The low-paid can get on the property ladder - if they are prepared to climb one to do so. By Mary Wilson
Building your own home is one way of getting onto the housing ladder, as those who have seen Channel 4's Grand Designs, will know. And if you are a council or housing-association tenant or on a housing waiting list, you could join one of the shared-equity self-building schemes which housing associations all around the country are organising.

These schemes enable people who are unemployed or on low incomes to live in their own home after putting in considerable effort and hard labour - hence the term "sweat equity".

There are also several groups around the country, such as Community Self Build Scotland and Community Self Build England, which are orchestrating their own schemes, as well as advising on others.

"The idea of sweat equity is the difference between what a project would have cost if built by conventional builders and what it costs using volunteer self-builders," says Robert Chalmers, of Community Self Build Scotland.

"In fact, the equation often turns out slightly better. At Fife, for example, where 10 unemployed and unqualified people are building three- bedroom houses, our target is for them to save 25 per cent of the cost."

Sweat equity is hard work. The teams of amateur builders are expected to work every weekend and two evenings a week. In return, not only will they end up owning at least a proportion of their own home at the end of the day, they will also - in some schemes - go away with new qualifications.

Volunteers can either have building skills or be complete beginners. They certainly need to have enthusiasm and be prepared to get their hands dirty. What they will all have in common is a wish to own their own home one day.

The Boleyn & Forest Housing Society has done over a dozen new-build schemes in the past four years. Last year, it started its first refurbishment scheme in Whitechapel, east London, and this should be completed this month.

They chose eight people, all of whom were in their twenties, thirties or forties, to work on a run-down block containing 15 flats, all of which needed a complete overhaul.

"Once the work is completed, each person will own around 25 per cent of their flat," says Jane Porter, a director of the society. And it is expected that the rent they will have to pay for the portion of the property they do not own will be about pounds 80 per week.

"Those who were trained have had their skills widened. They did not need to put up any money and training and support has been provided," says Ms Porter.

"They'll get a new home they will have helped create and a share in its ownership."

Although there have been a few hiccups - two members left and were replaced by reserves, and it has taken much longer than originally planned - the project has gone pretty well. Professionals have carried out the major structural and external works, but the indoor work - wiring, dry lining, some plumbing and installation of kitchens - has all been done by the self-build team.

Stephen May, who is a Corgi-registered plumber, has been one of the founder members of the scheme. "I have been working on the project for almost 14 months now," he says.

"Although I am a qualified plumber, I have done everything but plumbing - buildingwalls, painting and decorating. They thought the main plumbing job was too big for me to do, but I have put in the showers for everyone."

Mr May has found the work pretty hard, especially as he has had a full- time job to do at the same time.

"I can't say I've enjoyed it, but it will be worth it in the end. However, I don't think I would do it again," he says.

Others in the team include Daniel Crisp, a fully qualified plasterer, who had been renting a flat for five years and was contacted about the project after he joined a housing waiting list.

Another of the builders is Julie Dobson, a trainee carpenter. She is studying for a NVQ Level 2 in carpentry at Lambeth College and she saw the work at Sandhurst House as a good training opportunity.

Ms Dobson had been living in a housing co-operative where she paid about pounds 40 a week and then moved into rented accommodation, but she always hoped to get a place of her own.

"I really like the idea of living with people who have put something into where they are living," she says.

In the Isle of Wight, the South Wight Housing Association is looking for 11 local families to build their own home. Six couples have already signed up to the Island 2000 Self Building Group scheme and work is due to start on a small development of two- and three-bedroom houses in Sandown in July.

"This scheme, which is the first on the Isle of Wight, gives people who would not normally be able to afford to buy their own house the chance to get a foothold on the housing ladder," says Dave Lee, the project manager.

"We are looking for people with some experience within the construction industry and we are aiming for them to earn 20 per cent of the value. But ultimately it comes down to build costs."

Boleyn & Forest Housing, 0181 472 2233; Community Self Build Scotland, 0141-766 1999; Community Self Building England, 0171-415 7092; South Wight Housing Association, 01983 407463