Owning the big house: Who buys a country pile?

For most people, the idea of owning a magnificent old mansion on acres of rolling parkland is an impossible dream. But someone is forking out for them – the question is, who?


The first daffodils and the lengthening days herald the arrival to the market of stately country manors with woodland settings and pleasure grounds aplenty. For a country so small, there is an abundance of these great estates and though until recently there had been little or no activity in this sector since the downturn began in 2007, lately things have started to pick up.

Over the past two years more sales have taken place in the mansions end of the market – that is, houses on more than 100 acres that measure 74sq m (8,000sq ft) or greater – than there were in the previous four years combined. So who is buying these statement homes?

Sales of country piles tend to be hush-hush affairs with private jets and non-disclosure agreements the order of the day. Transaction prices aren’t as transparent as those for residential homes in urban areas where the property price register records the value for the entire property. With country homes, the land has a commercial value and is therefore exempt from inclusion.

Take the recent under-the-radar sale of Boystown House (formerly known as Baltyboys House) a Georgian mansion on 100 acres in an idyllic lakeside setting in Blessington, Co Wicklow. The property price register reveals Boystown, owned by Elizabeth McClory, widow of 1960s film producer Kevin McClory and daughter of racehorse trainer Vincent O’Brien, sold in late January this year for €4.925 million. Add on the going rate for agricultural land in the county and the total is closer to €6 million.

Boystown House was never formally launched on the market, but it’s understood it was sold quietly to a UK businessman through Christie’s International, an affiliate of Sherry FitzGerald here. The asking price was €8.5 million.

Overseas buyers
Agents would agree that overseas buyers have been driving the country homes market since 2012. As the property market soared between 1997 and 2008, domestic buyers accounted for as much as 97 per cent of these sales. Many already had substantial property holdings for development and bought the properties as second homes where they could entertain guests and clients at weekends. Alternatively they were bought with a view to developing them as golf courses and luxury hotels and holiday home schemes.

The rest, as we know, is history. After 2008, there was only foreign interest left in these properties, and prices collapsed by between 55 per cent and 65 per cent, depending on the condition of the property.

David Ashmore, head of country homes with Sherry FitzGerald, estimates that values are now somewhere around the level they were at in 2000 and the balance between what buyers want to pay and what sellers want to accept has been corrected.

The sale of Humewood Castle to Irish-American billionaire John Malone in late 2012 for €8 million marked a turning point. Prior to that, Humewood had typified all that had gone wrong during the boom. Developer John Lally’s Lalco holdings had purchased the Kiltegan estate in 2006 for €25 million and planning was approved in 2008 for a €250 million tourism development, including a five-star hotel, leisure centre, tourist lodges and a golf-course. Malone is in the process of extensively refurbishing Humewood for residential use, restoring the house and grounds to the highest standard.

US interest
US buyers continue to see value in the market. Last May, Charles Noell, a millionaire businessman from Maryland, paid close to the asking price of €4.9 million through Savills for Ardbraccan, a fine Palladian 18th-century mansion on 120 acres outside Navan, Co Meath.

Woodhouse Estate, on 340 acres in Co Waterford, was also bought last year by an American businessmen for about €6 million.

And it’s not just the Americans who are coming. Marcus Magnier of Colliers led the sale of Fota Island, in Cork, to the Chinese Kang family for €20 million last September.

In November the Malahide mansion Abbeville, previously owned by the late former taoiseach Charles Haughey, sold to a Japanese businessman for around €5.2 million. Both estates are expected to be run as leisure enterprises.

Mount Kennedy, in Wicklow, sold last October through Ganly Walters for about €3.5 million. The estate, on 169 acres, is believed to have been bought by a Europe-based buyer with no connections here.

Magnier says Colliers has received genuine expressions of interest in recent weeks from France, Italy, England and the US for Borleagh Manor in Wexford which is asking €4.75 million.

“Investors of this type tend to have immense wealth and will pay over the odds if they want something,” says Magnier. “Not everything has to be at bargain basement prices, and there’s a realisation that quality locations and quality properties are few and far between, and buyers are prepared to compete.”

Europe and the UK are also key markets. Ashmore says that the one benefit of the boom – Ireland’s improved infrastructure and accessibility – means it now competes directly for UK buyers who would also be looking at estates in Devon, Cornwall and Kent.

“The boom worked against us for attracting overseas buyers because transactions were turning around so fast. People would only be booking a flight to view the property when it would be sold. There was clear overheating here vis-à-vis other markets and that was apparent to buyers.”

Sherry FitzGerald’s latest country report indicates that while overseas buyers are still the main drivers of the market, last year they accounted for about 65 per cent of prime country house sales, compared with 90 per cent in 2012. The domestic appetite is returning.

According to Harriet Grant, head of country houses, farms and estates with Savills: “The stock for this year is much higher than in 2013. There are a lot more private individuals at the upper end, who had been waiting for the market to turn, and now have the confidence to sell.”

But she adds, the domestic buyers are not queuing up just yet. Savills is currently selling Capard House, a Georgian estate in Laois, for €5.5 million and the interest so far is all international. “These need to be really high net worth individuals. Buying is the easy part, it’s maintaining these properties that’s the challenge.”

Irish buyers tend to crop up when a substantial property comes up locally, where the land value is the main attraction. This was the case last year when the 420-acre Dowth Hall estate on the river Boyne was bought by a local businessman for €5 million, and he plans to carry out a major restoration of the property.

Meanwhile Ireland’s most expensive estate, the Lyons Demesne in Kildare, is understood to have been sold in March for about €30 million through joint agents Knight Frank and Christie’s. It is believed the buyer of the late Tony Ryan’s trophy estate, of 600 acres, is an Irish businessman with interests in the Middle East. Agents agree there is a definite increase in interest from expats who left Ireland in the 1980s, made their fortunes elsewhere and are now keen to have a base back here.

This week Sherry FitzGerald is bringing Milltown Park Estate in Offaly to the market with an asking price of €4 million. Built in 1720, it’s one of the first small Irish Palladian houses and features exquisite interior plasterwork and a quadrangle of model farm buildings, making it a very historic Georgian home on 285 acres. So who will buy an estate of this type in the heart of Offaly?

“It’s a good working estate,” says David Ashmore. “it’s a manageable size for overseas buyers who want a large enough acreage to make it worth their while to keep an estate manager to look after the property and keep the land productive.”

Improved sentiment in the farming sector may increase local demand for properties like this. Typically, a properly balanced landed estate market will have a 60/40 split between overseas and domestic buyers. With the divide currently running at around 65/35, domestic interest remains guarded.

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