two balconies and a terrace, for £5.795m.

“Some people are trying to cash in on the popularity of mews. Developers, for example, build ordinary town houses and call them mews but they’re not,” explains Kati Lurot. She advises buyers who want the genuine article to stick to period properties with a documented history. “There’s one easy test to see if a mews is really a mews. Has a horse ever lived in it? If the answer is no, it’s not the real thing.”

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Buying guide

Pros

● Mews are historic buildings but allow owners freedom to modernise

● Scarcity means mews tend to hold their value

● Many offer parking, often in areas where this is otherwise hard to find

Cons

● They tend to have little natural light and low ceilings

● Most are devoid of original features inside

● Unless a roof terrace has been added, there will be no private outdoor space

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Details

● Lurot Brand www.lurotbrand.co.uk

● Chesterton Humberts www.chestertonhumberts.com

● Knight Frank www.knightfrank.com

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