Property: Where to get a taste for the ultimate in DIY

They're building their own down at the NEC.
WHEN YOU go on a day trip to Calais, what bargains are you looking for? Fags and booze? Or roof tiles, roller blinds and ladders?

If you're a "self-builder" - the sort of person who knows that you can reclaim the VAT on the cheap, high- quality DIY goods available on the other side of the Channel - it's likely to be the latter. Even so, self- builders are likely to spend this weekend in Birmingham rather than Boulogne, perusing the displays at the NEC's "Homebuilding & Renovating" show (sponsored by the magazine of the same name).

A self-builder's preoccupations are little different from that of any owner who likes to put up the odd shelf - though perhaps on a larger scale. They need to know all the ropes. A self-builder not only erects the walls of their kitchen and bathroom, but they also kit them out, so their normal research involves a wide range of plumbing and sanitaryware, tiles and flooring, medicine cabinets and towel racks. A self-builder's floor will have been selected from multifarious wood and stone options - not to mention the mind-boggling array of underfloor heating systems.

Michael Holmes, the editor of Homebuilding & Renovating, notes that most self-builders first renovate a derelict structure and then progress to a full-scale building project. In building his own house in Oxfordshire, he first had to reconcile conflicting visions: "My dream was all mod cons: new heating, ventilation and plumbing; my wife's was a traditional Cotswolds- style cottage. But they are not mutually exclusive. Our house is a hybrid."

A savvy architect helped the reconciliation process, and in November they moved into the house, which cost pounds 280,000 to build (pounds 90,000 was for the land alone), and which Michael estimates now to be worth more than pounds 450,000.

These savings do not reflect the several near-nervous breakdowns that seem to accompany all self-build projects, but Michael shrugs such difficulties off: "Nothing is ever quite as bad as it looks at first. The next day it is solved, and a new challenge is on its way. Bad moments fade, pleasures remain."

The more work you do yourself, the more money you save, but the more hassle you take on. His advice is: "Spend money on design. Competent builders can follow architectural plans, and common sense and building control officers will carry you the rest of the way. The key is, never pay up front, and only pay for work you are satisfied with."

A good dose of common sense is also vital, as self-builder Margaret Brown discovered. Her builders had no problem following the drawings - but the drawings were flawed, and although the builders had inklings that something was wrong, they carried on. Margaret realised they were worried and, after a bit of probing and prodding, they finally confessed their uneasiness: "In fact, they were building a wall that was incorrectly positioned. We had to take the floor up and reposition the wall, and now I have a small alcove I otherwise wouldn't have. But it adds character."

In contrast to the Holmeses, who lived in a flat until their new home was ready, Margaret lived on site, in a caravan without heating or water: "I was always tripping over things. There was no storage area for the day-to-day things you take for granted. In the shower, water drips off the ceiling; and you stick to the toilet seat. It is not for the faint- hearted."

She, too, experienced problem after problem: "All self-builders tell you the same - things don't go to plan, and you change your mind about certain things as you see the property rising. And everything takes longer than you thought.

With experience, self-builders become stoical: "Don't get uptight, take everything in your stride," Margaret advises. They also become addicts. If it came to it, she would self-build all over again rather than move into an already built home. Michael Holmes, too, is already warming to the idea of selling for a nice quick profit and building anew to reduce his mortgage.

The scarcity of land is a major barrier, but derelict homes ripe for stripping and rebuilding are about. "Find something boarded up and derelict, buy it, gut it, and start from scratch. Or buy a flat with a potential for adding a storey or basement or a mansard roof. Look for potential extra space. It will always pay," he suggests.

Here's one final tip: most self-builds end with a celebratory bottle of bubbly. Which, of course, you can pick up cheap in Calais - along with the kitchen sink.

The NEC Homebuilding & Renovating Show features some 150 exhibitors, expert seminars, master classes, and one-to-one specialist surgeries. `Independent' readers can get half-price entry (pounds 3.50 instead of pounds 7) for two adults to the Homebuilding & Renovating Show by taking a copy of the paper to the box office, Saturday and Sunday, 10am to 5pm