Finding The Plot: The east of England

Fertile, flat and with plenty of space. Could the East of England be for you? Graham Norwood investigates
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The Independent Online

The east of England is one of the most fertile areas of the UK for self-build plots. Compared with the difficulties of finding suitable space in Greater London or even the increasingly densely-developed south-east region, there is plenty of space. Contrary to popular opinion, much of the land is well drained too, and flat, making access and construction work easier.

The east of England is one of the most fertile areas of the UK for self-build plots. Compared with the difficulties of finding suitable space in Greater London or even the increasingly densely-developed south-east region, there is plenty of space. Contrary to popular opinion, much of the land is well drained too, and flat, making access and construction work easier.

But the task of locating the right plot is not always easy.

"It took us five years," says Fraser Duffin, a businessman who is completing an 18-month self-build close to Diss in Norfolk. "We weren't looking continuously during that time but kept our eyes open and used family connections in the area to let us know what was going on."

His task was harder because he wanted substantial volumes of land. In the end his barn conversion project gives him five acres and allows him to have a home some 500 metres from a road - an unusual degree of privacy for self-builders, who increasingly have to settle for smaller plots in large gardens that are sold off.

"Developers are often in competition for sites of this kind," says James Greenwood, director of Stacks buying agency. "But individuals are frequently able to outbid developers where a single property is concerned, because as private buyers they will not have to factor in the profit element."

Across the region, developers are keen to buy plots to meet the government's large house-building targets (especially in Cambridgeshire and areas bordering the East Midlands) and because rail and road links between East Anglia and the Thames Gateway in east London are set to improve significantly in the next 10 years. Despite all this, land prices remain currently about 20 per cent lower than comparable plots further south, making the area attractive to developers and self-builders alike.

But landowners are aware of the East's growing popularity, and an increasingly common ploy to increase the value of a plot before putting it on the market is to hire an architect to design a property to go on it. Then the owner gets planning permission for the construction of the design, and sells with approval in place.

At Three Tuns Court in central Norwich, for example, a plot has been put on sale with a guide price of £160,000 (through estate agent Savills on 01603 229 251). A substantial chunk of that price is down to the consent that exists for a three-storey, two-bedroom contemporary property to be constructed on the site.

Designed by local architects, the plans have been worked to a high degree of detail with brick and glass materials specified and a roof garden, courtyard and double-garage included. In this case the selling agent admits the permission was sought to demonstrate that even an apparently-small plot in a central location with limited immediate appeal could be attractive to a self-builder or a developer.

"Unique is a word often over-used but in this case I think it's deserved. This is going to be a chic, one-off, modern house in a historic part of the city and there's no doubt that the parking provision is going to be a big draw," says Mathew Earle-Forster of Savills.

Self-builders can disregard the application and seek permission for another design, of course, but the plot's purchase price will be a disincentive if they then must pay for going through the expensive and time-consuming planning process once again.

This is not a one-off. Another East Anglia agent (Strutt & Parker on 01603 617 431) is selling a 2.85 acre plot at Weybourne near Sheringham. In this instance, planning permission is for a large house taking the plot price up to a hefty £425,000 - almost certainly outside the budget of most self-builders.

For those seeking a more modest site, preferably without an existing permission but in a location where building a house would be agreed by local planners, there is one further problem that occurs more in East Anglia than in most of the rest of the UK: determining who owns the site.

Local land agents say that the high proportion of land given to grazing and crops in the region means "boundary" areas between different owners are sometimes uncertain. These are often areas identified by self-builders as potential sites.

So-called "gentlemen's agreements" sometimes exist between adjoining farmers - one farm will use a field one year, the next-door farm will use it the next year, for example - but such uncertainties have to be resolved if a self-builder wants to buy.

Therefore a self-builder must confirm ownership before approaching an owner to see if he will sell (this can be done for a charge via Land Registry's website at www.landregisteronline.gov.uk; a list of local offices can be found at www.landregistry.gov.uk).

Apart from these local factors, finding and buying the right plot in the East of England remains the same challenge as elsewhere.

First, register with local land and estate agents' offices and scour reliable websites. Remember that there are many firms now selling land online that has not got, nor is likely to get, planning permission for housing. They sell plots at up to 10 times its agricultural value but claim it may one day be allocated for homes. Most analysts consider these to be unwise investments.

But hundreds of legitimate plots do exist in the East of England. At the end of April a respected internet directory, www.selfbuildabc.co.uk, which specialises in "small ads" from individual sellers, listed seven plots in Cambridgeshire, six in Lincolnshire, one in Norfolk and four in Suffolk. But the significant majority had planning permission already obtained, so prices were relatively high.

The Plotsearch scheme on www.buildstore.co.uk is much more extensive and includes many plots being marketed by estate and land agents as well as individuals. It lists no fewer than 264 plots in Cambridgeshire, 254 in Lincolnshire, 207 in Norfolk and 85 in Suffolk. Many of these too, had permission, although a quarter did not.

Second, put an advertisement in a local paper saying you want to buy a plot, and browse its classified sections for advanced notice of planning applications - these will tip you off about plots likely to come on the market shortly.

Third, if you are willing to live near an existing housing estate or development, contact builders who are active in your chosen area. Developers have large landbanks, often stored for over 10 years, and will sometimes dispose of small tracts no longer required. Builders dominant in the east of England include David Wilson Homes, Charles Church, Laing, Hopkins, Persimmon, Twigden, Bovis, Barratt, Stamford Homes, and Countryside Properties.

Finally, sort out finances to buy the plot. The UK's largest self-build mortgage firm is the Norwich and Peterborough Building Society. Its products apply throughout the UK but its branches are predominantly in the east of England.

No one says finding the right plot is going to be easy or quick - remember, it took Fraser Duffin five years - but the advantages of the east of England make this one of the best places to find a site for that dream property.

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