A four bedroom house just outside the cathedral town of Wells
$2.9 MILLION (2.4 MILLION BRITISH POUNDS)
Built on the plan of a former farm building, this 4,170 sq ft modern home sits on 10 acres of grounds in Binegar, a tiny village in the Mendip Hills, five miles east of the cathedral city of Wells in south-west England.
The house is on a single level, with the living room and bedrooms in an open space under skylights. “It’s very unusual to have a home of this size with such a modern approach as most of the homes in this area are more historic or traditional,” said Lucy Drane, a senior valuation specialist at The Modern House, the real estate agent.
The vendors, Katherine and Geoff Ladd, worked with Bath architect Michael Williams “to keep the material palette really simple, including wood and microcement,” Ms Drane said. After a year of construction, the couple moved into the house in 2019.
The house meets passive house standards to minimize energy consumption and uses triple glazed Internorm glass, mechanical ventilation with a heat recovery system, rainwater collection and a biodigester to utilize organic waste. Reclaimed wood is found throughout (Siberian larch clads the home’s exterior), and the outdoor deck is made of recycled plastic. “Our underfloor heating rarely comes on because the house is so efficient,” Ms Ladd said.
A long driveway leads to the house from a local road. The main entrance leads through a timber-framed atrium with a clear polycarbonate ceiling, opening onto a foyer and a long great room with a vaulted ceiling. Ms. Ladd designed the kitchen, whose black appliances offset a 13-foot steel-topped island. A sliding glass wall opens from the kitchen to a rear deck.
Floor-to-ceiling shelves line a wall separating the living and sleeping areas. All four bedrooms are the same size and one has an en-suite bathroom. The identical proportions are “a diplomatic thing for her children,” Ms. Drane said.
A few hundred yards from the house, the Ladds built a separate cabin with a bathroom and kitchen, which the couple operates as short-term rentals. “It could easily become overflow shelters for the house,” Ms. Drane said. The couple also “naturalized” the site and added a pond, Ms Ladd said. “So much wildlife has come back,” she said.
Binegar is a farming village of around 355 people in Somerset, one of seven counties that make up the South West region of England. Wells, known for being the nation’s smallest city and a tourist attraction for its 800-year-old cathedral, is five miles to the west. “It’s beautiful and rural, but Bath and Bristol are both about 40 minutes away by car, Bristol Airport 30 minutes away and good London rail links from Castle Cary,” said Ms Drane, about 12 miles south. London is about 125 miles northeast.
In a familiar post-pandemic narrative, shoppers in Wells are faced with tight inventory and rising prices. The Covid-19 pandemic “has accelerated the Somerset market exponentially,” said Nathan Emerson, chief executive of Propertymark, the membership association for property professionals. “It became a popular spot for people leaving big cities.”
According to data from UK property site Rightmove, prices in Wells averaged £329,520 ($401,000) by 2021, up 8 percent from the 2019 average. Across the Southwest region, prices rose 12 percent from 2019, although they fell 3 percent during 2021.
“It’s calmed down a bit because people who wanted to move here have moved here, but it’s still a seller’s market,” said Adam Holland, director of the Holland and Odam agency in Wells. “In the 20 years we’ve been in business, we’ve never had such a small portfolio of properties.”
Britain’s secession from the European Union was also a factor, “with a new group of people coming back from Europe,” said Matthew Clarke, a staffer at the Greenslade Taylor Hunt agency in Wells. “We also see expats returning from Hong Kong.”
Wells’ status as a tourist destination is putting pressure on the market and making it popular with investors for short-term rentals, said Ollie Jones, Wells branch manager at agency Allen & Harris. “Although central Wells has limitations, other cities have fewer, and it’s an increasing opportunity in our area,” he said.
While prices vary in the area, Mr Clarke estimated the median price of a family home at £550,000 ($670,000), rising to £750,000-1 million ($913,000-$1.22 million) near the cathedral or a school. “The highest recently was £1.35m in the city centre,” he said. Semi-detached houses sell for an average of £325,000 ($395,000), while flats range from £200,000 ($243,000) in new builds to £300,000 ($365,000) “for nicer flats in older buildings near the city”.
Mr Holland said a “modern four-bedroom detached house” in Wells would cost around £500,000-600,000 ($608,000-$730,000) while a three-bedroom townhouse would cost around £330,000 ($400,000) on average, and a two-bedroom apartment around £165,000 ($200,000).
As the UK continues to struggle with a nationwide housing shortage, building new homes in Somerset is challenging “due to huge waves of protected land and national parks, and massive building restrictions,” Mr Emerson said. “Those areas that attract people are areas that don’t have a lot of construction.”
Who buys in Wells
Domestic buyers are driving the Wells-area real estate market, “which is being driven by two forces,” Holland said. “One of those is education because people want their kids to go to the excellent local schools. And the other is retirement, with people looking for a different pace of life, with access to big cities and the countryside.”
The pandemic has shifted the balance toward younger shoppers. “As Covid made mobility possible, the region’s schools, coastal access and commuter links began to attract more families,” he said.
While Londoners make up part of the market in the area, shoppers from the nearby cities of Bath and Bristol are more common, said Cathy Morris-Adams, managing partner at agency Lodestone in Wells. “It’s more of a place where the locals want to live,” she said. While demand from overseas buyers has been low, she said, it has skyrocketed in nearby Bruton, which Condé Nast Traveler has dubbed “the coolest town in the West Country.”
There are no restrictions on foreign buyers in England, said Dominika Bullegas, a property lawyer at London law firm Healys. “But it’s not easy for a non-UK resident foreigner to get a mortgage,” she said, adding that specialized lenders, international banks or mortgage brokers can sometimes help.
After a seller accepts a buyer’s offer, attorneys (known as solicitors) on both sides collect documents, including proof of funds, and conduct a series of property searches. “We also recommend an investigation to determine the condition of the home,” Ms Bullegas said.
The buyer’s attorney delivers a “contract package” of documents and collects a deposit equal to 10 percent of the purchase price.
For UK buyers, the process will take five to seven weeks, Ms Bullegas said. “But foreign buyers can expect to wait two months or more. The UK is absolutely swamped with non-UK buyers and everyone has a really heavy case load.”
languages and currency
English; British pound (1 pound = $1.22)
Taxes and Fees
According to Justin Bryant, a director at Blackfriars Tax Solutions in London, foreign buyers face significantly higher taxes and fees than domestic buyers. “The government has cracked down on foreigners over the past decade,” he said. “Before 2013 foreigners were not even taxed on UK property investments.”
The primary tax on property sales, the progressive Stamp Duty Land Tax (SDLT), has grown to a top rate of 12 per cent, applicable to sales of £1.5m ($1.83m) or more. Since 2016, the government has also added a 3 percent surcharge “if you already own property anywhere in the world,” Bryant said. And there’s a 2 per cent levy on non-British buyers, introduced in April 2021 to cool down the market. “Everything had a massive impact,” said Mr. Bryant. “Prime Central London never regained its peak.”
Brokerage commissions in England range from 1 to 1.25 per cent, Lodestone’s Ms Morris-Adams said. According to Mrs Ladd, the seller, annual property taxes on this house, known in England as council taxes, are around £3,000 ($3,620). Monthly electricity bills total around £250 ($305), she said.
Lucy Drane or Charlie Arden Brown, The Modern House, 011-44-20 3795 5920
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