Is a self build home right for you? How to get started

BY Ned Browne

28th Nov 2023 Property

4 min read

Is a self build home right for you? How to get started
Planning a self build could be the answer to your property hunt problems if you're struggling to find your dream home in the midst of the UK's housing crisis
In recent months, the supply of properties in the UK has risen slightly as some landlords seek to offload their stock.
That being said, there is still a critical shortage of desirable places to live. And, with prices falling, paying a premium for such properties seems like folly. So, if you can’t find the right property for you, perhaps you could build it instead?
Some people will buy a plot of land and build from scratch. Others will convert a building that was previously in another capacity.
Judy and Glenn Patterson did the latter, converting a listed farm building in the parish of Todmorden on the Lancashire-Yorkshire border.
“[Self building] allowed us to choose a location we loved, and have a lot of input into the layout and design, as we were starting from scratch," they tell Reader's Digest. "It was also a lot cheaper than buying a completed version of the wreck we actually bought.”

No quick fixes

Self building is not for the faint hearted—the process can take many years and there will be numerous hurdles to overcome. You will have to be willing to learn new skills and to invest many hours of your time to make this dream a reality.

What’s your vision?

Although you may need to compromise down the line, it’s important to set down at the outset the factors that are important for you.
Why are you self building? To live mortgage free? To live in a carbon-neutral home? To have more space? To live in an area that would otherwise be unaffordable?
Once you know the reason, you can start to consider the practicalities.

Finding the right plot of land

Self build home construction next to giant hill
Sometimes, people dream of living in blissful isolation. However, the costs of doing so may be prohibitive.
Being close to a tarmac road, mains water and sewage, and an electricity and gas supply will be a must for most people. And, if you’re going to be reliant on having a car, you should consider this expense part of the property’s running costs.
Websites such as addland.com are a great resource for discovering what’s out there and for giving you an idea of the likely price you will need to pay.
It’s worth bearing in mind that land is zoned in the UK, and changing the classification is far from straightforward. Examples of land zone classes include:
  • Agricultural
  • Woodland
  • Residential 
  • Commercial
Moreover, if you are buying land without planning permission, you should note that there is no guarantee that permission will be granted. You can check local planning portals to see if planning permission has been rejected in the past. If it has, steer clear!
Local councils tend to favour development on brownfield sites.
Judy and Glenn had to apply for planning permission three times before it was approved. As part of this process they decided that changing architects was the only option.
It was, in their words, “Third time lucky!”. Although, I suspect it was tenacity that really got them over the line.
"Someone who works locally will know reliable suppliers and should be able to ensure building control sign-off"
Top tip: always employ the services of a local architect. They should have contacts in the local planning authority and will know which designs are likely to be approved.
The same goes for selecting a building contractor. Someone who works locally will know reliable suppliers and should be able to ensure building control sign-off.
Judy and Glenn give the following invaluable advice: “Really do your research on the builders you decide to use—ask at builders’ merchants, check out their work on previous properties and with architects before making a decision. Builders can make mistakes or not interpret the plans as expected—so get involved and pepper them with questions.”

Planning a self build budget

Before you can proceed, you must establish a realistic budget. This budget should account for land acquisition, design and construction costs, permits, utilities and unexpected expenses.
It’s rare for self built properties to come in on budget, so don’t forget the contingencies.
Judy and Glenn discovered a nasty woodworm infestation that pushed up their early build costs.
"Careful accounting and keeping all your VAT receipts is a must"
“We originally thought that we could reuse the main apex roof timbers, however, half of the timbers had woodworm and we had to decide whether to keep them and just treat the wood or replace them," they say. "We decided that the latter was the lesser of the two evils.”
It was a more expensive option, but will probably save them money in years to come.
On the upside, as long as you have built or converted the property with the intention of living in it as your main residence or holiday home then you are likely to be eligible for a VAT refund.
Careful accounting and keeping all your VAT receipts is a must. As is finding a decent accountant to help you with this process.

The phases of self build construction

Contractor on roof of self build being built
Breaking ground is a moment to savour. Just getting to this stage is an accomplishment in itself.
Typically there are three main stages: groundworks, the main structure, and fitting out. If you are project managing, you will need to coordinate and manage the various contractors, and ensure each phase of the project is signed off by building control.
It’s possible to save tens of thousands of pounds through good procurement—and that includes everything from kitchen units to carpets and from plumbers to tilers.
Quotes can vary wildly, so never accept the first one. Time spent on procurement is time well spent (and well rewarded).

Sign off

Once the building work is complete, you will need to obtain a completion certificate. Without this, it will be hard to mortgage the property, insure the property or sell it in the future.

Finishing touches

When the builders finish up, you’ll probably find that your property is surrounded by mud. Fortunately, mother nature is very forgiving—grass grows quickly and other plants will bounce back or mature fast.
In less than six months, it will feel like a home. Especially once you’re surrounded again by your treasured possessions.
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