Many attractions vie for your attention in Cheltenham: the Regency architecture, the racecourse and its literary and music festivals. Yet its schools are often the main pull for the top-end housing market.
The most famous example is Cheltenham Ladies’ College, a private boarding and day school with about 850 pupils aged 11 to 18. Past students include a former British cabinet minister and renowned actresses and scientists, including Kristin Scott Thomas and Mary Archer. Three co-educational schools also draw families to the town: the 16th-century Pate’s Grammar School – publicly funded with 1,000 students; the modern Balcarras School with 1,300 pupils; and the private school, Cheltenham College, which has 600 students.
In a town with a population of 115,000, this volume of sought-after school places, as well as the presence of University of Gloucestershire campus buildings, means finding a home close to a chosen institution is key.
“Expats or foreign parents will buy a base in Cheltenham while their daughter is at the Ladies’ College,” says Lynn Simmonds of estate agency Hamptons International. “But the economic climate means that there’s a big drive for families to get into good state school catchment areas, particularly in Charlton Kings on the south side of the town.” A five-bedroom modern home in Charlton Kings – a suburb of 10,000 people – costs up to £650,000.
“Within Cheltenham itself, Georgian townhouses are the most sought-after properties,” says Ed Clarkson of The Buying Solution, the buying agency arm of Knight Frank. “The hotspots are Montpellier, The Suffolks and The Park – these are smart parts of town near the good restaurants. Pittville, to the north, is the secondary option and prices are slightly lower there as it’s a long walk into the centre.”
The best-preserved homes in these areas have up to eight bedrooms and ornate original interiors. Knight Frank is selling a six-bedroom 4,575 sq ft house in Park Place, renovated in 2009, for £2m. A 6,800 sq ft seven-bedroom Victorian villa just east of the town centre at Battledown is selling through Hamptons International for £1.75m.
However, most homes in these locations have relatively small gardens, so buyers with young families tend to head out to the villages. Brockhampton is a popular village for £1m-plus homes, seven miles east of Cheltenham and near the A40 road towards Oxford and London. Good-quality country houses can also be found in villages such as Naunton and Guiting Power, while Elkstone and Duntisbourne Abbots to the south are convenient for the M4 and M5 motorways.
London commuters, however, tend not to feature in the town, which is almost 100 miles northwest of the capital and would involve road or rail journeys of more than two hours each way – but many commute to Bristol and Birmingham, each only an hour away by train or car.
Older buyers are drawn to the local lifestyle. In addition to the cultural life of Cheltenham, the town is within an hour’s drive of artistic centres such as Stratford-upon-Avon. Rural pastimes, from walking to hunting, are also on offer in the Cotswolds, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty south of Cheltenham.
“Lifestyle in this context means stylish rural living with mud if you want it. The north Cotswolds covers a small area so it’s quite easy to build a social life with like-minded people,” says Robert Pritchard, an agent specialising in rural property at Smiths Gore.
His agency is selling a barn converted into a 9,700 sq ft five-bedroom home with Cotswolds views for £2.75m. A more traditional old rectory at Elkstone, with seven bedrooms, is on sale for £2.5m with Strutt & Parker.
One might expect a strong market, given the range of quality housing plus educational, cultural and countryside advantages. Yet despite lower-cost homes rising considerably (an average house in Cheltenham costs £257,799, according to the Land Registry, showing a 9.7 per cent rise in the year to July), agents at the top end admit to having struggled in 2012.
“In general prices are not far off their 2007 values, but buyers are more cautious and price-sensitive than in 2011,” says Pritchard. Lynn Simmonds of Hamptons International says that buyers and vendors at the top end remain roughly in equilibrium because “unfortunately, there’s neither a huge supply of these properties nor a huge demand at the moment”.
Cheltenham agents say the number of sales in 2012 was half that of 2007, with no increase likely in 2013. They claim the high point of activity comes each spring with the scramble for homes near the most popular schools – a sign that without an educational incentive, the current market in many areas would be even weaker.
Crime in Cheltenham has fallen by over 25 per cent in the past year
The town’s four festivals (science, jazz, music and literature) attract more than 180,000 visitors a year
Stamp duty thresholds at £1m and £2m deter top-end house purchases
Prices for detached houses have dipped, but risen in other classes
What you can buy for ...
£500,000 A four-bedroom, detached 1990s house in a suburb
£1m A seven-bedroom house within walking distance of the town centre