Go west for plots with promise

Finding a site with a sea view or real rural charm is possible but expensive, says Graham Norwood
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The Independent Online

Few parts of the UK are as welcoming to self-builders as the South-west - but few areas are as expensive, too. The Westcountry has fostered a tradition of self-builders through the centuries, many taking the form of tin miners who set up make-shift homes inland, while sailors built small houses in the 16th and 17th centuries in port towns. Many of these properties still stand today, having been gentrified in recent years, and now fetch huge six-figure sums.

Few parts of the UK are as welcoming to self-builders as the South-west - but few areas are as expensive, too. The Westcountry has fostered a tradition of self-builders through the centuries, many taking the form of tin miners who set up make-shift homes inland, while sailors built small houses in the 16th and 17th centuries in port towns. Many of these properties still stand today, having been gentrified in recent years, and now fetch huge six-figure sums.

Empty plots, unsurprisingly, are also expensive and hard to come by. Self-builders are advised to follow the standard steps to find one - scouring estate agents' windows and websites; making personal visits; looking at small ads in the newspapers, and letting it be known that a plot is required.

There are a few self-build sites on sale at any one time throughout the South-west although inevitably local factors such as sea views, or a location within unspoilt countryside, can add significant premiums to prices. Those that are available are either wholly vacant sites or those with tumbledown buildings ripe for demolition.

For example, estate agent Stags is auctioning a plot and a cluster of outbuildings near a bungalow - which is for sale separately - at Jacobstow near Bude in Cornwall. The plot contains a garage block, stable and barn but helpfully has outline planning permission for the construction of a house with a garage. It has a guide price of £50,000 to £75,000 (Stags, 01566 774999).

The same agency's office at Taunton has Hunter's Lodge Barn for sale in the Somerset village of Churchinford, which also has planning permission for a three-bedroom family home, and comes with a cool one-acre of land - either to secure complete privacy for the self-built property, or for possible re-sale later on to another self-builder. (£200,000, Stags, 01823 256625).

In Devon, a site at Cooks Cross in the centre of South Molton with space for four new homes is to go on sale shortly (details from Jackson-Stops & Staff, 01271 377833). But the prime site now available in the South-west, from the same agency's office, is almost certainly Down End at Croyde, a beautiful coastal location in north Devon. It is half an acre in size, looks towards the puffin-haven of Lundy Island, has spectacular sea views and comes with planning permission for two homes. Little wonder it is on sale at a high guide price - the owners are seeking £490,000 or more.

But no self builder should under-estimate the competition that exists for these sites. "Since launching Croyde to the market we've had over 200 enquiries - the interest has been absolutely phenomenal," says Nigel Colebrook of the Barnstaple branch of Jackson-Stops & Staff.

He predicts that the plot will go for well over the guide price and that the buyer will either use the entire site for just one larger and more private property, or will build on just one half of the plot and sell the remaining 50 per cent - perhaps at a still higher price - at a later date.

If you want to know why prices are so high in an area of the country that was known in the 1980s for being cheaper than most, just look at the demographics. By 2021 the population of Cornwall is set to rise by 7.6 per cent and in Devon by 8.7 per cent - both well above an all-England figure of 4.1 per cent according to the Office of National Statistics.

Average net migration to the South-west is about 25,000 per year, far higher than in any other UK region, with over 50 per cent moving from London and the South-east and most of the rest down the M5 from the west Midlands. About one third of those moving in to the South-west are aged 30 to 44, with a half aged 45 or above.

Two new towns are planned to eventually provide for the new population. Three thousand homes are planned to be built near Broadclyst, close to Exeter, but are still some years off. Sherford in South Hams will be the second new town, a spill-over location for Plymouth, but again it is likely to take a decade before it is complete.

Much of the population growth is happening now. As a result, both Exeter and Plymouth featured in the top five of a survey of the UK's top 100 property markets because demand is outstripping supply, according to estate agent Knight Frank. The consequence of all this is that self-builders have more difficulty finding sites and when they do, they are expensive.

Buildstore's Plotsearch ( www.buildstore.co.uk) remains one of the best ways of locating a site. In May, for example, it listed 86 in Cornwall, 140 in Devon, 93 in Dorset and 135 in Somerset and Avon.

"The problem is there are very few single-building sites in the South-west. Most plots are for up to half a dozen properties, which may well rule them out of self-builders' budgets," warns Nigel Colebrook. Where they are in highly desirable locations, such as Croyde, the price soars. "It's often the case that someone building a house will typically pay 25 to 33 per cent of their total spending on the land. There are places around the South-west where that rises to 50 to 60 per cent," he says.

As in other parts of the country, landowners are also ensuring their plots have at least outline and sometimes detailed planning permission for housing before they go on sale. This is helpful in one way - it saves the self-builder the bureaucratic hurdles - but it also hikes up the cost of the plot.

A modern and very local twist on self-build in the South-west has come in the form of RuralZED. This is a project pioneered in Cornwall by Bill Dunster, the architect best known for BedZED, a 100-home neighbourhood built on a former sewage works in Surrey that boasts energy efficient live/work houses with Gaudi-esque designs and built out of recycled timber, glass and metal.

He has trained Cornish volunteers how to erect so-called RuralZED self-build kits - mostly using local materials. A kit costs about £75,000 but, again, finding a plot is the difficult bit.

"There's no way I could afford to buy a place by myself," says Harriet Windscheffel, 32, an internet sales manager who lived in London for 14 years, but has returned to her parents' home in Cornwall. She is training to be a self-builder on the Dunster scheme and is clubbing together with other trainees to turn the tuition into reality. "I couldn't afford the cost of a plot of land and the £75,000 for one of the homes I'm building, although I might if a group of us banded together," she says.

Like most of her fellow students, Harriet has never built anything before. "I was actually going to enrol in a pottery class when I saw this advertised, so I thought a house might be more use to me than a pot. So here I am," she says.

Caradon council in east Cornwall has already given a plot for free, to accommodate five RuralZED houses in the village of Landrake near the border with Devon - but future trainees are likely to have to find and fund their own land.

In the South-west, that may be the toughest task of all.

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