The humble labourers who once lived in grace and favour cottages on England's great estates would be astonished to learn that their simple homes are now among the rural property market's most sought-after residences, attracting, in some cases, seven-figure price tags.
Their idyllic locations, rarity value, the quality of their architecture - not to mention the fact that many have been neglected and thus represent a fantastic opportunity to add value - are among the reasons why estate cottages are hot property. The fact that you can often roam in glorious private acres is a big bonus.
Lizzy Barran, an associate at Strutt & Parker and based in Norwich, says that when a cottage comes on to the market in an area where much of the property is owned by a great estate, competition can be fierce.
"If people want to live in a particular area it might be their one chance to own rather than rent," she says.
Charm aplenty: few homes offer character like this, with the estate-setting the icing on the cake
Mark Charter, who heads up the Oxford office of Carter Jonas, believes the key advantage of estate cottages is their rural surrounds, often abutting acres of estate farmland. This protects them against development on their doorsteps as most estates are not keen on selling off large chunks of land to developers.
Paul Cressy, a director of Savills, leads its rural department in the South-West. He feels estate cottages are a great buy because as a rule, grand landowners did not want their estates to be blighted by ugly hovels, so these homes enhance the big house. "They built their big houses, which were status symbols, and wanted their estates to be very picturesque. So the cottages tend to have a lot of character, and some decent architecture."
Pretty as a picture: the original features and the architecture often impress
However, cottages bought direct from estates almost always need a lot of work.
"They are generally dated," agrees Charter. "If they have been occupied by staff or an old retainer, or tenanted for years, then they will generally need upgrading. They may not have central heating and they may need new kitchens and bathrooms."
On the plus side, says Barran, a doer- upper is often exactly what buyers want. Buyers who take on a bit of a wreck need to be on their toes, says Cressy, because these properties almost always come with complex covenants attached. These may include perks - such as the right to roam across the estate's parkland or moor a boat - but they will almost certainly also include clauses insisting that all major changes to a property must be approved by the estate.
When properties are in terraces there will, more often than not, be clauses which ban owners from changing their windows, or even repainting their front door a new colour, in order to maintain the symmetry of the homes. "If you hold the view that an Englishman's home is his castle, then that could be a problem," says Cressy.
£245,000: a two-bedroom cottage in Northampton, once part of Diana, Princess of Wales’ estate.
If, however, you are prepared to live with a little red tape - which will, after all, stop your neighbours doing anything dreadful to their homes - there are some stunning estate cottages currently up for sale, including a lovely stone and thatch home in the village of Lower Harlestone, Northampton. Not only is it adorable, it is also pocket friendly, since it is on the market at £245,000 with Richard Greener estate agents. See richardgreener.co.uk.
Moreover, the two-bedroom property was once part of the Spencer family's Althorp Estate, the childhood home of Diana, Princess of Wales. The estate still owns several properties in the village, which it rents out.
The New Forest is prime second home territory or, at a pinch, a commuter choice, and the Beaulieu Estate provides a scattering of estate cottages including an idyllic pair of thatched homes, now converted into a single four-bedroom, Grade II-listed property in the much sought-after village of Beaulieu.
A particular advantage of the property's former ownership is that its lovely garden backs on to farmland still owned by the estate, and unlikely ever to be marred by a wind farm. It is on the market for £1.1 million with John D Wood. See johndwood.co.uk.
£575,000: this semi-detached cottage in Winterbourne Monkton, near Swindon, Wiltshire, was once part of the Beaulieu Estate
Buy a slice of history
Estates such as Beaulieu often own property miles away, a perfect example being a semi-detached cottage in Winterbourne Monkton, nine miles from the centre of Swindon, and so a good choice for commuters. The four-bedroom property, a Beaulieu Estate cast-off, is on the market for £575,000 with Carter Jonas.
Families will love its large, wrap-around garden. It is thought that the cottage was part of a major sell-off of land and property undertaken by the Beaulieu Estate in the Eighties, and the current owner has lived there for 15 years. See carterjonas.co.uk.
Carter Jonas's Mark Charter suspects that cottages like these will be snapped up, and they do tend to command a small premium. "It is like buying a little bit of English history and the countryside at an affordable price."