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Digs in Britain Fit for a King

THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

Castles are on the market--asking prices in the millions. Foreigners come to shop, but they're often clueless about the costs involved.

August 28, 2001|JULIE TAMAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EAST KILBRIDE, Scotland — Real estate agent Andrew Perratt is navigating his sporty black coupe along a bumpy, winding road that leads to a home he is trying to sell in this postwar Glasgow suburb.

"The condition of the property is fabulous," Perratt, 28, says as he talks up his listing in a warm Scottish accent. "The quality of the upgrade is fantastic."

Perratt possesses many of the traits of those who ply his trade: a slick car, fine clothes and a knack for easy conversation. Yet as he pulls up to the property, it becomes clear that this is no ordinary agent.

His listing boasts a 40-foot tower with walls at least 6 feet thick and a ground floor enclosed in a stone vault--perfect for fending off unexpected visitors armed with bows and arrows.

The unusual dwelling embodies that old adage "A man's home is his castle," because it is one. Perratt is trying to sell a 15th century Scottish keep--an increasingly difficult feat in today's world.

Challenges for agents such as Perratt range from a tight inventory to encroaching suburbia. In fact, bids that start at only $500,000 are being accepted on Perratt's property, Mains Castle, because a modern-day town has inched toward its thick walls.

Other complications include an increasing number of foreign shoppers who often are clueless about what owning a castle entails. It's a privilege that can come with mind-numbing heating bills and repairs that can cost far more than the original structure.

"We get quite a lot of people you might call daydreamers who think they'd like to own one, but the money isn't there," said Colin Strang Steel, an estate agent with Knight Frank, which specializes in castle sales.

For example, one castle owner faced with a leaky roof is selling a scenic mountain ridge to raise the millions of dollars he needs to fix it.

"A slate roof has to be done every 125 years," said Richard Wilkin of the London-based Historic Houses Assn., which represents owners of 1,500 properties of architectural significance in Britain. "But with some of these houses, you're talking about a roof that is in acres."

Such challenges fail to dissuade die-hard castle shoppers whose desire to own one is matched by the depth of their pockets. They covet the unique properties for their historical value, the privacy they offer, the rental income they can generate or the prestige they seem to instantly bestow.

"Both buyers and sellers are wonderfully eccentric," said Jamie Macnab, a director with FPD Savills, the international property consulting firm that employs Perratt. "Nobody who lives a straightforward life chooses to buy a castle, because they are so bloody uncomfortable."

"They are trophy properties," added John Coleman, a partner with Knight Frank who works in the company's Edinburgh, Scotland, office. " 'Come and stay at my castle' is a great thing to be able to say to somebody.'

Granted, that's not why they were built.

Castles rose during the Middle Ages as the strongholds of lairds and noblemen, some of whom relied on surrounding estates to grow crops and raise livestock. The owners used their profits to help cover the cost of running and maintaining their fortresses, to which they retreated in times of war.

But over the centuries, much of their land was sold off in parcels, leaving big, aging buildings standing on much smaller patches of property. Consequently, modern-day owners, particularly those of large castles, typically must possess vast independent wealth because they don't have the luxury of income-producing estates.

These Days, New Money Comes Into Picture

The influx of foreign shoppers, agents say, has made it increasingly difficult to determine whether a prospective buyer can afford to own a castle. That is a change from earlier times, they add, when buyers usually tended to be home-grown.

"There used to be a lot more well-known, old-money buyers," Coleman said. "They understand this sort of property."

Cost of ownership can include staff, general maintenance and large-scale refurbishing. A rule of thumb, Coleman said, is that someone considering a $2-million castle should have $3 million in the bank, although it's not a requirement.

"You'll need the money from the interest on the other $1 million to run it," he said.

It's not uncommon, Coleman added, for buyers to pay cash for their castles.

Most high-end agencies do their best to vet potential clients. Sometimes it's as simple as asking the right questions.

"If they have six kids in private schools and spend their holidays in St. Tropez, they can probably afford a castle," said James Lawrie, a partner with London-based Strutt & Parker estate agents.

Lawrie sold Lympne Castle last year to a London businessman and his family for about $6 million. The sprawling estate is on England's southeastern coast in Kent and includes a 13th century castle, a large home that was added in 1907 and four cottages--all on about 137 acres.

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