Another brick in your wall

Individuals build more homes in the UK than any single major developer. So can anyone do it? Jason Orme reports
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The Independent Online

Fed up with the range of houses on the market? Fancy something that is tailored to your own needs and fancy, into the bargain, making around 20 per cent on property in a stagnant market? Then self-build might well be for you.

Fed up with the range of houses on the market? Fancy something that is tailored to your own needs and fancy, into the bargain, making around 20 per cent on property in a stagnant market? Then self-build might well be for you.

More people than ever are building their own home. Recent estimates indicate that around 18,000 new homes are built by this method each year, more than any single developer. Of all new detached homes (people rarely self-build semis or terraced housing) approximately one in three are built by this method.

Let's start with a key definition. Self-building is not, as is often assumed, the act of physically building a home for yourself; it is a catch-all term relating to the method of organising the design and construction of a new home for you and your family to live in, meeting your own needs. It can be built by a builder or package company or on a DIY basis - it's still self-build.

Self-build has been around for decades, but its current popularity is due in part to a natural progression away from the trend for Changing Rooms-style makeovers. Why bother repainting, adding fireplaces, replacing floors and generally battling against the confines of an old house when you can quite easily start from scratch and get exactly what you want in one go? It really is the ultimate form of control over your own environment and there is something deeply satisfying about exerting your own - personal and unique - influence over exactly how big your living room is going to be, where the lights are positioned, what the stairs look like and generally all aspects of your home environment. And most people can do it: all you need is a bit of time and determination - and bags of creative energy.

So why do so many people opt for a self-build property? Why do they put themselves and their families through the heartache of sourcing a plot, dealing with planners, finding a suitable builder and finishing off a project that may well take a couple of years from conception to completion?

First, people self-build as a reaction against standard new housing in this country. We're talking poky living rooms, boring exterior design, bedrooms in which beds don't actually fit, cheap fittings, tiny gardens and generally mediocre standards of construction. As a self-builder, you can create exactly the space you want - if you want a large open-plan kitchen/breakfast room, fine; if you want three large bedrooms rather than four tiny ones, it's up to you; choice is the key word, and as we take more control over choice across our lives, then the house we live in has to be the ultimate manifestation of our choice culture.

Is your taste traditional or modern? Self-building can help you achieve both. Do you hate executive homes? Then why not build a new oak frame home using the finest English handcrafted oak and crafts from mediaeval times? Prefer modern? Then commission a unique design from one of a host of emerging young architects - most of the big names cut their teeth on individual housing - and fit it out with the latest automated technology such as built-in audio, remote central locking (for houses now, as well as cars) and large expanses of glazing. Recent planning directives actually go some way to encouraging innovative contemporary architecture.

In addition, self-builders have traditionally been at the forefront of innovations in housing technology; fast emerging sectors well- known and easily achievable for self-builders include underfloor heating; open-plan design; automated home technology; super-insulated homes and a host of energy-saving features. All of these features will filter into commercial housing in due course - but if you want to be in the vanguard, then self-build.

There is, of course, a highly appealing commercial side to self-building too. By building a new home for yourself rather than buying it from someone else you instantly wipe out the developer's profit (often up to 30 per cent). In addition, by creating a unique home packed full of quality finishes and the latest designs, the end product is likely to be much more desirable than its commercially developed neighbours.

There is also the tax issue. Self-builders are entitled to claim back VAT on the cost of most building materials and labour for their project - which makes it a lot more appealing than doing up an older house, which has no tax benefits whatsoever, unless the home has been empty for at least three years. The refund can generally be claimed (under the C&E 719 scheme) on most things that are fixed into the home and also on landscaping items that are part of an approved scheme from the planners. Most use the refund at the end of the project to treat themselves to nice items of furniture or a much needed holiday.

So why doesn't everyone do it? Firstly, there's a misconception that it is a pursuit purely for the affluent of a certain age. This is wide of the mark. Sure, it helps to have money, but in most areas buying a plot and building a home on it should cost you no more than buying a reasonably large house in the same area. Land prices are the key factor - in Scotland, you can buy a majestic piece of land for less than £50,000; in the South-east, you're looking at spending perhaps five times that (see page 10). Of course, these values are all driven by the potential end value of the project. Conventionally, the cost of the land plus the cost of the building needs to equal about 20 per cent less than the end value of the house (any estate agent will help on this calculation).

Build costs are generally quoted on a cost per square metre basis - as a standard starting point, homes can be built by a builder to a reasonable standard in most parts of the country for around £800/m2 - slightly more in urban areas and obviously a lot more depending on the final finishes. So if you want to spend under £100,000 on building your new home, build small and use standard materials - render as opposed to handmade bricks; trade kitchens as opposed to £25,000 handcrafted designs. As with anything in life, learn to specify well and be creative - you'll be amazed at how little great features cost.

Second, there's a belief that it's a large amount of upheaval. True to an extent - the key to success is closely monitoring the design and build aspects. However, if you're super-busy, lazy or simply need a helping hand, there are a host of so-called "package suppliers" who will design, project manage the construction or even get a team to build the home for you. You really do only require the very tiniest bit of building knowledge.

Third, finding land is very difficult. Ask any self-builder the main hurdle to getting the home of their dreams and they will tell you that finding a suitable plot of land is the main problem. It is. Luckily, the current stagnation in the housing market has provided good news for plothunters - with speculative builders less interested in developing lucrative one-off houses, there is a sense that more plots are being put on the market. Be proactive. Use the landfinding agencies such as www.plotfinder.net which search out available plots; hunt out plots that haven't even come on to the market yet - people's side gardens; check the local planning lists for applications on individual plots and contact the owners; pester estate agents; look too for derelict bungalows and houses that could be knocked down and the site redeveloped. Always, however, ensure that you are buying a piece of land that either has planning permission or buy on the basis of you gaining suitable permission. Land in the middle of nowhere is not a building plot - it is just land.

The number of self-builders in the UK is growing, but in comparison with all other countries in the developed world, the figures are still very low - which suggests that the self-build market will continue to boom. The home of your dreams may be closer than you think.

Jason Orme is the editor of 'Homebuilding & Renovating' magazine

Q&A IS SELF-BUILD FOR ME?

Q. I know nothing about building and can barely put up shelves. How will I be able to handle a whole house?

A. While it undoubtedly helps to understand the processes of home construction - and an element of "knowing the lingo" is key to gaining the respect of a builder - it generally isn't essential that you know every element of building technology. What is essential is having someone you can trust to explain these elements to you, as the decisions will be down to you. It's a fact that the vast majority of self-builds involve next to no DIY element, although many self-builders like to get involved with general unskilled site labouring and decoration.

Q. Isn't building a new house particularly risky with the housing market being so unpredictable?

A. As long as you don't overstretch yourself when applying for a mortgage then building a new house, which enjoys a 10-30 per cent expected profit once completed, should in fact be a cushion against falling or stagnating house prices. The key is to be realistic in both the future prospects for interest rates and the end value of the finished project. Err on the side of caution and speak to several local estate agents to ensure that you are building a house that will be worth what you expect it to be - with a little more thrown in for luck.

Q. I can't seem to afford a plot in my local area and I've come across a company that seems to have plots of land on the edge of development boundaries at very low prices. The intention, then, is to apply en masse for planning permission. Is this a way to proceed?

A. If you're serious about self-building, then these plots are unlikely to be for you. These sites are usually formed when agricultural land is bought up, divided, and sold for around £20,000 per one-tenth-of-an-acre site. On the open market, farmland costs around £4,000 an acre. Only ever buy land either with outline planning permission or with strong prospects of getting it - in which case you should get the owner to sign an option agreement committing him or her to selling the piece of land for an agreed price upon receipt of planning approval. In many cases the promoters of these cheap farmland sites attempt to make it part of their contract that you will not contact the local planning officer for advice - which should tell you all you need to know.

Q. I'm very busy and I don't have time to deal with builders and be on site. Can I still self-build successfully?

A. Yes. Either speak to one of the dozens of package suppliers across the UK who will, if you wish, manage the design and construction of the house for you; or talk to a local architect with self-build experience who may offer to manage the site, appoint a builder and supervise them in your interests. If you wish, you don't have to do anything apart from sign the cheques.

Q. I've heard that most self-builders live in a caravan on site while the house is built. I can't face this. Is there a way around it?

A. Only a small proportion of self-builders find they have to live temporarily on site during construction - although some think that living on site is the best way to keep a close eye on the project, and a watch over materials. The reality for most people is that, thanks to innovations in the finance market from specialist self-build lenders such as Buildstore, there is a new sense of flexibility over payments, enabling a construction mortgage to run alongside an existing mortgage. As a result, most people either live in their own house during construction, or sell and then rent a small house close to the site. The choice is yours.

Q. I don't know much about the difference between timber frame and blockwork construction. How do I make a decision?

A. In truth, there are few practical differences between the two main construction systems - but a lot of hype. Timber frame tends to be a little quicker to construct on site - yet the time savings can be lost because the frames can take up to two months to prepare in the factory. Although blockwork is seen as a more solid form of building, and therefore less prone to letting sound travel through walls and floors, these acoustic problems can usually be solved with special forms of insulative board. The idea that timber frames are "warmer" homes is actually a result of the fact that people who build timber frame homes tend to put more insulation in the structure. The truth is that warmth is largely dependent on insulation levels, not structural elements. Self-builders should look closely at both methods before deciding but, in truth, few homeowners notice significant differences between the two systems.

Q. I've heard lots of nightmare stories about cowboy builders. How do I ensure that the builder I use will do a good job?

A. While it's never possible to totally guarantee that you won't have a bad experience, following some basic guidelines will at least minimise the chances. First, and most importantly, recommendation is a key factor in ensuring a good relationship: visit local sites both completed and in progress and ask the owners if they have been happy with the work; second, use trade associations such as the Federation of Master Builders ( www.findabuilder.co.uk) as a starting point for contacts - but again, insist on checking references. Third, in most instances some form of formal contract is a good idea. Traditionally builders were reluctant to sign anything but in recent years a couple of simple, easy-to-understand standard contracts have been issued that set out the groundrules on both sides. Try www.jctltd.co.uk for more information. The key point to remember in all of this is never to leave yourself financially exposed to a builder - if you've paid him all of his fee in advance, he has little incentive to keep on coming back. Come to a payment arrangement that is mutually satisfactory and bear in mind that while a happy builder is a good builder, you must take the role of the employer.

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