Saturday, 25 April 2015

Buying property from The Crown Estate

Technically-speaking, our new house was previously owned by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II through The Crown Estate.
I don't think she would have been a frequent visitor, but if you're reading this, Your Majesty, you're welcome to pop over any time you fancy. Just give us a few hours' notice so we can have a panic and stick the kettle on. Bring biscuits and The Royal Hard Hat.

Property being sold by The Crown Estate is comparatively uncommon, and before we started searching for a new house it wasn't a concept we were particularly aware of. Nor, as it turned out, were we clued-up on the issues we'd have to face in buying a property from Lizzie. Google didn't really offer any real-life experiences from ordinary bods like us either, so we were pretty much on our own.

Buy One's house or bally well naff orf
The first thing to realise is that The Crown Estate - which is the UK's largest land owner with more than £8bn in assets - has a duty to raise as much money from its sales as possible.
As a result and, crucially, because the building in question isn't being sold by an actual, living, breathing, individual, there is no mercy*. It's purely a business transaction (in our experience, of course).

During our first dalliance with The Crown, when we made an offer of something like 4.5% under the asking price, we thought we might have to wait a week or so for the offer to go from the regular estate agent at this end, to The Crown via its agent Knight Frank, then to a slightly balding middle-aged paunchy man in a polka dot tie who makes a decision... then back to us.
That was so naive that it's not even funny.
In the end it took north of three whole weeks for an answer. That was three weeks of trying unsuccessfully not to get excited, three weeks of trying not to think of the extension we'd build, three weeks of mainlining Restoration Man on TV and three weeks of not looking at other houses.

Then the estate agent called to say she'd heard that The Crown would have an answer for us the coming Monday - just a few days away.
But the phone rang on Saturday. After months on the market with no nibbles, someone else had only gone and put in an asking price offer.
"What is your best and final offer?" came the question.
Animated swearing ensued. Even SausageTheCat (our cat) ran away.
We ended up offering 3.2% more than the asking price - which was over our maximum limit but still the best we could do - then settled in for the wait. Again. You know when people say buying a new home is a stressful experience? Yes. That. In spades.

A week later we were knocked back. At the exact moment that we pulled in to the car park for Grand Designs Live at Birmingham NEC, the call came. Animated swearing ensued. We even invented some new words. It's fair to say that we felt somewhat hard-done-by.

Now to be fair to The Crown Estate, some months later when the sale of The Lodge was on the brink of falling through (we still don't know why) the message got to us pretty quickly and before it went back on the market.
We immediately offered the asking price again and within a day or two, during which time it was advertised online for some reason, it was turned down - The Crown wanted our previous best and final offer, but in return they wouldn't put it back on the open market. At least Spotty Tie Man had been nudged in to action.
The offer was accepted (joy of joys!) and The Lodge was ours.

But three point two percent. All because of someone who couldn't buy the house in the first place. It's difficult not to be a little bit narked at that, although the therapy is helping a little. The sum it represents would have been a significant portion of the extension too, so that's that on the back burner for a year or two at least.

So that's money and patience dealt with.

On to the property itself.
Had The Lodge been a grand Grade 2* Listed stately home run as a high-earning business, chances are it would be in pretty decent nick and had a bit of cash thrown at it. Maintenance schedules would be tight, the floors would be polished and the gardeners would be clean-shaven.

But it's not.
Having served its life (we think) as a rented dwelling for normal agricultural workers of the day and their families, it hasn't been loved in around a century and a half. It has had some maintenance here and there, sure: a chimney has been rebuilt at some stage; the windows have been replaced with ugly uPVC casements; it's got oil-fired central heating and fibreglass loft insulation... but the only money being waved in its general direction has been for essential stuff only, and even that hasn't really been done properly. Having been a gamekeeper's lodge for however long means that although it has served as a home it has also been a working building at the same time. A tool, if you like.

The result is a tired, damp and dirty building that has plenty of original features and has lots of potential but needs a massive kick up the backside to bring out the character that is just below the surface.
The bonus of this is that The Lodge's problems are mostly cosmetic because the building hasn't been subject to the extravagant, unsuitable fantasies of previous misguided owners and bodgery is an exception rather than a rule.

Finally, something else we weren't prepared for was that dealing with The Crown Estate is a right royal pain in the arse. Pun intended.

It all comes back to the fact that no single individual seller with a vested interest is involved, so there's nobody willing to pull out the stops to speed things up and/or help the buyer (us) out.
Prime example - shortly after our offer was accepted we submitted a list of questions to The Crown via our solicitor: Who is responsible for the eastern wall of the house which also forms a section of the entire boundary wall? Who maintains the dirt road to the west that is also used by our neighbour and estate staff with heavy machinery? Where have the main gates and The Lodge's side gate gone since we first saw the property? Who has access to the land? What's the capital of Peru? Does the Queen ever use rude words?

In total there were about 10 questions we wanted the answers to and, true to form, we had to wait around a fortnight for any kind of response... which was somewhat limited to say the least.

The Queen, yesterday, in her own garden
A couple of questions were answered almost to our satisfaction using as few words as possible, but most were either skillfully skirted around or ignored completelyAs our solicitor put it: "They're being as vague and unhelpful as possible and it's basically sold as seen."

We found the same thing when it came to leasing the front garden area too. Spotty Tie Man was just dealing with the house sale, so we had to contact someone else direct and try to get some sense out of him.
In a nutshell, we needed to find out exactly how much annual rent The Crown wanted while at the same time trying to persuade the powers that be to sell (or even gift) the land to us, especially considering that we'd already paid the equivalent of 25 years' rent by paying a sizeable sum over the asking price. It's quite an important issue, at least to me, and even though they're not obliged to offer anything other than what was agreed, I hoped they might be open to offering a bit of a sweetener - or at least dialogue.
And the answer? "The land does not form part of the sale". That was it. No discussion, no negotiation, no avenues to pursue.

As an aside, after speaking to numerous people at The Lodge - neighbours, passers-by, a former occupant - not one has managed to find a good word to say about The Crown Estate. I might call their PR people and casually mention the front garden...

I suppose I had better round this post up now.
If I was going to offer advice to someone looking to buy from The Crown, it would be to expect a brick wall at every turn and be prepared to wait. And wait. And wait. You're not dealing with a person - you're dealing with a business that has you over a barrel. You either buy the property or you don't.

Your Queen doesn't really care either way.

* Like lovely Mrs Thompson on leafy Park Crescent who cares about selling her 1960s semi so much that she shovels out the budgie cage and vacuums the dog before you turn up for your viewing. She wants you to buy it so she might even consider knocking a few grand off the asking price or throwing in some white goods. The Crown as an entity, on the other hand, isn't really fussed what you do so it has all the time in the world to wait for you to sell a kidney on eBay.

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