Anyone who’s ever undertaken major house renovations would be forgiven for baulking at building a home from the foundations up. But to those who self-build, the advantages outweigh the investment of time, imagination and cash required. Top of the list is creating a home that fits your values and your needs.
“The majority of people who buy a new home in the UK don’t actually want the house they end up with. The current housing stock is substandard in terms of energy efficiency and design,” says award-winning self-build specialist Allan Corfield, director of AC Architects.
“This is where self build can deliver a bespoke, high-quality home that meets the specific requirements of the individual family.” And while it may appear an expensive pastime, building a house can be a good investment. “The love and attention that goes into a self-build home is not just reflected in the quality of the home but in the value that is typically created,” says Andrew Baddeley-Chappell ACA, interim chief executive officer, National Custom and Self Build Association.
“This is partly because there’s no developer’s margin, but it also reflects the care, quality and passion involved.” Corfield estimates that the average self-build home comes in 10-15% cheaper than a comparable new build purchased from a developer. “Plus, you’ll have paid less stamp duty,” adds architect and property developer Kate Stoddart. “A replacement dwelling is zero VAT rated: meaning your budget goes 20% further than with a remodel and extension project. Not everything is subject to 0% VAT, but the vast majority of costs are.” And you don’t have to do everything yourself. “Self-build is a widely used term that includes everything from doing all the work on site, to appointing individual trades, as opposed to the traditional route of using a main contractor,” says Corfield.
“At its heart, selfbuild just means the clients have a massive impact in the design of the home.” Which is not to say it’s easy. “A self-build will cost you time and hair loss: it’s not for the faint-hearted,” admits Stoddart. “But the rewards can be huge. It’s a way to meet that innate human instinct to provide shelter for your loved ones. Plus, of course, it’s something to be proud of, which will bring you pleasure every day for years to come.” So how do you achieve a grand design, and not a grand disaster? Absorb as much information and advice as possible before you begin: many people spend years planning their project.
“The biggest challenge is inexperience and lack of knowledge: the first can be fixed by working with the best designers you can afford to appoint,” says Corfield. “The second comes with a bit of commitment to learn. We recommend reading books, going to homebuilding shows or visiting the National Self Build & Renovation Centre near Swindon.” Choosing your advisers based on skill rather than price will save you pain further down the line. “Interview at least three consultants of each profession and ask to visit their current projects on site,” recommends Corfield.
“Don’t go with someone because they are cheap, especially your architect or designer. They will have the single biggest impact on the success of your project.” Compatibility is just as important as skill. “The process can take a long time. It will be made much more pleasant if you have an affinity with the person you’re working with,” points out Stoddart. Appoint experts who balance out your weaknesses: you may find that, as a chartered accountant, project management of the build is well within your skillset, but that other aspects are more challenging.
“If you’re worried about build quality, hire a building surveyor who would be able to spot poor workmanship,” says Stoddart. “If you lack confidence in choosing paint colours, bathroom tiles and curtains, you need an interior designer on your team.” Part of your plan needs to be financial: it’s easy to let desire for the latest mod-cons run away with your credit card mid-build. “Work out how much you can afford to spend – a standard mortgage calculator can give you an idea,” says Baddeley-Chappell. “Set a budget – most people over-spend as they fail to stick to a realistic budget, and up the specification as they go, allowing costs to spiral.”
Aim to get an understanding of the core costs as early as possible. “The build won’t happen unless you can afford the basics, and these costs can’t be reduced; the specification of your hob can, however,” says Stoddart. “Fixtures and fittings can vary by a factor of 10; a tap can be £40, but also quite easily £400. Work out base costs first, then assign budgets to each part of the fit out.” Identifying the right plot is the biggest challenge for almost every self-builder: perfection is impossible to find, so prioritise what you need over what you want. “The right plot for many means being near family and friends, transport connections, good schools, all before you start thinking about which direction the sun comes from and what local planning restraints might entail,” says Stoddart.
The difference between a building plot and a piece of land is significant – beware scams offering ‘ready-to-build’ plots that are anything but. “The biggest risks are in what lies unseen beneath the ground and then getting planning permission. Plots that look too good to be true probably are,” warns Baddeley-Chappell. Check below ground before you buy. “It amazes me how many people spend anywhere from £100 to £500,000 on a plot of land without getting a soil investigation completed,” says Corfield. “This simple exercise costs as little as £500 but would flag up any major issues. If you don’t know the ground condition, you can’t budget for the cost of the foundations – your project could be doomed before you even start.”
Planning permission also needs to be addressed at the outset, or you could end up having to tear down the house you’ve lovingly constructed. Rules vary by country and region, so identify the hoops, and when you have to jump through them. “Planning constraints are difficult to understand and sometimes feel like a moving target,” warns Stoddart.
“Just because a neighbour has managed a large extension, don’t assume you can. This is especially prevalent in Conservation Areas, the Green Belt and outside settlement boundaries. Always take professional advice on this, and not from estate agents: ‘subject to planning permission’ means just that, and they don’t know the likelihood of getting it.” The good news is that, in the UK, the government wants people to build. “Right to Build legislation in England requires local authorities to keep a register of all those who wish to self- or custombuild and the planning authority must ensure sufficient suitable plots are permissioned to meet the demand on that register,” says BaddeleyChappell.
“This is helping to make the process easier, but it takes time and perseverance and you must be prepared to compromise.” One way to de-risk a project is to go down the custom-build route. “Typically this is where you acquire a plot on a multi-plot site where access and services are provided, then use a single contractor to construct a finished house,” says Baddeley-Chappell. “Bear in mind, however, that the more work others undertake and manage, the less uplift in value over cost you can expect.”
Careful planning should save you from suffering nasty surprises during your build, but there’s bound to be something you overlook. Among the most common issues, says Corfield, is powering your home. “Just because you can see a telegraph pole in the next field doesn’t mean it has capacity to serve your new home. If there isn’t enough capacity at the nearest transformer, then you pay for the upgrade costs.” The cost of connection can make a serious dent in your budget, with charges ranging from £2,000 to £125,000. You can check the cost of bringing services onto your site before you purchase a plot of land, so include this in your initial surveys. Another sure way of escalating expenditure is to change your mind mid-build.
“Hours before complex foundations were due to be poured, in wet and sticky conditions, a client decided that they did, after all, want that spiral basement wine cellar they had been dreaming about,” recalls Stoddart. “The concrete order was cancelled and the foundation trenches covered while we all went back to the drawing board. Luckily the contractor took it in his stride and revised the foundations to accommodate the wine cellar.” When you’re running a project, the welfare of those working on it is your responsibility, so make sure you’re aware of the legal requirements and take out appropriate insurance.
“Don’t forget about health and safety: it isn’t worth going to jail or a worker having a serious injury over a house,” says Corfield. “CDM 2015 regulations apply to all self-builds and set out the requirements and laws which you must satisfy. Your architect also has an obligation to explain what you need to do. Never presume someone else is dealing with health and safety on your site.” Ultimately, you will succeed by keeping things simple. “Risk is linked to the complexity of the build and whether new and untested solutions are used,” says Baddeley-Chappell.
“Accountants make great self- builders. We combine creative and decisive thinking with the disciplines and technical understanding that help ease the self-build journey. Most of all we understand value (both financial and non-financial) and how it can be created.”
Five top tips
NaCSBA’s advice for kicking off your self-build project
1) Get inspired and find your style. Watch TV programmes, attend events such as the Homebuilding & Renovating Shows and subscribe to self-build magazines.
2) Start your search for land, using both plot sites and your own enquiries and connections.
3) Register with the local authority where you want to build and invest time with architects, planners and solicitors to make sure your plans are likely to be accepted.
4) Choose a build system, such as timber frame, brick and block, or eco design, and start investigating it, including visiting a finished home.
5) Balance how much work you want to do with the cost of paying specialists. Doing work yourself can increase risk, but offers savings and satisfaction.