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House Hunting in England: Rural Splendor in the South West Region

Built on the footprint of a former agricultural building, this 4,170-square-foot contemporary house sits on four acres in Binegar, a tiny village in the Mendip Hills, five miles east of the cathedral city of Wells in England’s South West region.

The home sprawls across a single level, with living areas and bedrooms in an open plan beneath skylights. “It’s very unusual to have a house of this size with such a modern approach, since most homes in this area are more period or traditional,” said Lucy Drane, a senior appraisals specialist at The Modern House, the listing broker.

The sellers, Katherine and Geoff Ladd, worked with the Bath architect Michael Williams “to keep the palette of materials really simple, including wood and microcement,” Ms. Drane said. After a year of construction, the couple moved into the house in 2019.

The home meets passive-house standards to minimize energy consumption, using triple-glazed Internorm glass, mechanical ventilation with heat recovery system, rainwater collection, and a biodigester to recycle organic waste. Reclaimed wood appears throughout (Siberian larch clads the home’s exterior), and the outdoor decking is made of recycled plastic. “Our under-floor heating rarely kicks in because the house is so efficient,” Ms. Ladd said.

A long driveway leads to the house from a local road. The main entrance is through a timber-framed atrium with a clear polycarbonate ceiling, which opens to a foyer and a long great room with vaulted ceiling. Ms. Ladd designed the kitchen, whose black appliances offset a 13-foot, steel-topped island. A sliding glass wall opens from the kitchen to a rear deck.

Floor-to-ceiling shelves line a wall dividing the living and bedroom areas. All four bedrooms are equally sized, and one has an en suite bathroom. The identical proportions were “a diplomatic thing for their children,” Ms. Drane said.

Several hundred feet from the house, the Ladds built a separate cabin with a bathroom and kitchen, which the couple runs as a short-term rental. “It could easily become overflow accommodations for the house,” Ms. Drane said. The couple also “rewilded” the grounds and added a pond, Ms. Ladd said. “So much wildlife has come back,” she said.

Binegar is a farming village of some 355 residents in Somerset, one of seven counties that make up the South West region of England. Wells, known as the nation’s smallest city and a tourist attraction for its 800-year-old cathedral, is five miles west. “It’s beautiful and rural, but you have Bath and Bristol both about 40 minutes by car, Bristol airport 30 minutes away, and good London train connections from Castle Cary,” about 12 miles south, Ms. Drane said. London is about 125 miles northeast.

In a familiar post-pandemic narrative, buyers in Wells face scarce inventory and rising prices. The Covid-19 pandemic “accelerated the market in Somerset exponentially,” said Nathan Emerson, chief executive of Propertymark, the membership body for real estate professionals. “It became a popular spot for people exiting big cities.”

According to data from the British realty site Rightmove, prices in Wells averaged £329,520 ($401,000) through 2021, up 8 percent from the average in 2019. Across the South West region, prices were up 12 percent over 2019, though they dipped 3 percent during 2021.

“It’s calmed a bit, because the people who were going to move here have moved here, but it’s still a seller’s market,” said Adam Holland, director of the Holland and Odam agency in Wells. “We haven’t had such a small stock of properties in the 20 years we’ve been in business.”

Britain’s split from the European Union has also been a factor, “with a new range of people coming back from Europe,” said Matthew Clarke, an associate at the Greenslade Taylor Hunt agency in Wells. “We’re also seeing expats returning from Hong Kong.”

Adding pressure to the market, Wells’s status as a tourist destination makes it popular for investors in short-term rentals, said Ollie Jones, branch manager at the Allen & Harris agency in Wells. “Though central Wells has restrictions, other towns have fewer, and it’s an increasing opportunity in our area,” he said.

While prices vary in the area, Mr. Clarke estimated the average price of a detached home at £550,000 ($670,000), rising to £750,000 to £1 million ($913,000 to $1.22 million) near the cathedral or close to a school. “The highest recently was £1.35 million in the city center,” he said. Semidetached terrace houses sell for an average of £325,000 ($395,000), while apartments range from £200,000 ($243,000) in new builds to £300,000 ($365,000) “for nicer apartments in older buildings closer to town.”

Mr. Holland said a “modern, four-bedroom detached house” in Wells would cost about £500,000 to £600,000 ($608,000 to $730,000), while a semidetached, three-bedroom terrace house would average about £330,000 ($400,000), and a two-bedroom apartment about £165,000 ($200,000).

While Britain continues to grapple with a nationwide housing shortage, building new homes in Somerset is challenging “because of vast waves of protected land and national parks, along with massive restrictions on building,” Mr. Emerson said. “These areas that are attracting people are areas where not a lot of building is going to happen.”

Domestic buyers power the Wells-area property market, “which is driven by two forces,” Mr. Holland said: “One is education, because people want their children to go to the excellent local schools. And the other is retirement, with people seeking a different pace of life, with access to both big cities and the countryside.”

The pandemic tipped the balance toward younger buyers. “Once Covid allowed mobility, the region’s schools, coast access, and commuter links started drawing more families” he said.

While Londoners make up some of the market in the area, buyers from the nearby cities of Bath and Bristol are more common, said Cathy Morris-Adams, managing partner at the Lodestone agency in Wells. “It’s more of a place where locals aspire to live,” she said. While demand from foreign buyers is low, she said, it has soared in nearby Bruton, which Condé Nast Traveller has called “the coolest town in the West Country.”

There are no restrictions on foreign buyers in England, said Dominika Bullegas, a solicitor specializing in real estate at the London law firm Healys. “But it’s not easy for a non-UK resident to get a mortgage,” she said, adding that specialized lenders, international banks or mortgage brokers can sometimes help.

After a seller accepts a buyer’s offer, attorneys (known as solicitors) on either side collect documents including proof of funds and conduct a range of property searches. “We also recommend a survey to determine the condition of the house,” Ms. Bullegas said.

The buyer’s solicitor delivers a “contract pack” of documents and collects a deposit totaling 10 percent of the purchase price.

For British buyers, the process takes five to seven weeks, Ms. Bullegas said. “But foreign buyers can expect to wait two months or longer. The U.K.’s completely inundated with non-U.K. buyers, and everyone has a really heavy caseload.”

English; British pound (1 pound = $1.22)

Foreign buyers face significantly higher taxes and fees than domestic buyers, according to Justin Bryant, principal at Blackfriars Tax Solutions in London. “The government’s been clamping down on foreigners for the last decade or so,” he said. “Before 2013, foreigners weren’t even taxed on U.K. property investments.”

The primary tax on property sales, the progressive Stamp Duty Land Tax (SDLT), has grown to a top rate of 12 percent, which applies to sales of £1.5 million ($1.83 million) or more. Since 2016, the government has also levied a 3 percent surcharge “if you already own property anywhere in the world,” Mr. Bryant said. And there is a 2 percent levy on non-British buyers, introduced in April 2021 to help cool the market. “It’s all had a massive effect,” Mr. Bryant said. “Prime central London has never regained its peak.”

Broker commissions in England range from 1 to 1.25 percent, Ms. Morris-Adams of Lodestone said. Annual property taxes on this home, called council taxes in England, total about £3,000 ($3,620), according to Ms. Ladd, the seller. Monthly electric bills total about £250 ($305), she said.

Lucy Drane or Charlie Arden Brown, The Modern House, 011-44-20 3795 5920

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