Interview: Lindsay Cuthill on launching a new estate agency & selling best-in-class country houses

By PrimeResi Journal

In conversation with PrimeResi, the hugely-respected former head of Savills' Country House Department discusses his new venture, the business of estate agency, and the state of the luxury property market.

After 40 years in the prime property industry – including more than 25 at Savills where he spent a decade running the Country House Department, handling the sales of some of Britain’s most iconic stately homes and estates – Lindsay Cuthill is one of the most respected and successful property agents in the land.

He left Savills last year, and has now launched a new venture: Blue Book is a full-service specialist estate agency, focused entirely on “best in class” top-end homes.

In this interview, Cuthill talks us through the launch of his new agency, shares insights into the prime country house landscape, and discusses how the business of estate agency has evolved…

Lindsay Cuthill, Founder of Blue Book. Read more about the launch on PrimeResi here (photo by Georgina Preston)

You left Savills last year, having run the Country House Department since 2012 – and have now launched Blue Book. What prompted you to take the plunge, and how have you found the process of launching your own agency?

It was one of those moments rather than a carefully thought-out plan. I felt I had one more challenge in me and wasn’t sure how that could be done within Savills, knowing that I wanted to continue to work for many years to come. I thought it was time I tried going it alone.

I have left behind an enormous number of friends who have been very supportive, and this has given me the extra boost that I needed. Launching a new business has been an incredible experience, whilst I felt, I knew how to do my job, learning to juggle things whereby previously I had any number of assistants to help me has been both invigorating and exhausting at times! My old PA would not recognise my new IT skills.

Could you talk us through the new venture: what services will you be offering, and what are the key values of the business?

This has been the best bit of starting my own business, developing a strategy and finding a place in the market.

We are a full service estate agent dealing with the sale of the finest houses in the country and SW London, what we don’t do is act for buyers. There are some great buying agents out there, my default is always to get the best price for my clients the sellers, I don’t have the band width to switch my brain to get the best price for a buyer….

Our most important thing is for the client to feel they and their property are the priority. Of course we have a duty of care to buyers and our buyers will feel very well cared for, transparency is key to a successful transaction.

Blue Book is launching with over £80mn of property already instructed; are there any stand-out super-prime instructions you can tell us about?

I’m bound to say they all stand out for me, from a super cool modern house in Notting Hill to beautiful listed houses in the Cotswolds, an historic house in the New Forrest, a Tudor town house in Suffolk and a divine house in Dorset, I have been incredibly fortunate in having a varied portfolio with which to launch the business.

One of The Blue Book Agency’s launch instructions: Lyegrove House in Badminton, Gloucestershire, is on the market at £12.5mn
Set in 18.5 acres, Lyegrove House provides around 17,000 sq ft of accommodation with a further 11,000 sq ft of stable flat, coach house and outbuildings.

The agency covers Southern England and SW London; are there plans to expand into other regions or markets?

In the last three days I have spoken with potential clients in Sussex, Surrey, Shropshire and even this morning  with a lady in Cheshire who asked if I could help her with the sale of a substantial estate. My answer is the same to any client, where I believe I can add value and be effective I believe I can work successfully, possibly with a local partner. I expect to drive tens of thousands of miles.

What’s the story behind the “Blue Book” name?

A Blue Book is an almanac, a term that dates back to the 15th century when large blue velvet covered books were used for record keeping by parliament and contained, reliable facts and information. It felt like a truly fitting name for the new business.

You’ve dealt with some of Britain’s most significant country houses over the years; which deals have been the most memorable or interesting?

There is no doubt that many of the properties would stand out for their historic interest, their beauty or their setting, but for me, it is usually the clients that stand out. We have the privileged access into the lives of the owners of these incredible houses, inevitably, they have their own incredible stories. Too often, however, discretion forbids me from talking much about them.

Which boxes must a country house tick in order to be deemed “best-in-class”?

I like how you have phrased this question because it suggests there are many classes rather like at the flower show. Happily houses come in all different categories from large to small grade one listed to newbuild. The market would tell you, the best in class means a few complications as possible.

That said to find any house without some wrinkle is nigh on impossible, except of course, the very house we live in which irrespective of what we are worried about when we first bought it you quickly forget and you come to love and cherish the house for what it is, a home.

What have been the biggest changes to the business of estate agency since you started your career?

Oh my goodness, I’m going to sound like I’m a million years old! My first job at Winkworth in the Gloucester Road (1982) had a touch dial telephone and an applicant box where you recorded by hand the requirements of your buyers, (I rather miss that box…) the first mobile telephone was a fixed car phone, and we suddenly thought we were the bees knees, I’m pretty sure that the reputation of flashy estate agents was born with the car phone…. The first computer in the office was a word processor and was used by the admin staff and I can remember the first PC with access to the Internet was also only on the administrator’s desk. Estate agents were pretty slow to adopt new technologies.

The personal relationship with buyer and seller is still the most critical part of our business, and whilst technology has made Communication more accessible, the job in so many ways remains the same. If you can turn up on time (and I hear of so many horror stories where that doesn’t happen…), know the property and the client – then you’ve cracked the job.

Being able to sell is a skill which personally I don’t think you can learn; you’ve either got it or you haven’t.

Big corporate agencies tend to have well-oiled marketing machines, promoting high-value listings on portals, social media and through advertising and PR; will Blue Book seek to emulate this, or is there a different approach to marketing?

Marketing will be a vital part of our business, and we too hope it will be well oiled but I also have an ambition that my houses and clients don’t need to fit into a prescribed style. Brand guidelines matter to establish a brand but not so that they don’t allow for a freedom to try new things or show a house in a new way, when the computer says no, I tend to throw it out the window and say yes we can. We definitely intend to harness Social Media to bring out the personality of our houses.

The country house market surged through the pandemic; have things settled down now, and what’s your opinion on the outlook for prices and transaction numbers over the coming years?

I think we have a fairly robust market, but one that is arguably more balanced and sellers expectations are now more measured. Buyers still recognise fair value and indeed will push themselves on in the event of competition. There probably is more price sensitivity than at the height of the pandemic, but best in class that we spoke about above will still typically generate interest from more than one party.

Supply will always remain an issue, and of course the cost of moving is such that people are reluctant to move as often as they used to, which further constrains the supply.

Uncertainty has always been the enemy of the market, and no doubt in an election year in 2024 some people may put their move on hold. Though over many years and several different hues of government, in the end, people need somewhere to live and lovely houses remain lovely (or somewhere to take cover) whoever is in charge.

Have there been any notable shifts in country house buyer demographics in recent years, and are you seeing any particular demand trends emerging now?

The big change has been the working flexibility that has come, not just for the bigwigs, but to ordinary working people which allows so many more people to explore places to live that are further afield from their offices or workplace and the requirement to be there. WFH has given a new freedom, this has led to areas further away from large commercial centres to enjoy a real renaissance and one sees that in local High Street. Both in Fulham and in South Gloucestershire where I live, I have noticed better local shopping more independent stores opening (which is sad for the West End, which I love). Needless to say buyers, rather like policeman seem to get younger every year.

Do most UHNWI buyers view trophy homes as an investment asset or as a lifestyle expense?

I think there must always be trophy or swagger approach to a large house, and why not? The English country house or the London townhouse, is admired all over the world, and I celebrate that and encourage anyone who wants to show off their trophy to do so.

What I love most is how many people who buy this sort of house still want to be part of the local community. I confess, I am a sad if I think the new owner is likely to pull up the drawbridge. All of that said people are more aware of the cost of running these houses and the new buyer is much more interested in understanding how the asset may be made to sweat a little bit more.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

If you put the client first, everything else falls into place.

I have been lucky enough to have had some incredibly inspiring bosses, my first Nick Hare at Winkworth, Linda Beanie at Hamptons, Rebecca Read and Alan Russell, George Stead, Victoria Mitchell, Ian Stewart, Jonathan Hewlett and Justin Marking, they are all property legends and so having every one of them offer support and guidance over the last 40 years has been incredible.

Further Reading

NEWS: Savills former country house head launches boutique estate agency for ‘best in class’ homes (May 2023)

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Main image: Lindsay Cuthill, Founder of Blue Book (photo by Georgina Preston)