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Proerty: Your dream home is in your own hands

Fed up with modern identikit housing? You might be better off building your own. You'll need commitment to do so, but the rewards can be great - and you could well end up with a nice little earner.
FOR A GROWING number of people, the idea of building their own home has an appeal that buying a ready-made, off-the-shelf home cannot match. When you self build, you get the house you want, where you want it. It is built to your budget and specification, and reflects your lifestyle, taste and personality in a way that no developers' identikit offering - mass designed, mass produced and replicated on estates all over the UK - can ever do.

The financial argument is equally appealing. A one-off house is an investment. It will be VAT-free as there is no VAT to pay on the construction of a new house, and you won't have to pay a developer's profit margin. Typically, an individually designed and built property will be worth 25-30 per cent more than it has cost in total to achieve.

So what are the drawbacks? Well, building your own home is not for commitment- phobics, since a self build project will inevitably take a large chunk out of your life for one or two years. Indeed, expect to sleep, eat and breathe your project. You will become fixated with plumbing systems (vented or unvented, that is the question), your conversation will be peppered with downpipes (should you choose plastic, cast iron or aluminium?) and in your dreams will be filled with dense building blocks.

But is self build only for dreamers? Definitely not. While you might think that the potential for disaster in a self build project is enormous - the vast majority of self builders, after all, are not professional builders nor even, usually, very good at DIY - the facts speak otherwise.

Self built homes are well built and well designed - it is not, after all, individually-built new homes that are the cause of endless complaint to the National House-Building Council. Self built houses are more likely to win design awards than be condemned by the building inspector, and they prove highly saleable.

Thus, while self build might not sound like a safe or conventional route to home ownership, around 20,000 people a year are taking up this option. And the number is growing. Last year, self-builder numbers jumped by 5 per cent, according to Customs & Excise. By contrast, reveal the NHBC, developers are building 10 per cent fewer homes this year than last, and recording a drop of 28 per cent in new house sales.

Of course, self build is not necessarily plain sailing and anyone thinking of building their own home should do their homework and be realistic about what lies ahead. Finding a building plot is the first hurdle. Prices and availability vary enormously nationwide. Sometimes, it is better to look not for plots so much as for opportunities to re-develop an existing site, involving the demolition and replacement of an older, sub-standard property.

Raising finance used to be difficult for self builders. This is no longer the case, with many lenders now operating in a highly competitive market. The small print differs, particularly when it comes to whether the lender will lend on land or only on building costs, but the mortgages work the same way, by releasing payments in stages as building work progresses. Stage payments are mostly made retrospectively, for work done, and this can cause the greatest self build headache of all - cash flow difficulties.

Careful pre-planning and budget control can head off difficulties, while a new generation of mortgages is set to address the problem by releasing stage payments in advance.

The biggest growth area in individual build is in self-management - where you run your own project, manage the site, buy your own materials and hire your own labour. This is where the greatest savings are made. Reassuringly, most people who manage their own projects also hold down their "day jobs" at the same time, without either building project or job suffering.

The average budget for a self build project is pounds 120,000, including land, and the valuation of a self built project on completion is typically pounds 150,000-pounds 170,000.

Finances are not everything, though. Most people who have built their own homes quite simply describe it as the most satisfying challenge they have met.

Rosalind Renshaw, who has built her own home, is consultant editor of `Build It' magazine and author of `Design and Build Your Own Home'.

The 1998 National Self Build Homes Show is at Alexandra Palace, North London, from 17-20 September, 10am-6pm inclusive. Tickets are pounds 7.50 on the door but free for the first 50 readers of `The Independent' who ring 0171 865 9042 between 9.30-5.30pm Monday to Friday, mentioning this article. Other readers can call the same number at any time for half-price tickets, which can be bought in advance by credit card.

Towering above the rest

MARK AND Helena Jones, right, found a plot of land more unusual than most, as it had an 1878 disused Victorian water tower on it. Today, the couple, in their thirties, live in a home, pictured far right, which they created themselves by converting the tower and adding a large adjoining house.

The couple had been driving past the tower, near Maidstone, Kent, for years without particularly noticing it. It was only when a `For Sale' notice went up in June 1996 that they ventured on to the site.

The site, complete with its tower of natural stone, was bought, with planning permission already in place, from the Mid Kent Water Company with the aid of a Midland Bank mortgage.

Mark, a computer specialist, and Helena, a Ttreasury analyst, kept their living costs to a minimum during the build by living in a mobile home.

Construction work started in September 1996 to convert the tower into two rooms - a study on the ground floor and a bedroom on the upper floor. This conversion is joined to the new house, which had to be built over the reservoir.

Altogether, there are five bedrooms, three bathrooms of which two are ensuite, lounge, dining room and kitchen.

Mark and Helena managed the entire build themselves, buying all their own materials and hiring their own sub-contractors. They also did a fair amount of work themselves. More than pounds 17,000 was re-claimed in VAT through the special scheme available to self builders.

Financially, this has been a profitable venture. The site cost and conversion costs were in the region of pounds 230,000; their home is now valued at pounds 495,000.