Aparadox of the UK housing downturn is that while the numbers of “average price” homes bought, sold or built from scratch continue to fall, demand is soaring for houses at the top end of the price scale – and especially if they have accommodation for domestic staff.
Global capitalism may be in crisis but the appeal of house managers, butlers, chauffeurs, maids, nannies, cooks and even seamstresses is undimmed. While the popular image of a home with staff is the traditional country estate, the reality is that domestic staff may be just as sought after in prime central London as in a rural idyll.
“Typically, a central London house will have a manager or butler to look after most things and a maid to clean – either a live-in or daily-visiting maid. Then if the property is larger, or the owner is busier, there will be other staff,” explains Mary Dobson of InHouse, a London-based domestic staff recruitment agency.
As international ownership of UK super-prime property has increased in recent years, so the demography of those who employ domestic staff has been transformed. “The recession means there are probably fewer middle-class people who employ a maid but there are many more owners and employers from overseas. I’m based in Holland Park, an area of London where Americans in particular employ many domestic staff,” explains Dobson.
The growth in demand for staff is having a significant effect on the residential market, too. “There’s always been demand for staff accommodation in the London market but the categories and the volumes have changed. The wealthiest international buyers may have one nanny per child, a chauffeur, chef, a personal trainer and a nutritionist. Often this team travels with them,” explains Simon Barnes, a buying agent in central London.
He says basements used to be favoured for staff accommodation but since gyms and media rooms have become popular, the butler has to sleep elsewhere. “Buyers sometimes take the option of buying nearby flats or an adjoining mews house on top of the primary purchase,” says Barnes.
A case in point is 53 Bedford Square in central London, where a large town house has a mews immediately behind it suitable for staff accommodation, linked to the principal property by a two-storey glass walkway. There is an additional staff studio flat, too (in total, £12m through Savills and Central Estates).
Mark Lawson of The Buying Solution, a search agency, says purchasers of the finest country houses are faced with similar staffing dilemmas. “In the £2m-£3m price bracket, buyers would expect a flat over a garage or a self-contained flat within the house for a housekeeper or nanny. International buyers require more, including separate cottages,” he says. “We’re acting for a client who requires five separate areas for staff and their families, and this is not uncommon in the £15m-plus price range,” explains Lawson.
A typical country house with staff quarters currently on sale is Abbot’s Wood at Godalming in Surrey (£4.75m through Hamptons International). It has an annexed cottage wing, created by the sellers, with a living room, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom presently occupied by their gardener and maid, a married couple.
Just occasionally a house goes on sale not just with staff quarters but also with the employees to go in them. Lorbottle Hall, a six-bedroom country house on a 19-acre estate at Alnwick in Northumberland, 320 miles north of London, includes an apartment for the housekeeper and handyman. They are keen to work with the new owners if the terms are suitable (£3.5m through Strutt & Parker).
“We automatically include live-in staff quarters when designing homes of over 6,000 sq ft,” says Alex Michelin, a founder of niche developer Finchatton, which specialises in refurbishment in London’s Kensington, Mayfair and Chelsea and overseas.
Employers typically want to avoid staff seeing them on the premises outside of their formal duties so clever positioning of rooms or staff extensions is required, as well as meticulous planning of exits, entrances and corridors. Alex Michelin says: “[Staff] space is usually on the lower ground floor or in a separate annex and typically includes a bedroom, open-plan kitchen, living room and private bathroom. In one project, staff accommodation includes a dressing room and measures over 700 sq ft.”
Some owners go further. “We recently viewed a house in west London where the owners had built an extension purely for a service lift and staircase for independent staff access,” says Lady Louise Vaughan of buying agency Prospect Property Search.
Demand for staff accommodation used to be associated with large period houses but now buyers of some high-end new-build homes expect staff quarters to be included too. Octagon builds large mansions and converts older houses, often into apartments, on prime sites across southern England; its largest homes now have staff quarters as standard.
“We tend to design studio units for staff – large open-plan sitting, eating and kitchen areas with a separate bedroom and en suite shower room. A recent client insisted his housekeeper had a Bulthaup kitchen in the staff flat and expensive built-in storage, as in the main house,” explains Octagon’s marketing director David Smith.
If all this seems indulgent, remember that competition for good-quality domestic staff is now fierce and the prospect of good-quality accommodation may be a deciding factor in securing the best butlers and most experienced maids. Indeed, sometimes the staff even have a say in what properties their employers buy.
“I’m currently working for a client who brings their whole staff on property viewings with them. I have found them four or five properties over the years, and always the staff are included in the decision-making process,” explains buying agent Simon Barnes. These days, the distinction between Upstairs and Downstairs may have become a little blurred.
Live-in salary guide
Household Manager: £35,000-£45,000 per annum in London/£35,000-£38,000 per annum in the country
Butler: £30,000-£ 35,000 pa London/£23,000-£28,000 pa country
Housekeeper: £350-£400 per week London/£350 per week country
Chef/Cook: £35,000-£45,000 pa London/£25,000-£40,000 pa country
Nanny: £350-£450 pw London/£300-£350 pw country