Get rid of the grand delusions

Despite all the hype, building your own home can be easier than you think, discovers
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The Independent Online

Self-build is big business in Britain: more houses are built every year by self-builders than by the country's biggest housing developer. Yet for most people who care about their living spaces, designing and building a home to a personal specification remains a distant dream. The self-build heroes and heroines of prime-time television have been an inspiration to many, but their very heroism acts as a warning to the faint-hearted. Self-build remains a pursuit of enthusiasts, not of ordinary folk seeking a roof over their heads.

Are there good reasons for this? Across the world, self-build is common, even expected. Britain needn't be so different: if you think you have good reasons not to pursue your self-build dream, stop for a moment and consider just how good those reasons really are.

'THERE ISN'T ANY LAND'

It's true that some people spend years trying to find their ideal building plot, only to give up in bitter disgust. But the key word here is "ideal". If you have a fantasy house in your head, trash it for the time being and focus instead on the possibilities of every site that you see. The constraints of a site are part of the core challenge of self-build or, indeed, any architecture: creating remarkable spaces out of even the most unlikely thin air.

The self-build magazines all have listings of building plots, linked to regularly updated online databases (see www.plotfinder.net, www.plotsearch.co.uk, www.plotbrowser.com). But there are plenty of local sales that never make it this far, so register your interest in land with local estate agents and get on the mailing lists of auctioneers. For a longer haul, wander the streets looking for possible sites, then seek help from the Land Registry to track down the owners of interesting holes in the ground ( www.landregisteronline.gov.uk).

Watch for scams: don't buy plots in the middle of nowhere without outline planning permission, unless you have good reason to think that the planners will be sympathetic.

'WE CAN'T AFFORD IT'

What? The swimming pool? The double-height living space? The oak-framed baronial hall? Self-build magazines draw attention to the savings of self-build compared with buying new; self-builders who end up in financial trouble have usually been imprudent at the beginning of the process when everything seems possible.

Rather than trying to do the most you can, focus on doing the best you can with the space and resources. A beautiful smaller space is preferable to an overwrought, poorly detailed, bankrupt mansion.

One way of sharing the burden is community self-build. This can take a lot longer, but co-operative efforts pay their own dividends (see www.communityselfbuildagency.org.uk, www.segalselfbuild.co.uk). For details of borrowing options, see the self-build press or try www.buildstore.co.uk. You won't have to think about is VAT as self-build is zero-rated.

'THE PLANNERS WOULD NEVER LET US BUILD WHAT WE WANT'

Planners have a sizeable book to throw at you, so there is little point in deciding what you want before you have at least glanced at it.

Planning requirements are not arbitrary. Instead of doing your best to get round them, take them seriously and even value their purpose. Whatever the constraints, national and local, may be, it should always be possible to create an interesting space.

Bear in mind that you may be just as constrained by your own assumptions about what a house should or should not be. If you respond positively and critically to the constraints thrust upon you, this may help you to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of your starting point. Local authority planning officers should provide free advice, so make friends here as early as possible.

'WE HAVEN'T GOT THE RIGHT SKILLS'

You may not have the first idea how to build a house; you may be hopeless at DIY; you may be famous for bodging everything you touch. Do not fear: you can still be a self-builder.

Self-build does not necessarily mean physically building a house yourself, although lots of people do muck in to a greater or lesser degree. The options range from laying each and every brick in your spare time to signing up a contractor to do the whole lot for you. Either way, you will still be involved in the creative process of conjuring up an extraordinarily detailed space.

Self-builders who take on most of the labour themselves undoubtedly save money but rookie project management does not necessarily work out cheaper than hiring a good contractor.

'WE HAVEN'T GOT ENOUGH TIME'

This is a bit of a killer. If your work and home life are already full to the brim, you won't be able to take on a self-build project without suffering some serious spillage. Instead, make time.

Self-build can be a hugely rewarding process but only if you are prepared to put the right level of personal investment in, especially at the beginning. Even if you are not a hands-on self-builder, you need time to oversee the design, details and execution. If this means rethinking your working life or giving up your favourite hobby, make a realistic assessment of how such personal costs compare with the long-term benefits. How much do you really want to build your own home?

'IT WOULD BE FAR TOO STRESSFUL'

Any endeavour that involves creating something out of nothing, especially something beautiful, exciting or deeply personal, ought to involve a bit of stress. Nonetheless, a personal investment of this size does come with a certain risk of excess anxiety. Self-build ought to be loads of fun. If it isn't, this is likely to reflect over-ambition on your part or under-achievement on the part of the people you employ to get the job done. Things are only likely to go seriously pear-shaped when both of these happen at once. So don't get greedy and always get references.

'WE CAN'T LIVE IN A CARAVAN'

The on-site caravan option is tough but not impossible. It is truly amazing how quickly we human beings can adapt to changes in our living conditions. Such changes, caravan-focused or otherwise, can be helpful in challenging long-held ideas about what is important in a living space. Priorities for your new build may seem different when you are living comfortably in half the space you just moved out of.

The caravan option is most appropriate for self-builders who are on site every day putting the house together. If you can afford to be less directly involved, renting a flat nearby or seeking hospitality from family and friends may be better for your mental health.

Online information

* www.plotfinder.net

* www.plotsearch.co.uk

* www.plotbrowser.com

* www.landregisteronline.gov.uk

* www.communityselfbuildagency.org.uk

* www.segalself-build.co.uk

* www.buildstore.co.uk.

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