Paradise Ireland: luxury country estates at a discount

Before the coronavirus brought business to a standstill, Charlie Murless’s first year as a B&B landlord had been an entertaining one. Like many with second homes near Dublin, the 60-year-old was running a business renting out Curragh Stud, his house outside Kildare, for €450 a night to equestrian enthusiasts. They were mainly holidaymakers from abroad, visiting the nearby Curragh Racecourse.

“We had Australians for the Irish Guineas Festival, Germans for the Irish Derby, Norwegians for the horse show and English for the start of the season. And we had the [former] Canadian ambassador to Ireland back for his 80th birthday,” he says.

Ireland’s top-end housing market has also relied on international buyers — most are expats with a family connection to the country, often from the UK, the US or Canada.

Last year, there was an increase in UK-based buyers without Irish heritage who were keen to keep a toehold in the EU, says James Butler, head of Savills’ country-house department in Ireland. He estimates that, for homes priced above €1m, 60 per cent of buyers are from abroad.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, they would have found beautiful equestrian estates, surrounded by rolling green fields, for much less than they would have had to pay in 2007. Generally, prime country homes are about 50 to 60 per cent cheaper than they were before the 2008 financial crisis, Butler estimates. “In many cases, large estates have dropped even more than that,” he adds.

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However, the reliance on overseas customers during a time of global travel restrictions has meant that — just like for Murless’s B&B business — many of Ireland’s top rural estate agents are likely to find business is slow.

According to Roseanne De Vere Hunt, an agent at Sherry Fitzgerald Country Homes, interest from overseas buyers is up. Their web traffic from the US has increased 12 per cent in the past two weeks, she says; from the UK, it has jumped by 27 per cent. How many of these inquiries turn into sales will be another matter, of course.

Ireland’s phased exit from lockdown began on May 18. Local agents are hoping that the industry will be allowed to resume viewings in some capacity on June 8, but travelling more than 20km will not be allowed until July 20.

All non-essential travel to and from Ireland must be avoided until August 10 at the earliest. Even then, it is unclear whether rich international buyers will be in the mood for expensive foreign trips, let alone property purchases.
Headfort Court, in Co Meath, has six bedrooms, stables and spectacular gardens, on sale for €1.5m through Savills

In the short term at least, Ireland’s top-end housing market will have to get by on domestic demand. Sellers may console themselves with the fact that — before the shutdown — the number of rich Irish who could afford a fine country home was growing.

In the five years to 2019, the number of Irish residents with investible assets of more than €1m increased from 67,559 to 100,446, according to Knight Frank. The proportional growth rate of 49 per cent was more than double the European average of 22 per cent.

During that time, it was Ireland’s cities that saw the most growth in property prices. After the 2008 downturn, property prices in prime parts of Dublin were the first to rebound, followed by Cork, Galway and Limerick — leaving country houses trailing.

The Mill House, Kilcullen, Co Kildare
The Mill House, Kilcullen, Co Kildare, €1.35m through Jordan Auctioneers

Equestrian properties near Curragh Stud took deep price cuts. The owners of Brownstown Stud, one of Ireland’s oldest stud farms, comprising a four-bedroom house as well as equestrian facilities, had to reduce the price by more than €2m between 2007 and 2009, from €3.4m to €1.35m.

Today, discounted homes include Rocketts Castle Estate, which features a six-bedroom house and fishing lodge beside the River Suir in Portlaw, County Waterford. It is for sale with Savills for €3.25m, reduced from €4.75m.

Near Curragh, Savills is selling Crotanstown House and Stud for €1.85m. It includes an eight-bedroom 19th-century house on 8 acres, stables and equestrian facilities. Nearby, Jordan Auctioneers is selling a five-bedroom detached house on 23 acres with equestrian facilities outside Kilcullen for €1.35m.

Crotanstown House and Stud
Crotanstown House and Stud is an eight-bedroom,19th-century house on 8 acres, €1.85m through Savills

It is too early to tell whether rural sellers will have to lower prices further following the coronavirus outbreak. But many will be hoping that Ireland’s city dwellers, weary of lockdown, will be dreaming of buying a place with more space in the countryside.

While Dublin still dominated Ireland’s prime property market last year, the tide appeared to be turning. In 2019, 2,628 homes were sold for more than €400,000 outside the capital, 9 per cent more than in 2018, according to Knight Frank. In Dublin, 6,527 sold last year, representing a 3 per cent fall on 2018.

Crotanstown House and Stud
The stables at Crotanstown House and Stud

“Before Covid, prices in the country market were, on the whole, growing at a faster rate than the cities,” says John Ring, head of research at Knight Frank Ireland. There is no rural house price index but Ring points to Ireland’s West Region, which has the lowest population density of Ireland’s eight regions.

Average sale prices there increased 5.3 per cent in the year to March, while those in Dublin gained 0.7 per cent, according to Ireland’s Central Statistics Office.

Land prices indicate the slower pace of Dublin’s market. Average prices across Ireland fell 1.1 per cent last year on 2018; those in the wider Dublin area were down 14 per cent, according to Irish Farmers Journal.

According to Butler, one legacy of Ireland’s shutdown will be to reduce the premium for country homes within commuting distance of Dublin. “Now that businesses have greater comfort that the workforce will work remotely, this is likely to encourage buyers to move further to get better value,” he says.

Back at Curragh Stud, Murless hopes his home’s glamorous heritage will lure international visitors again when, eventually, Ireland’s horseracing season resumes. His parents bought the property in 1970 from an American socialite and racehorse owner called Liz Whitney Tippett.

“She hosted Rock Hudson, Jayne Mansfield and Mickey Rooney here,” he says. “Not bad for a house that was previously used as a cow shed.”

How to run an estate

Hannah Flynn and her family live in Roundwood House, a nine-bedroom home in Mountrath, Co Laois, built in 1731. Even without the costs of running a B&B, she estimates an annual bill of £51,000 to keep up the 18-acre estate.

Heating is the largest outlay. Flynn plans to replace her expensive oil-fed boiler with a woodchip one, at a cost of €120,000 — with government grants and efficiency savings, she believes it will pay for itself in seven years.

Maintenance costs €10,000-€15,000 a year and insurance was roughly £8,000 last year. After she receives her government grant, Flynn will spend €9,100 on a full-time gardener. Labour done by Hannah’s father — who is in his late seventies and an avid pipe smoker — is free.

Top-end rural Irish homes to buy now

Kilteelagh House, Co Tipperary, €2.35m

An eight-bedroom Victorian house with 25 acres of grounds on the shores of Dromineer Bay. Available through Christie’s International Real Estate.

Oldcourt House, Co Kildare, €1.75m

A six-bedroom Georgian house with 13.5 acres of grounds, 45 minutes’ drive from Dublin. The home has a tennis court and stables. Available through Christie’s International Real Estate.

Lea House, Co Laois €700,000

A six-bedroom Georgian house with about 4.5 acres of grounds. The home is in Garryvacum, about 2km from the five-star Heritage Hotel and golf club. Available through Savills.

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