Meet the Moore family. Gary and Celia have two children, Maddie, 10, and Ethan, nine, and both of them work in television as many hours as they can to maintain their lifestyle and meet the mortgage repayments. To help them do this they have a fifth member of the family, their au pair Nely Arroyo from Spain. To accommodate her they have completely changed their house around.
Nely is their sixth au pair. In previous years they all squeezed in, and the au pair had a small bedroom. Then Gary and Celia decided to convert the loft. “We moved up there,” says Celia. “Our son moved into our room and goes in with his sister when we need a guest room. His old room is my office. Then we knocked the two small bedrooms together to make a good room for the au pair. It is worth it because, though we have no more bedrooms, we have a better house.” Houses in their road in Esher sell for £800,000 to £1.3 million, but when they tried to sell two years ago the market was in the doldrums and they realised they couldn’t afford the extra space without moving farther afield.
So great is the need for au pairs, domestic help and childcare for dual middle-class income couples that canny developers are now building “au pair suites” into their new homes. Berkeley Homes is finishing a clutch of houses in Wimbledon village, where a flatlet consisting of a large room with its own bathroom and lavatory is tucked into the lower ground floor. “Developers now recognise this as a key requirement for family houses in London commuter suburbs,” says Clive Moon, of Savills in Wimbledon.
Along the wealth corridors out of London into Surrey, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, where buyers with young families migrate, the need for live-in home-help space is changing the market. “The majority of families in Wimbledon village now have a live-in housekeeper, au pair or nanny to assist with daily household chores or provide childcare support,” says Clive.
In Chiswick, west London, the developer Crest Nicholson is constantly adapting its floor plans to meet the changing demands of the London buyer. At St Peters Place, five-bedroom houses have been built in faux Regency style, tailored to families with a nanny or au pair. Houses start selling in the early summer and you need £3 million to buy.
“Significantly, at this price point we have included a self-contained apartment on the third floor, which has been designed to accommodate au pairs,” says Julia Reynolds, sales and marketing director. “The space is equipped with a built-in wet room, studio kitchen and capacious storage.” This inner sanctum also has double doors on to a private roof terrace. “As more London families recruit live-in childcare, this provides privacy from the rest of the household.”
The cost of employing a full-time nanny has become prohibitive for many. A recent survey by Mumsnet revealed that 38 per cent of working mothers had thought of leaving their jobs because of the high cost of childcare. Mothers on the website say rates of pay for nannies in London are around £22,000 to £27,000 a year, or even higher. By comparison an au pair, who is not a qualified child-carer, will live in as a member of the family and work perhaps 25 hours per week for £70 to £100, do a bit of babysitting and light housework, in return for two free days a week and time to go to language school.
“One partner needs to be earning £65,000 to £70,000 per year to be able to afford the nanny, so this is where the au pair comes in,” says Caspar Harvard-Walls of housefinders Black Brick, who helps buyers with budgets of £500,000 to £10 million or more to find houses in London and the Home Counties. But having an au pair means you need an extra room or must sacrifice an existing room, which he says people are prepared to do. In the middle-priced streets of Clapham or Wandsworth, or in the squares of Islington or Camden, Caspar believes most houses will have an au pair living on the top floor. “If one partner stays at home but the children go to two different schools, which is often the case, then the au pair can give them a chance to manage their lives,” he says.
Recent research by Savills on price extremes shows that the value of a room in London’s best addresses is around £262,000. In the North East of England it is £39,000, and at the bottom of the market £15,000. “The important thing,” says Caspar, “is that the buying and selling transaction now costs so much that people need to think whether a house will meet their needs in a few years’ time. A lower ground floor room might be good as an au pair suite now, but could be used as a teenage room later when the children are older. People need flexibility.”
A survey last year shone light on the new Upstairs, Downstairs of the 21st century, showing that there were more servants in Mayfair than there were 200 years ago. Wetherell estate agents found that 90 per cent of the 4,500 home owners in Mayfair had domestic help of some kind, as did 80 per cent of flat owners. Help included live-in servants, visiting daily cleaners and the occasional Mary Poppins who had blown in on the East Wind, as well as au pairs.