An innovative new venture specialising in the development and rental of English country houses has launched with an historic acquisition and major plans to build a portfolio of noteworthy properties in key regional tourism hubs.
Villarum Estates – founded by award-winning stately home owner, Spear’s magazine founder, and PrimeResi contributor William Cash – has made its first major play, acquiring a 25-acre, Grade I listed 14th century estate near a World Heritage site off-market for just over £1m. While precise details are under wraps (they will be shared with potential investors at a breakfast event later on this month), we do know that 19th century literary titan Henry James said the riverside estate was the property he would most like to own in England, describing it as “a charming house and a modern Eden”.[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Villarum is building a portfolio of small-acreage country houses of historic, literary or architectural interest in key heritage tourism locations[/pullquote]
This deal appears to set the tone for Villarum’s planned £10m+ portfolio: small-acreage country houses of historic, literary or architectural interest in key heritage tourism locations. Such properties are, according to most predictions, likely to see solid capital growth over the next five-or-so years, as consistently high demand for decent family homes is supported by regional prices catching up with London’s recent spate of stellar performance. Cash intends to acquire around eight “small country estate” or coastal properties within the next two years, relying on a two-strand business model (capital value + rental income) to generate returns for investors. Next targets are Norfolk’s “champagne coast”, the Bath area and the Cotswolds.
New acquisitions will undergo a high-spec refurb or residential conversion (institutional, ex-authority and former hotels, golf clubs and schools are being targeted), and then either sold as family homes or primed for holiday/event rentals, depending on forecast rental and capital growth returns. Cash’s wife, the Colefax & Fowler-trained Lady Laura Cathcart (daughter of renowned country house interior decorator Vivien Greenock, whose clients include Badminton house for the Duke of Beaufort and Oscar della Renta), is taking on responsibility for designing Villarum’s interiors.
The rental side of the business, called Villarum Private, however, is where this venture gets really innovative. This will be offering “serviced country houses” for short-term rentals to holiday-makers, corporate events and weddings. The idea is to provide hotel-quality service, such as a butler, liveried staff and catering, in a more informal, engaging environment; think high-class chalet-girls in a Georgian manor house.[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Think high-class chalet-girls in a Georgian manor house[/pullquote]
It’s a move that seems to be right on trend: global prime cities have seen an explosion in the number of luxury serviced apartments in recent years (Oaktree Capital recently allocated £300m to the sector via the SACO group), and major five star tourism operators (such as Four Seasons Residential Rentals) are ploughing investment into high-end villa rentals in resort locations. In Britain, the Goodwood Estate is leading the march; the estate’s former kennels have been transformed into Hound Lodge, a sumptuous ten-bedroom bolthole, now available to rent for £10,000 per night, complete with butler and maid service.
“Just as B&B’s have got increasingly like four star hotels, so the new phenomenon of ‘serviced’ country house/coastal rentals have become increasingly like five star boutique hotels,” says William Cash, writing in the new edition of Spear’s magazine. “And just as today’s luxury B&Bs bear little resemblance to the Fawlty Towers-style experience of the seventies and eighties – when water trickled out of a plastic shower head and ‘coffee’ was a sachet of Nescafe and some UHT milk – so todays’ HNWs guest expectations of country house rentals have changed, partly as a result of the private members club revolution which has caused a blurring of the lines between private and public social spaces. Hotels are simply too public for most ultra HNWs today.”
Cash has good form in both listed restorations and heritage tourism, having opened up the Elizabethan family seat (Upton Cressett Hall in Shropshire) to the public – winning “Best Hidden Gem” at the 2011 Hudson’s Heritage awards – and turning its Gatehouse into a successful holiday rental business with regular A-list guests including Elizabeth Hurley and Easton Neston fashion mogul Leon Max.
Scott Rudmann, founder of private equity outfit Nectar Capital, is managing Villarum’s initial £5m “seed” fundraise with William Cash, who says that this will be enough for the acquisition of at least three estates or houses. A second round will raise another £8m-£10m. Other Board members are yet to be announced but – given Cash’s connections in the HNW, private banking, media and historic homes worlds – we’re expecting some heavyweight names to attach themselves to the new venture.
“We’re thrilled to have Scott Rudmann on board to manage the investment side of things as we worked successfully together before as partners turning Spear’s from a niche magazine title into a global financial and luxury media brand which was exited via a significant trade sale. Coming from an Oxford and Harvard corporate background, with a private equity career servicing many HNW clients and family offices, including the Goldsmith family, Scott is also ideally placed to understand their mentality. In many ways, Scott is the Villarum client.”
The serviced luxury villa/chalet idea has worked successfully in other countries, especially Bali, Asia and the Far East. But applying it to England is more novel. “London-based HNWs like the idea of spending a week at half term renting a classic English country house in a picture post-card location for a fraction of the price of a week in the Maldives,” says Cash. “They like the idea of ‘multi-generational’ and ‘extended family’ vacations which also have cultural and educational appeal. So guests or the kids can actually learn something about a beautiful area of England, from Hardy’s Wessex to Arthurian Cornwall or Wordsworth’s Lake District. But what they don’t like is self-catering,” adds Cash. “I have learnt this the hard way from my own estate rentals”.
Cash and Rudmann plan to meet with family offices and HNW property investors for their £5m seed round of funding to back this “ultra-high yield rental opportunity in a neglected sector of the UK property market: smaller acreage country estates of notable architectural interest (typically Grade I or Grade II) in the £1m -£2.5m bracket with typically 10-25 acres.” Cash is investing over £1m in Villarum himself, and hopes to have the first estate refurbished and launched this year.
“Most smaller estates are undervalued as they don’t have trophy acreage. Some people are actually put off buying Grade I properties. But these days the architecture, grounds, cottages and the ‘Big House’ can yield way more income than farming land” argues Cash. “We believe that buy-to-holiday-let will become the new buy-to-let. Our five year mission is to make our portfolio of ‘serviced’ estates the top brand in the country, as well as creating a valuable underlying portfolio of assets that research is indicating will increase by 6% a year for the next five years. And that doesn’t even include the post development GDV property value uplift.”
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