Luxury real estate company founder Trevor Abrahmsohn is very busy at the moment. The founder of Glentree International, which has been operating for 45 years, says he is inundated with rental queries from international clients, particularly in the Middle East, looking for prime London properties to move into. And the coronavirus pandemic is not denting the level of interest.
“Rentals are doing very well. I’ve got very little stock for higher rentals. I’m raiding the sales larder for some of my prospective tenants, trying to persuade people who want to sell to rent out their properties instead,” says Mr Abrahmsohn.
Glentree is responsible for 90 per cent of trophy home sales on properties worth more than £10 million ($12.89m) along London’s north-western corridor, which includes leafy areas such as Hampstead, Highgate and St. John’s Wood, according to the luxury real estate specialist. And sales demand has also heightened in recent months, mainly among clients already in the capital following the Covid-19 lockdown.
“I have a Middle Eastern princess, looking for a home for a very significant amount of money,” he says. “She has a number of family members already living in Hampstead so the price is secondary to the property."
This flurry in activity is mirrored by other market leaders in prime real estate, such as Barclays Private Bank, which has a base in Dubai International Financial Centre as well as in Asia, Africa and Russia. It claims to be one of the biggest mortgage lenders in London's prime real estate space and has noticed a surge in activity over the past few months.
“We’ve seen a lot of action over the summer,” says James Penny, head of UK international private banking for Barclays. “If you’d asked me in March how busy we would be with the mortgage business over the summer, I would have probably said not very, but we are dealing with more inquiries and actual live property transactions than we've had for the last three years.”
While a global pandemic and uncertain travel restrictions might be considered a deterrent for the wealthy to invest in a luxury real estate, prime property prices in the capital and beyond have been on the rise over the past couple of months.
Buyers from the Middle East are 2020's third largest spenders in prime residential property in London, having accounted for a quarter of all buyers over £10m in London in 2019, according to global real estate consultancy Knight Frank.
Prices for high-end homes with a garden on the outskirts of the capital or outside London altogether hit highs in the third quarter not seen since before the global financial crisis of 2007, according to Savills, driven by record levels of demand from buyers looking to change their housing needs after the lockdown.
Values of prime regional property – broadly the top 5-10 per cent of the market by value –are now 1.4 per cent above their 2007 peak, with the biggest increases seen in the traditional £2 million-plus traditional country house market and in coastal properties.
“A desire for more space is now a major priority for buyers. It has boosted the appeal of more rural and lifestyle locations ... It has also created demand for larger family homes in London, particularly for those expecting to work from home for at least part of the week on an ongoing basis,” says Frances Clacy, a Savills research analyst.
Ilchester Place in London's Kensington (£35/$45 million) was featured in The National's luxury property series, and affords any prospective buyers plenty of space.
Increase in international demand
While much of the demand is domestic, Savills says the number of international visitors to properties on its website has risen steeply in recent months, “with interest from Germany, the Middle East and Canada at record levels". “There certainly appears to be pent-up demand for UK property from international buyers who wish to view in person when travel restrictions ease,” says Andrew Perratt, head of UK residential.
Barclays has noted more summer action at the more expensive end of prime property, where values tend to top £5m, says Mr Penny. Transactions on second pads in the countryside are also on the rise, he says, perhaps in case the UK heads into a second lockdown.
“In some cases, the property remained unsold so the client has come back and made an offer below the asking price of 5 to 10 per cent, which has been successful,” he says. “Covid has not been a deterrent for long-term buyers looking in London. For prime central London, prices are well-defined, they are not making any more land, so it’s a long-term store of value.”
The Middle East is one of the world's hotspots for wealth with more than 14,000 ultra-high-net-worth-individuals in the region and 195 billionaires, far exceeding the UK’s billionaire tally of 71, according to Knight Frank's Global Wealth Report 2020.
With interest rates at record lows and sterling weakening since 2016 when Britain voted to exit the European Union, international clients looking to park their money in these uncertain times are attracted by the relatively good deal a London property purchase presents.
“With the weakness in sterling, a client who has considered buying in London as part of a longer-term plan is able to purchase an amazingly good quality asset at a price that’s significantly cheaper than it was a few years ago,” says Mr Penny.
“Sterling has found its floor and we don’t see significant weakness moving forward and that’s a view shared by quite a few clients who have been waiting to see where Brexit goes to try and time their purchase.”
Another financial driver for international buyers is the UK’s intention to add a 2 per cent surcharge on Stamp Duty Land Tax for overseas buyers next year. International buyers are currently subject to the same rates on UK residential property purchases as UK residents, which equates to up to 12 per cent of the value of a property worth more than £1.5m for prime property buyers.
“The stated purpose of the increase in 2021 is to deter foreign buyers from driving up UK property prices and to provide revenue to combat rough sleeping,” says Dominic Filleul, partner at law firm Cripps Pemberton Greenish. “The surcharge will inevitably have an effect but there are bigger factors now at play – how the UK looks to investors post Brexit and how long it takes to come through the Covid-19 pandemic.”
More space - the final frontier
However, real estate agent Mr Abrahmsohn says his clients are fazed neither by Brexit nor Covid. Instead, they are more interested in hunting for properties with sizeable private gardens that can accommodate large families in the event of the UK returning to full lockdown.
“International families that were stuck here during the crisis are now looking for a house with a garden. Some of these mansions are like small-to-medium sized luxury hotels. They’ve got hairdressing salons, massage rooms, wellness clinics and if clients can’t travel they want privacy and recreation within the property,” he says.
Mr Penny agrees that London’s many green spaces heightened its allure during the pandemic, because owners could stretch their legs in the city's extensive parkland.
While experts concede that travel restrictions are affecting some prime property transactions getting across the line, London’s enduring appeal is also driving the rise in interest.
“It’s where everyone wants to be,” says Mr Abrahmsohn. “London has morphed into the greatest city on earth, it’s rich in heritage and history, it's clean, it's civil, it's liberal, it's tolerant. There's a safe economic and political environment. And it's fiscally efficient.
“If you buy a property in Hampstead, for example, you get up to 11 acres of land and you are 15 minutes from the West End. Nestled between two mediaeval villages of Hampstead and Highgate, you have 900 acres of parkland on your doorstep, two golf courses within walking distance, an American school and a private or public airport half an hour away.”
The UK’s more temperate climate also suits those escaping hot Middle East temperatures in the height of summer and while many Middle Eastern buyers often have an educational or business tie to London, they also consider it “a fun city” that not only appeals to them but also their extended families.
“It's an aspiration for many wealthy families to own a property in London," says Mr Penny. “It’s a lifestyle asset and prime central London is a very well-defined area; they’re not making any more land and it has traditionally held up very well as a long-term store of value. I don’t think we’re going to see any slowdown at the moment."