Jueves 5 de Octubre de 2006, Ip nº 173

Uncovering the riches of the past
Por Lucy Denyer

People just cannot seem to get enough of history these days: a growing fascination with genealogy has spilled over into an interest in researching the background of their family home. Estate agents are increasingly tapping into this by tracing the provenance of properties on their books, realising that an intriguing tale can prove a great hook for snaring potential buyers.

Larger estate agencies such as Savills and Jackson-Stops & Staff that specialise in grand country houses have been researching their properties’ pasts on an ad hoc basis for years, but now one of their venerable rivals, Chesterton (established 1805), has appointed its first full-time historian: Melanie Backe-Hansen, 30, a graduate of Macquarie University in Sydney.

“You can always find out something,” says Backe-Hansen, who says she is thrilled at the prospect of using her skills in a commercial environment. “In most cases, there is something of interest however slight, from the date the house was built, and how much it may have sold for, to any famous residents.”

A maisonette that the agency has just taken on in one of London’s most prestigious areas is a case in point. It is part of an 18th-century townhouse at 9 Grosvenor Square that was the London home of John Adams, the second president of the United States, while he was ambassador here. Adams had leased it from the grandfather of Lord Byron, the poet.

But surely people aren’t going to pay more for a house just because it has had some interesting occupants through the years? Most agencies admit the answer is no. But the fact that Anne Boleyn or Laurence Olivier once lived at a property can nevertheless be used to generate press interest, which may lead to more viewings. That, in turn, means more offers, which could lead to a bidding war that drives up the price.

So what sorts of historical snippets are likely to attract buyer interest? With a larger, listed house, details of its architectural history often prove attractive, particularly to potential international buyers. Charles Smith, a director of the London office of Sotheby’s International Realty, says many of his foreign clients — especially Americans — love the idea of buying a historic country house that is as old as their homeland, even though British buyers, who are more familiar with the potential pitfalls of taking on a listed building, are more wary.

Dawn Carritt, a director of Jackson-Stops & Staff who personally researches some of the more interesting properties, spent six weeks last year investigating Piercefield, a country house near Chepstow in Monmouthshire designed by Sir John Soane, the 18th-century architect. This, she says, “took it into another league” and made a big difference to the sale price. The house, offered as a restoration project, had been completely burnt out; Carritt’s research turned up Soane’s original drawings, giving potential buyers a chance to see just what the house could look like once restored.

Most of us don’t live in such grand piles, though. So what about the more modest semi? Do the agents bother to do the research on smaller properties, and, if not, is it worth doing yourself? The answer to the first question is occasionally, and, should this prove not to be the case, then it is a definite yes to the second. “The lower it (the house) goes in value, the more likely that the clients have done the research and we’ll verify the facts,” says Rupert Sweeting, a partner in the country house department of Knight Frank. There are exceptions to the rule: “If there is a house which is only worth half a million pounds, but Alfred the Great burnt his cakes there, we will do a lot of research on it,” he adds.

In most cases, however, agents will start by asking the owners if they know anything. “Estate agents are a bit desperate to try and think of something interesting,” says John Young, a director at Humberts. “So if you live in a property called the Old Bakehouse, or there used to be a post office where your house now stands, it’s definitely worth digging around a bit.” Local history societies will go round a house if you’re not sure where to start, but if you want to get your house on the market quickly, it is worth doing the research yourself.

Not all history is positive, though. “Murders, death or plague”, are all out, according to Sweeting; ghosts and other spiritual apparitions can be a mixed blessing.

Estate agents usually treat any less palatable aspects of a house’s past with a degree of circumspection, although they are meant to be as truthful as possible.

But if you want to sell to anyone other than those with a fascination with death, then it is probably best to keep quiet about such things. As Richard Gayner, head of country houses at Savills in London, puts it: “We’re here to sell houses. When did you buy a car which you were told was in a massive pile-up and somebody died?”

History lesson

To research your property’s history, begin at the National Archives (www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/househistory) to find out who lived there before you
Visit your library or country record office for electoral rolls and surveys. Wills, parish registers and planning records are also useful. You can order historical maps at www.ordancesurvey.co.uk

No time to do research? Get professional help at www.house-detectives.co.uk or www.house-historians.co.uk. Rates are about £150 a day.

  24/09/2006. Times Online.