The Times – 12 October 1994

The shortage of property has sparked fresh interest in turning the institutions back into family homes, Rachel Kelly reports

Buildings which for de­cades have echoed to the sounds of Latin prep and the ten times table are once again becoming family homes. Estate agents report that the shortage of property on the market is leading to the conversion of schools and institutions back to their original residential use. 

Examples include Wardour Cas­tle, formerly home to Cranbourne Chase girls' school, which was sold last year and has now been converted into flats; and Maisemore Park, near Gloucester, with 100 acres, which was previously used as student accommodation for Hartpury Agricultural College near by. The white Georgian house with its seven bedrooms was sold recently to buyers who plan to restore the house to a family home, after a two-year search. The new buyer, who prefers to remain anonymous, praises the house's architectural proportions, and the "feeling of grandeur about the place".

Other examples of the switch from institutional to residential use include Cosgrove Hall, near Milton Keynes. For the past 20 years it has been used mainly for the display of antique furniture. It has now been sold for more than £1 million to an expatriate Briton who plans to return it to private use.

The reason for such interest is the dearth of attractive property for sale. The number of annual property sales is now approximately 1.2 million compared with two million a year at the height of the boom in the late 1980s, according to govern­ment figures.

Homeowners remain reluctant to sell, moving only when they have no choice, says James Laing from Strutt & Parker. "Low inflation means that people are not making as much money as they used to on the sale. In addition, during the reces­sion many sellers found that their houses took so long to sell that they are reluctant to move again. Then there is the fear of negative equity."

Hence the unusual popularity of former schools, residential homes and offices in what were once fine country houses, Mr Laing says. Homeowners frustrated by a long search for attractive property are prepared to convert back such properties.

Often buyers have been search­ing for months for a suitable new home, and have found that conven­tional houses with nice features are selling quickly and often for more than the asking price, according to the latest housing market survey from the Royal Institution of Char­tered Surveyors.

Buyers are especially attracted to the spacious rooms available, says Nigel Tuersley, the owner of Wardour Castle, who has created a home around  the  vast central rotunda, and is converting the top floor of the house into three new flats to let at around £20,000 a year each.

Mr Tuersley says there has been a very strong interest both nationally and internationally in the property since it went on the market in September.

But potential converters may find the costs high.  "Renovation was a weighty task at Wardour Castle as Mr Tuersley had to undo all the terrible things schools do to beauti­ful properties." say Barbara Blanchard, from the estate agents John D. Wood.

Renovation has cost £1.5 million so far, but this does not include essential work to the grounds and courtyards. This is expected to come to a further £500,000.

Developers are capitalising on the trend. A school house in Pages Walk, in London SE1, has been converted by the developers Pearl Property into 58 flats. Such conver­sions are attractive to homebuyers as the developers are careful to keep original architectural features such as the Victorian tiles, windows and wooden floors of the school house.

Fairbriar homes has divided Farley Castle, near Wokingham in Berkshire, into three homes, con­verted at a cost of £300,000. The house has been a hotel and more recently, a school. In 1958, a Miss Woolley adapted the house to become the Hephaistos School for handicapped children, which it remained until 1988.  All the homes have now been sold.

Savills have already had much interest from private buyers in another former school, St Mi­chaels, near Petworth in West Sussex, on the market for £2 million. Within striking distance of London, it is set in 150 acres of grounds with a 20-acre lake. From 1946 it was home to an independent girls' school, and a buyer would have to bulldoze the ugly modem accretions built to accommodate the girls. Nick Sweeney from the agents cautions that the building is Grade I listed, and any alteration would need sympathetic handling.

Nigel Tuersley