In certain villages in the home counties, there are “little black books” doing the rounds that make essential reading for newcomers to the area. Middleton Advisors, the country buying agency, compiles them to suit the specific interests and requirements of each of its clients, listing everything from the best plumbers and pony clubs to Aga suppliers and yoga classes.
“When we go back to see buyers after they’ve settled in, they thank us for finding them a house and saving them money, but it’s the little black book that they find most invaluable and it saves them a lot of time,” says Mark Parkinson, partner at Middleton Advisors.
The upheaval of moving to a new area may be disorientating for young families, but there is usually one common thread that drives them: the ambition to get their children into the best schools. And increased competition for places at top-ranking private schools, intensified by international interest, is having a dramatic effect on micro property markets around the country. In pockets of Oxford, Newbury, Winchester and north Surrey, for example, family houses often sell for far above the asking price.
Anne-Helene Ljungstrom, a Swedish mother of three boys at Eton College, feels the idea of a “global gold standard” of education is emerging. She believes that parents from all over the world are prepared to do whatever it takes to send their children first to a British prep school, then a British public school, followed by an Ivy League university in the US – according to the current vogue.
“When our eldest was in the scholarship form at Summer Fields [in Oxford], one of the main feeder schools for Eton, he was one of only two non-English boys. By the time our youngest was in the same form, there were only two English boys. The rest of the class was made up mainly of boys from America, Russia and Hong Kong,” says Ljungstrom, who runs an investment company with her husband Fredrik. “I have seen families recently paying £8m and more for houses close to Summer Fields and I know of a family building a mansion next to Wellington College [in Berkshire], where their son is going after Summer Fields,” she adds.
When the Ljungstroms moved to the UK 18 years ago, they bought North Aston Manor, 16 miles north of Oxford, but have decided to sell their house now that the boys are all boarders. The property, which is on the market with Savills for £12m, comes with 1,300 sq meters of living space, an indoor swimming pool, gym and an 18-acre garden. It is also located near some of Britain’s top private schools.
According to Ed Sugden, from Savills country department, the demand for Oxford schools – in particular The Dragon and Summer Fields prep schools – is such that buyers are prepared to pay up to 50 per cent above value to secure a family house.
Further pressure is being added as parents increasingly choose to send their children to day schools in the early years rather than board.
“Parents want to live near the school and, in central north Oxford, properties within walking or cycling distance are fetching above £1,000 per square foot,” says Mark Smith, head of Strutt & Parker in Oxford.
A six-bedroom Victorian villa close to Summertown in north Oxford, within walking distance of The Dragon, is on sale for £3.5m through Knight Frank.
In Cambridge, it is a similar story. A house within walking distance of St Faith’s prep school recently sold for 70 per cent above its guide price, with 120 viewings and 29 sealed bids from UK and international buyers within four days. “There is no doubt the nearby schools – St Faith’s, The Perse and The Leys – were the drivers for this interest,” says Cameron Ewer, of Strutt & Parker’s Cambridge office.
Buying agents say the optimum distance to live from a prep school is within a 20-minute drive. When there are two or more children to shuttle there and back every day, often at different times, living any further away becomes intolerable. That demand also often needs to be balanced with proximity to a train station on a commutable line to London.
Middleton Advisors sees the greatest demand for property near prep schools in Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Hampshire. “For London buyers, these all represent a good trade-up space-wise and they are within 40 to 60 miles of London, so it’s not a back-breaking commute,” says Parkinson.
It is also important for many parents to live near their child’s boarding school, ideally within a 40-minute drive. “There are always sports matches, plays, teachers’ meetings and, of course, picking up for exeats and holidays,” says Jonathan Harington, of Haringtons UK, who has seen a rising number of Asian, particularly Chinese, families moving to Winchester – often renting first, then buying – with the aim of getting their children a place at Winchester College.
A similar demographic is buying in Dorset to be near Sherborne or Bryanston boarding schools. In Sherborne itself a large detached Edwardian house with five bedrooms is for sale through Knight Frank priced at £575,000. “They don’t always relocate to the area. Instead, they look locally for weekend/holiday homes that they can use as a base during school exeats and short holidays,” says Jeremy Priestley, director of Berkeleys estate agents, which recently sold a cliff top apartment in Poole to a Chinese family seeking a home for precisely this purpose. “With the recent acquisition of Sunseeker International Yachts, based in Poole Harbour, by a Chinese company, we expect to see this trend increase,” he adds.
For this international elite, it is invariably a case of school first, house second. The house-hunting process can often be a fraught one, given the pressure to be in by the start of term and the fact that many suitable family houses are sold off the market “quickly and quietly”, says Parkinson. “Owners often have a strong emotional attachment to their family home as the place their own children grew up to attend the local prep, and they don’t want its details all over the internet when it’s time to sell.”