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Tip of the week

Be incredibly organised and specific– about what you want, because one person’s idea of a simple door handle may not be the same as another’s.

Caroline Keenan, who built an eco-friendly family home. See Case study Bright, Green & Beautiful

FAQs answered

Why should I build my own home?

Although the idea of designing and building you own home may seem alien and rather frightening, it makes perfect sense, which is why it is the preferred option for homeowners in many other countries.

Is it difficult?

It is easier than you may think, and the good news is, it’s getting easier, thanks to a relaxation in planning laws, along with some local authority initiatives to actively encourage self build. There is also more help and advice out there than ever before, thanks to the ever-growing number of specialist websites, books and magazines, and self build shows.

What is the advantage of building my own home?

You can design a house that best suits your own needs, rather than buying one of the ubiquitous homes from a developer, whose primary purpose is to make a house appeal to the greatest number of people without satisfying any of their particular needs. And to do it all with the bottom line very much a priority. This will inevitably lead to compromises on choice and quality.

Will a self-built house be as good as a new one from a developer?

It is likely to be better because you are not motivated by profit where speed and cost will be the main considerations. The construction work will still be undertaken by professionals, but you will be in charge of the spec, and for the procurement. In other words, the quality will be down to you and your team (architect/designer, builder, contractors)

Will I make money on my project?

This depends on how the project is run, but there are some considerable financial benefits on offer. Firstly, you will be cutting out a developer’s profit of 10-30 per cent on the average house build. Secondly, the labour and materials will be exempt from VAT, which means a further saving of 20 per cent. This is refunded at the end of the build. In practice, a lot of this cash is often spent on a higher spec, resulting in a more comfortable and energy-efficient house which will cost less to run than a developer-built house.

Do I have to be VAT registered to be exempt?

No. All the materials and labour you use in building your own home are free of VAT. If you hire a single registered contractor, bills for labour and materials should not include VAT. If you manage your own build, you will have to pay VAT initially, but this can be reclaimed within three months of completion of your project. Simply send all your invoices to HM Revenue and Customs and receive a refund for the VAT you have paid up front. Be warned though. This is a one-off opportunity and you can only make a single claim so make sure you submit all your invoices in one go.

Is VAT refundable on extensions and home improvements? 

Unfortunately, in most cases the answer is no. This remains an anomaly despite pledges by successive governments for greener housing. If a home has been unoccupied for at least three years, VAT is charged at the lesser rate of five per cent. If it is 10 years, then VAT is completely exempt.

What about conversions? 

VAT is recoverable on conversions of buildings such as barns, churches, and offices into dwellings. 

Do I need building experience to undertake a self build?

No. Many selfbuilders have never built anything before. The majority end their projects successfully. Most contribute only marginally in practical terms – their input is mainly administrative. 

Can I manage a self build myself without any qualifications?

Theoretically yes though it is best to have an expert (architect or main contractor) on hand to offer advice. Most selfbuilders limit their project management to employing contractors and supplying materials. Therefore, their most important attribute is the ability to organise. That includes knowing how to work out a budget, how to prioritise, how to negotiate and knowing how to ask questions. Specialist courses are available (see the Diary section in SelfBuild & Design magazine). 

Is there any further help/advice available for selfbuilders

Yes, there any many dedicated websites including this one. The government funded self build portal and the planning portal are both excellent sites. There are also plenty of informative books including Rober Matthews’ All About SelfBuild and Mark Brinkley’s The Housebuilder’s Bible. The various national and local self build shows are also worth a visit, as well as the National Self Build & Renovation Centre in Swindon which has year-round exhibits.

How do I find a plot?

This is the first and biggest hurdle and one which deters many prospective selfbuilders. However, there is good news on the horizon with the recent Right To Build legislation, where wannabe selfbuilders can register with their local council to show their interest which then has to be acknowledged in the local planning policy. Finding plots generally is still very competitive in popular areas, so you will have to show patience, determination and enjoy a little bit of luck to find your dream plot. Awkward plots which don’t appeal to developers are going to be more prevalent.  But remember, no plot is perfect, and solving a problem can inspire you or your designer to think in new and imaginative directions that might never have occurred to you otherwise.

Where do I look for a plot?

Estate agents are a good starting point, though don’t be surprised if many insist they rarely handle land sales. Get on the mailing lists of those who do, but don’t expect them to call you first when opportunities arise. The reason is simple. Agents receive commission on plot sales, just as they do on houses and flats. If, however, they sell to a developer or builder, they are also likely to receive commission on the sales of the houses that are then built. The answer is to contact estate agents regularly – at least once a week.

Plot data bases such as PlotBrowser offer another alternative, though good plots are likely to go quickly. However, it will give you a good idea of what you can expect to pay in your preferred area. If you are targeting a particular area, visit it often, preferably on a bicycle or on foot. Look for large neglected gardens with road access, or gaps between terraces. Find out the owners by asking locally or through the Land Registry. Visit your local authority planning department or check out their website for successful applications for planning permission. Occasionally, applications are not acted on. You may spot an opportunity. Unsuccessful applications also remain on record. Sometimes you, or your designer, may see a way of making an application successful – perhaps by changing the size or position of the house.

What is a custom build?

Increasingly local councils are under government pressure to provide self build opportunities as part of their local planning strategy. Some councils have teamed up with facilitators to provide ‘custom-build’ opportunities on land especially allocated for that purpose. Contact your local council to see if there are schemes in your area.

What is a brownfield site and is it suitable for a self build?

Industrial or brownfield sites have always presented opportunities, but these have to be considered carefully, bearing in mind that the owner will be responsible for any contamination issues unless blame can be attributed elsewhere. A typical example of a brownfield site is a former garage or service station. 

What about conversion or replacement opportunities?

A relaxation of formerly strict attitudes to the conversion of offices and agricultural buildings can provide unexpected opportunities. But don’t assume that because you think a barn would make a wonderful house, the planners will share your enthusiasm. The regulations may well have changed, but there is still a reluctance to see wholesale changes to the countryside, and other issues such as local infrastructure will be taken into account on any planning decisions.

Is there anything I can do while I searching for that elusive plot?

Certainly. Although the design of the house itself will rely primarily on its location – a house in the countryside will differ dramatically from an inner-city dwelling – you can start collating images and articles of the styles, materials and shapes you like. Visit the National Self Build & Renovation Centre to explore the various construction options so you can compare timber frame, structural insulated panels, insulated concrete formwork and even straw bale with traditional brick and block. Likewise, sustainable energy sources such as photovoltaics, solar panels, heat pumps, biofuel and mechanical ventilation can all be researched in advance. The same approach can be applied to the interiors, where you can consider dramatic features such as rooflights that transform into balconies, bifold doors that go round corners, and lighting and IT systems that can be adopted for almost any occasion. Go online and set up your own mood board on, or visit the various self build shows. Remember, knowledge is power so that when you do eventually sit down with an architect to discuss your dream home, the dream will be yours not theirs.

How do I apply for planning permission?

Planning permission is granted by the local authority planning committee made up of elected councillors, who act if they choose on the recommendations of the planning officers. Planning decisions can often seem arbitrary and inconsistent. But you can prepare the way for your submission, and gain an idea of its likely reception, by an initial chat with the local planning officer. Some councils are happy to do this for free, others will charge. If it looks like permission won’t be granted, think of hiring a specialist planning consultant. SelfBuild & Design magazine offers free advice on planning matters through planning specialist Roy Speer.

Even if the planning officer is broadly favourable, keep in touch to monitor the progress of your application. Be prepared to compromise and negotiate. If it looks like things are going wrong, it’s better to withdraw and resubmit a revised application than get a refusal on your record. If you are refused, you have 12 months to submit revised proposals without paying another application fee. Alternatively, you can appeal to the Secretary of State. Full details of how to make a planning application are detailed on the planning portal website.

Should I only consider buying land with planning permission?

Plots sold at ‘bargain’ prices without planning consent are, in almost all cases, a gamble not worth taking. Generally speaking, if planning consent had been possible, it would have been obtained, and the plot sold at a much higher price. Land without planning permission is not a ‘plot’. It is simply a piece of land and should be worth no more than agricultural land, for instance. Beware of any land that has been fenced to look like a plot but doesn’t have planning consent. Of course, there is always the option to make an offer on land with the proviso that it gets planning permission.

What is the difference between outline and detailed planning permission?

Outline planning permission means approval in principle has been granted for a dwelling to be built. Only rough details of the design are needed, though there may be restrictions imposed relating to the height and size of the dwelling. This option appeals to many selfbuilders who prefer to build their own design, rather than a pre-existing one. Detailed planning permission is approval of precise plans of the proposed development. This gives you the right to actually start building. When planning permission is granted a condition is normally attached advising the applicant how long the planning permission is valid for. 

Can I start work immediately after gaining planning permission?

You will need to apply for Building Regulations consent first. This is basically to ensure that your house is built according to the legal requirements for construction. In other words, it won’t leak, collapse, catch fire or sink into the ground. A structural engineer’s calculations may be required. A building inspector will turn up at various stages of your build to check things are being done correctly. If he decides it isn’t, he is legally empowered to order you to re-do it. Don’t forget that any planning conditions, such as approval for materials, will have to be met before work on site commences.

Where can I find a good designer?

Local architects specific to your needs and budget can be found through the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Fees aren’t fixed, but range from 7-10 per cent of your build budget for a new house, though expect to pay more for smaller projects, such as extensions. One-off fees can also be negotiated. An alternative is an architectural technologist, whose expertise leans more to the practical aspects of design. Find one through the Chartered Institute of Architectural Technologists. Other options are chartered surveyors or, if the design you have in mind is relatively simple and conventional, a local draughtsman, perhaps allied to a contractor you plan to employ.

Custom build package companies usually offer a range of standard house designs, which will be adapted to your particular plot and requirements by an in-house designer or design department. Your designer will prepare a full set of plans and scale drawings to be submitted to the local authority responsible for your plot. Often, though not always, the designer will obtain the various planning consents.

Can I design my own house?

Industry pundits such as Kevin McCloud strongly recommend using an architect but for those not contemplating a grand design there is nothing to stop you doing it yourself – at least to a basic level which can then be interpreted by a surveyor or draughtsman to meet planning and Building Regulations. Nothing more sophisticated than a piece of graph paper is required for a basic floorplan, though there are now many cheap software packages which provide more visual aids, including walk-throughs. CAD systems are more sophisticated and usually require training.

How do I find a good builder?

This can be a single contractor, who takes over the whole project, or a series of subcontractors – groundworkers, bricklayers, roofers etc, or companies providing those services – hired on an ongoing basis. But who will supervise all these tradesmen? How will you know if they’re doing things properly? Remember self build is all about taking control. You decide how much or how little you exercise, though, generally speaking, the more you give up, the more expensive it is. Word-of-mouth is the best and most common way to find good contractors in your area. There are also organisations which guarantee the quality of their members’ work such as the Federation of Master Builders, Fensa, and Heatas. Specialist websites also offer Trip-Adviser-style listings of recommended contractors in your area.

What is the most hassle-free route to building a home?

A ‘turn-key’ project – where all aspects of the build are undertaken by a package company – is usually the easiest route in which you hire an architect or a design and build package company to handle everything. They design your house, source a contractor, project manage the build and hand over the finished property on completion. This is also the most costly route.

How much of the build can I do myself?

Hands-on selfbuilders can do much of the labour themselves, using what building skills they already have, learning new ones and working alongside tradespeople hired for specific jobs. This is the cheapest approach to self build, but also the hardest. Most selfbuilders fall between the two, buying, for example, a timber-frame design off a package company who erect it, but then hiring in subcontractors to clad it, roof it and fit out the interior. Many selfbuilders manage their own projects. Others, less confident or experienced, prefer to hire a professional project manager. It is advisable to have access to someone whose expertise and judgement you trust – if only for reassurance. Traditionally, architects have fulfilled this role, but other building professionals, such as a building surveyor or a retired building inspector, can help.

Professional project managers – some experienced selfbuilders – also exist. Many people, however, are perfectly satisfied with the single contractor they hire – often on the basis of having worked with them before, or having seen them work for a relative or friend. If you fancy the hands-on route, there are many specialist courses in everything from bricklaying to plumbing. Details of these are listed in the SelfBuild & Design Diary section. More general self build courses are offered by the National Self Build and Renovation Centre in Swindon.

How do I calculate the cost of a self build?

You will need to do your sums carefully before embarking on a self build. Traditionally, around a third of the budget was spent on the plot with the remainder covering construction. At today’s land prices though, 40-60  per cent is more likely to account for the plot and in popular areas the percentage can be even higher. Estimating the build cost will depend on the house size, the form of construction, the complexity of the design, the materials selected, local labour rates and the specific conditions of the site such as poor ground conditions which demand specialist foundations. In other words, it’s complicated and you’re almost certain to require help. Specialist price books detailing the costs of every aspect of construction and updated annually, are available, and Mark Brinkley’s The Housebuilder’s Bible is an essential guide specifically for selfbuilders.

Estimating software such as EstimatorXpress from HBXL is a good way to plan the cost of your project. Easy to understand building diagrams help you input your project’s dimensions to calculate the cost, and because it’s linked directly to a builders’ merchants price list, the estimates are totally accurate.

Custom build companies will also provide basic estimates for their standard designs. Some builder’s merchants will supply free estimating services based on detailed house plans.

Traditionally, construction estimates are provided by a quantity surveyor, though the service is unlikely to be cost-effective for a project as small as a single house. In practice, arriving at a precise budget will depend on negotiations with your designer or project manager and your contractor. Don’t expect to tie everything down before you start. Every build has its own peculiarities.

How do I fund my  project?

Most selfbuilders need a mortgage to finance their project. Mortgages, however, are granted on the basis of equity. That obviously doesn’t exist when you only have a building plot. Self-build mortgages are therefore funded on the completion of various stages of the build, typically four or five. This means that you need to be able to fund stages, either from your own resources or other borrowing, before you are reimbursed by the next payment from your main lender. In the case of a timber-frame house, where the frame might account for a third of your total budget – payable in one go – this is likely to require careful juggling of finances.

Always establish clearly with your lender when and how stage payments will be made so you don’t find yourself running into cash flow problems. One solution is to raise a loan on your existing home, to be re-paid when you sell it.

There are also schemes like the Accelerator mortgage from Buildstore, which allow you to remain in your home until your new house is completed. Information on the requirements of current lenders is published in the SelfBuild & Design Mortgage Table, published in the magazine every month.

Another way of managing cash flow is to open an account with a builder’s merchant. Thirty days’ payment is common and provides a welcome respite when cash is tight. Clear your credit cards, too, before you start. They are a useful, short-term back up.

Should I have a contingency fund?

A 15 per cent contingency fund is recommended. A final word of warning: costs per square metre estimates work best for developers, building multiple units on the same site. Selfbuilders with one-off projects aren’t nearly so lucky. Costs can vary wildly depending on ground conditions, complexity of the build, and the ability of the project manager to negotiate on labour and materials.