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  1. Property
March 1, 2008

No Stairway

By Spear's

London’s super-rich want their flats flat. None of that multi-storey malarkey, just oodles of sideways space and a spiffing view, says Ross Clark.

It wasn’t so long ago in London that a flat was considered a secondary address. Flats were for bachelors, widows and divorcees who had seen the family house snatched from their grasp. As for successful, wealthy individuals in the prime of life, on the other hand, it was their ambition to own a house with its own front door.

With the growing internationalisation of London, however, things have changed. Wealthy buyers, who could have the pick of almost any house in London, are choosing to buy a flat instead. Shortly before Christmas, Alex Stroud of the estate agents Savills completed the sale of what he believes to be London’s most-expensive-ever flat – all £25 million of it. ‘It was in fact two adjoining apartments in Chesham Place,’ Stroud says. ‘But the buyer wants to knock it into one. It’s in a large, stuccoed house with high ceilings, and yet it offers single-floor living. This is what a lot of buyers want now – they don’t want to be in a basement kitchen and remember that they have left something on the top floor.’

The Chesham Place flat may not hold its record for long. It is rumoured that buyers have already committed themselves to pay a higher figure for apartments at One Hyde Park, the Candy brothers’ development on the site of an office block in Knightsbridge. The building will not be completed until 2009, so for the moment no sale has been completed. Joint selling agents Savills and Knight Frank have been coy about asking prices, but rumours abound that the penthouses are on offer at around £80 million.

The market for luxurious apartments has taken off in London, partly for security reasons and partly because a lot of foreign buyers have an expectation that city living means apartment living. ‘Almost all international buyers prefer an apartment if it is not to be their main home,’ says Rupert des Forges of Knight Frank. ‘They don’t
really want to keep full-time staff in a property they are not living in full time, so will prefer apartment blocks with concierge facilities. Per square foot, at the top of the London market apartments are now ten to fifteen per cent more expensive than houses.’

One flat in Ennismore Gardens, measuring just 1,700 square feet, has just gone on the market with Savills for £6 million. At that price it works out at £3,500 per square foot. It was just six years ago that the most expensive London flats reached £1,000 per square foot.

But for the super-wealthy, the extra cost of an apartment has to be balanced against savings made on staff.   A resident in The Knightsbridge, a block of 200 apartments finished two years ago, and where one penthouse sold for £15 million, enjoys the services of a concierge and room service from the adjoining hotel. ‘You can ring up and say, “I’m flying in at four in the morning, so can you get some milk in the fridge for me”,’ says Alex Stroud. For the owner of a 3,000-square-foot apartment this service will cost £18,000 a year – which doesn’t exactly make for a cheap pint of milk, but is nevertheless a good deal cheaper than maintaining a staff of maids all year round on the off-chance that you might need to fly to London at short notice.

For many international buyers the classic London house has become an unwanted museum piece – even if it has the best address. ‘I showed a Persian buyer around a house in Eaton Square,’ says Ed Mead of Douglas & Gordon. ‘He described it as “a liftshaft with a garage at the back”. That is a bit unfair, but you can see what he meant. Some London houses are on seven storeys, with 25 per cent of the space taken up with stairways – the thought of turning that on its side is extremely attractive. Another buyer described a tall house as “a form of contraception”. She couldn’t imagine wanting children if she had to climb several flights of stairs to reach a crying baby.’

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The security offered by a large apartment block became an issue following the murder of financier John Monckton on his Chelsea doorstep in 2004. The nerves of Russian buyers were also shredded by the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. ‘Celebrities apart, the super-rich no longer want to be seen walking from their front door to their car,’ says Ed Mead – hence the demand for apartment blocks with underground parking. And if they overlook Hyde Park, that’s a few more million on the price.

The trend isn’t likely to turn Cadogan Square into a slum, but the most desirable addresses of the future are likely to be found in what at the moment are boring office blocks with a nice view.

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