Janet and John Brennan bought Barholm Castle in Scotland in 1999 (which took two years because of a complicated buying process), after stumbling across the ruined structure while driving through the county of Dumfries and Galloway.
Ms. Brennan said that they’d originally decided to buy it on a whim: “It was beautiful and we thought we could do something with it.” The couple, both retired university lecturers who are originally from Scotland but were living in Holland at the time, bought the castle for £65,000.
It took them four years just to get planning permission to convert the historically significant property into a home. A grade ‘A’ listed former tower house positioned on a hill overlooking Wigtown Bay, Barholm was built during the late 1400s and was once the stronghold of a local family. John Knox, a well-known figure of the Scottish Reformation, is reputed to have hidden in the tower during the 16th century. When the Brennans bought it, it hadn’t been lived in since the 18th century and it had no roof or interiors.
Renovating and rebuilding Barholm wasn’t an easy task “because it was listed as a scheduled monument by Historic Scotland, which meant you couldn’t alter the building in any way,” Ms. Brennan said. “It took us four years to get the scheduled monument status removed and obtain the relevant planning consents, and three years to restore it.”
Renovating the property cost between £700,000 and £800,000 but Historic Scotland (now Historic Environment Scotland) contributed one-fifth of the costs through a grant. The couple have installed a modern kitchen and added a fourth floor, which houses the fourth bedroom. “The house has underfloor heating and we are connected to mains gas so it is quite cozy,” Ms. Brennan added.
“You need deep pockets and a lot of patience to restore a building like this,” she said. “There are other challenges once you move in, such as the number of stairs. The building is like a bungalow tipped on its head, as it has one room per floor.”
Though the restoration took much longer than anticipated, the couple say they have loved living there. They rented the property as a holiday home while they were living in Holland and moved in five years ago. “It’s been a great privilege to own and live in the building,” Ms. Brennan said. “The property is 400 feet above sea level so it has great views of the water.”
“I often think of the people who lived here in the 16th century and what it would have been like for them. The rooms must have been dark during the day because the windows are small, and heavily scented with the smell of burning candles made of tallow, or animal fat,” she said.
“We are in quite a remote spot but occasionally we get the odd person knocking on our door and asking if they can have a look around the house.”
While castles are the homes of fairy tales and often seem like dream properties, they often can take a lot of work, time and money to restore.
Building in the basics
Dick Strawbridge, the former presenter of U.K. Channel 4’s game show, “Scrapheap Challenge,” and his wife Angel Adoree, bought a 45-room, 12th-century chateau in the Pays de la Loire region of France in 2015. They gave themselves the ambitious challenge of turning the decaying property into a 21st-century home in 10 months, according to the Telegraph . The property cost £280,000 but the couple estimated that they spent tens of thousands renovating it and said that the scale of the project “was overwhelming at times.” The chateau lacked even the most basic of facilities: It had no electricity, heating or water, a sanitation system that emptied into the moat so they had to “put in a new sewage system, plumbed in hundreds of metres of piping for the heating and water distribution system” and had energy connected too.
Often constructed in wild and elevated spots, some buyers are drawn to their surroundings and the views that they offer, while others are attracted to the history and heritage, which harks back to the medieval period of kings, jousting knights and drawbridges.
“The charm and history are a large part of the appeal,” said Ian Heath, of Lionard, a real estate brokerage in Florence, Italy. “They are most commonly bought as second homes but some are purchased as an investment and are rented out or run as boutique hotels.”
Clive Hopkins, head of farms and estates sales at Knight Frank, said that “demand for castles across Europe is steady. "People will continue to want to purchase them as homes because they are special buildings and they don’t come on to the market often.”
He added: “Castles owned by public bodies very occasionally get put on the market but the majority are privately owned. The high cost of renovating and maintaining them is most common reason why they are put up for sale.”
Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt famously bought a chateau and vineyard in the Provence region of France. Chateau Miraval, which is said to date from the 14th century, reportedly cost €35 million and was bought as a summer retreat for the family. The couple announced their divorce last year but it has been reported recently that they have no plans to sell the estate.
Nicolas Cage once owned two castles, Schloss Neidstein, a 16th-century building in Bavaria, Germany, and Midford Castle, a grade I listed 18th century folly in Somerset, England. He reportedly sold both of them in 2009 to clear debts.
Castles are popular properties to own in parts of Europe
There are an estimated 10,000 castles scattered across Asia, mainland Europe and the U.K, according to topcastles.com. But international buyers tend to gravitate to certain areas, brokers say. In Italy, Tuscany and Piedmont are hotspots; in France, areas such as Pays de la Loire and Normandy are sought-after. In the U.K., Wales and Scotland are well-known for their array of medieval castles but they can also be found throughout England.
So, what do prospective buyers need to be aware of? First, castles were designed to house people centuries ago, which means they don’t have the comforts or layouts that we are used to today. They are not easy buildings to extend, as the walls can be three meters thick; access can be an issue, as they often have lots of stairs, according to Mr. Hopkins.
Second, most castles are listed, which means they are legally protected for their architectural and/or historic interest. If you want to carry out repairs, make alterations or add an extension, you must apply for listed building consent from your local planning authority. Planning permission from your local authority may also be required.
Mansion Global is now on LinkedIn. Join the discussion.
But this doesn’t mean owners can’t make any changes. “They can be modernized and become comfortable homes for 21st century living,” Mr. Heath said. Layouts can be rearranged to make the living spaces more open plan and high-tech features such as underfloor heating are often added in.
But repairs and renovations can be costly. “If you are worried about cost, a castle is probably not the right property for you,” Mr. Hopkins said. “Sometimes carrying out structural work can lead to further repairs and you might need to source materials from a specific place, such as a particular type of stone which is mined locally.”
“We would advise potential purchasers to buy through a local agent who lives and works in the area,” said Trevor Leggett, of the French real estate agency Leggett Immobilier. “If you need to obtain planning consents and find local craftsmen and builders to help with any refurbishments, it is useful to have someone who knows the local market and has an excellent ‘little black book’ of contacts,” he said.
If you fancy being king of your own castle, take a look at these properties:
Poitiers, Charentes, France
Behind the whimsical, fairy-tale facade of this five-bedroom, 19th-century chateau lies a contemporary décor and deluxe features, along with restored period features. It has two entrance halls, a living room, which leads to a terrace, dining room, bar, kitchen and a conservatory. It has outdoor and indoor swimming pools, a gym, a wine cellar and 64 acres of land.
€5.5 million (US$5,929,220), frenchestateagents.com
Pontchâteau, Loire Atlantique, France
This well-kept, 15th-century château’s interiors were renovated during the 19th century in Italian gothic style. Bohemian and colorful, the house has 11 bedrooms, four bathrooms and three grand reception rooms. Outside, there is a guest house, barns, outbuildings, lake, a swimming pool and five acres of land.
€1.285 million (US$1,385,615.50), frenchestateagents.com
Alexandria, Piedmont, Italy
On a hill surrounded by trees, this beautiful castle looks like it has been lifted from the pages of a fairy tale. Dating from the 14th and 15th centuries, the property still has its defensive features including a tower and two wings connected by a drawbridge. It has frescos, coffered ceilings, parquet flooring and open fireplaces and comes with a church, inner courtyard, farmhouse, stables, mill and 74 acres of land.
From €5 million (US$5,390,200), lionard.com
Featuring four distinctive towers with terracotta-tiled roofs, this imposing, eight-bedroom medieval castle has been divided into four apartments and has an open-air courtyard. Three miles from Siena, the 40-acre property is surrounded by an Italian-style garden planted with myrtle, roses and peonies, which is visible from all of the castle’s windows.
Offers over €10 million (US$10,780,400), lionard.com
Gatehouse of Fleet, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland
This 15th-century Scottish tower home has been fully restored and rebuilt in its original medieval style. The property has a stair tower, a great hall with a large fireplace and a decorative painted ceiling, two acres of gardens and grounds and peerless views of Wigtown Bay and the Machars, a peninsular in Galloway.
Offers over £695,000 (US$869,445), knightfrank.co.uk
More Historic Homes from Mansion Global: