Ten top tips for self builders

PA Photo/thinkstockphotos.

PA Photo/thinkstockphotos. - Credit: Archant

Building your own house may seem like an impossible dream in London and it’s true that relatively few people do it. But it is possible. Here’s how.

1. Finding a plot of land with detailed planning permission for a house is a safe bet, but, of course, it may not be the house you want to build. Unless the plans can be changed, you may prefer to take a risk on a plot without planning permission, or with outline planning permission. The latter grants permission on the principle that the land can be developed, while detailed planning specifies the design of the building.

2. You can search for land on property websites like zoopla.co.uk and rightmove.co.uk, where it’s for sale through estate agents. Land agents, who specialise in selling land, and auction houses are often a better bet, as are specialist plot websites, such as PlotSearch at buildstore.co.uk. Local newspapers and property magazines may contain ads for land for sale, or you could place a ‘land wanted’ ad. You could even drive around your search area, looking for land that’s for sale or may be suitable as a building plot.

3. Don’t discount existing buildings – knocking something down and starting again can be a good way to get a great plot. As well as the location and chances of obtaining planning permission, consider the value of the land (or rather its value to you) and how you can get services and vehicles to it. Poor access will make the project harder and more expensive, and could even stop it getting off the ground.

4. As well as a plot, a good architect is essential. Not only will they translate your vision into reality, they can also enhance it with ideas of their own, coming up with things you hadn’t thought of and solving problems. A good architect will also help you obtain planning permission, can manage the build and the pre-build process, and can source and manage the various professionals and contractors needed.

5. Financing a self-build isn’t necessarily easy, but it’s certainly possible. Selling your home, or releasing the equity in it, is one option – ideal for buying the building plot, for example – but many self-builders need a loan for the project. A self-build mortgage is a popular choice, as the money is released in stages as the building work progresses.

6. To qualify for a self-build mortgage, you’ll have to provide more information than for a standard residential mortgage, such as the plans for the new house, the projected build costs, and proof of planning permission. If you haven’t sold your home and want to continue living in it during the build, you should be able to have a self-build mortgage alongside your existing mortgage, providing the figures stack up.

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7. As with any big building project, it’s important to have a sizeable contingency fund in case anything goes wrong with your finances or the build. Self-builders can claim back the VAT on building materials and services, so building a home has financial advantages. The building materials and methods you choose will have a big impact on the cost of the project, although there are, of course, practical and aesthetic considerations as well as financial ones.

8. Timber frame houses are popular with self-builders because they can be erected quickly. Wood is also natural, environmentally friendly and visually appealing. And it’s more durable than you might think - softwood frames can last around 200 years. Frames made of softwood, such as Douglas fir, are cheaper than those made of hardwood, such as oak, but oak is commonly used and can be expensive. Another disadvantage is that a timber frame can restrict the design of the house, as the structure has its limitations.

9. An alternative to a timber frame is a steel one. Steel frames allow more flexibility with the design and are strong, resistant to the weather and quick to put up. Other building materials and methods include brick and block, where houses have internal blockwork walls and external brick or stone ones; straw bale, where the bales are typically covered in render; permanent insulated formwork systems, which are a quick and practical way of building insulated walls; and cob, where a straw, earth/clay, sand and water mixture is used for the walls.

10. One of the great things about self-building is that it’s easy to make your home environmentally friendly because you’re starting from scratch. As well as obvious things, like insulating as much as possible and choosing energy-efficient windows, self-builders can incorporate big eco home improvements, such as solar panels, heat pumps and grey-water recycling systems in a more cost-effective way than homeowners who have to retrofit them. Combine measures like these with environmentally-friendly building materials and you can create an extremely green self-build. Ask your architect about this at an early stage so it can be incorporated into the design.