Plot your course for the South

It's tough buying land in South-east England, says Graham Norwood, but the potential return on investment is huge
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The Independent Online

Fancy a tough challenge with a suitably large reward? Then finding a self-build plot in south-east England is for you. It's not easy, but a great achievement if you do. Land suitable for housing is more expensive and scarcer in the South-east than in any other part of the country. In Kent, Sussex or Hertfordshire an empty plot can cost £170,000 for 0.15 to 0.25 of an acre, large enough for a family house with a garden and planning permission for a home.

Fancy a tough challenge with a suitably large reward? Then finding a self-build plot in south-east England is for you. It's not easy, but a great achievement if you do. Land suitable for housing is more expensive and scarcer in the South-east than in any other part of the country. In Kent, Sussex or Hertfordshire an empty plot can cost £170,000 for 0.15 to 0.25 of an acre, large enough for a family house with a garden and planning permission for a home.

The principle of how to buy land is the same everywhere but it's harder work in the South-east says Stephen Penlington of the Norwich & Peterborough Building Society, a leading mortgage lender for self-builders. He says, "The hunt for a plot should include registering with estate agents in the area, looking in local papers and scouring land agents' sites on the internet." Other options include contracting the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (020 7377 1644) for details of properties requiring renovation or conversion or trying your hand at a land auction. These are usually advertised through local newspapers although all auction sales are made on an 'as seen' basis. You need to check a plot's usefulness and likely planning status before buying.

"Try driving around an area that you like and leafleting houses. If you think a property has a garden large enough for a new home then leaflet them and let them know you are interested. Many owners still don't know the value of this type of sale," says Penlington.

But a growing trend in South-east England is what Penlington and other self-build experts call "bungalow bashing". This is buying a bungalow that has seen better days and demolishing it, releasing the large plot of land that it sits on.

A key advantage of this tactic is that you stand a strong chance of getting planning permission for another property to take its place. It is likely that drainage is good and electricity, water and gas are already available. It is also probable that the land will not be contaminated through previous industrial use or by being treated as a dump - a common problem with brownfield land that has previously been used for non-residential building.

The disadvantage is cost. Obviously you pay for the land and the property, even if you knock down the latter. Some canny owners know that self-builders are keen and add a premium to their asking price, so get ready for some tough negotiations.

A plot typically costs 40 to 45 per cent of the overall price of self-building a home. In the South-east that soars to between 50 and 60 per cent because of the scarcity of land, or possibly as much as 70 per cent if you buy an old home and knock it down.

But this is a proven way of finding a plot in the busy South-east marketplace, as designer Paul Gladman and his partner Kerry Medhurst can testify. They have just completed an award-winning five-bedroom, three-storey, self-build home in the Essex village of Danbury.

"Rather than wait for a piece of land to appear we spotted a 1920s bungalow within the village envelope. It was a small house with a large plot but we had to move fast. We knew professional developers could be after it," says Paul. "The plot was 65 ft wide by 300 ft long, and, with the bungalow, cost a cool £250,000"

"My advice for other self-builders is don't get disheartened. It can take a while to find a plot or a bungalow to demolish, but they must be absolutely ready to respond when it appears. Have the funding arranged and, if possible, talk to planners to see if your proposals are likely to get planning permission," says Paul.

Lots of self-builders are using the internet to find plots or homes to demolish, subsequently plenty of websites have appeared to help.

But self-builders should be aware of a trend that is growing, particularly in the South-east where housing land is at a premium. Some firms acquire large areas of farmland that is unlikely to get planning permission for homes, because it is in rural areas or is officially Green Belt land. The firms then market this land on the internet in small chunks, suggesting that buyers may have to wait longer for planning permission, but intimating they could make a long-term financial killing. There is no guarantee this land will ever win planning permission for housing and, as with Paul Gladman, it is vital to check with local council planners before spending money.

But companies like Buildstore, on, offer thoroughly reputable services to self-builders. Like other good plot-finding websites, it says whether plots have outline planning permission (giving a general footprint and recommended height of any building) or detailed planning permission (where building must commence within two years) or full planning permission (which lasts for five years from the date of consent).

The firm boasts 9,000 contacts; including estate agents, land agents, local councils, churches, utility and rail firms and bodies like the Forestry Commission who tip off the company if land or properties ripe for demolition are coming on the market. You can subscribe to a variety of tip-off options; ranging from £44 for information on self-build plots in three counties of your choice, to more expensive services like aerial photographs of plots or access to a database of available sites nationwide. Availability of plots varies from county to county. When The Independent checked Buildstore's National Building Plot Register at the end of March, it carried 47 potential self-build sites in Berkshire, 50 in Buckinghamshire, 75 in Hertfordshire, 123 in each of Essex, Kent and Surrey, 153 in Sussex, 167 in Hampshire, and even had 98 in Greater London.

East Sussex and Kent generally have cheaper plots per square metre than other counties, although costs will always vary depending on size, location, proximity to amenities and of course existing or likely future planning permission.

But after facing the challenge of finding an affordable plot in the South-east and then building the property, comes the reward. Self-build experts say a property's value across the UK soars by a typical 20 per cent above cost as soon as the final brick is laid. The good news in the South-east is, it's about 25 per cent. But that assumes you'll ever want to part from that dream home after the blood, sweat and tears of finding the plot.

Points of law

Buying land with outline planning consent doesn't necessarily mean you can go ahead and build on it

Building plots with outline planning consent are generally snapped up with a speed which would make sellers of hot cakes envious. Self-builders know that it is often essential to move quickly to get a site at the right price, but too much haste increases the risk of buying a useless plot.

According to lawyers, the assumption that a plot with outline planning permission can be built on is hopelessly wrong. Tony Reeves of Kent, Jones and Done solicitors of Stoke on Trent says, "Just because there is outline planning doesn't guarantee that there won't be covenants on the land or ransom strip issues. Plots can be a legal nightmare, trying to fix the physical boundaries and dealing with access disputes." Yet people who buy at auction often do so without taking legal advice.

This may sound daft but it would be prohibitively expensive to get legal searches done on a series of plots only to be outbid on them, especially as many of the building professionals who buy at auction don't use a solicitor.

The difference between these people and a self-builder is that the speculative builder may be able to afford to lose money through the odd disastrous purchase, while the self builder is normally bidding with his life savings.

Reeves says, "A good auctioneer will look at the plot and see if anything jumps out in terms of access. A contract will be available for inspection and a term of that contract is that the vendor has proper title, but later on you could find that the plot harbours an old mine or a by-pass is to be built 50 yards away. At dustbin auctions where they sell commercial and residential property as well as land you have to take the warts and all. Some of the plots are on sale for relatively low prices and for good reason."

David Henry a planning expert at Savills estate agents, says, "People do become obsessed with an area and a lifestyle dream and are so desperate to get a plot that they buy someone's paddock which doesn't have a hope of getting planning permission."

You may well get planning permission if you buy land which is zoned for development or within the environs of a village but winning this consent is expensive and takes time. You might have to employ an architect, planning expert, engineer and highways consultant. If you buy a site with outline consent you will have to pay much more. So if you want to do something dramatically different - like put up a two-storey building instead of a bungalow - get a good set of drawings and take them to the planning office to see what their attitude is.

"Buying through an agent or privately has the advantage of giving more time to research the purchase. The buyer makes an offer and once it is accepted employs a solicitor to check that the seller actually owns the house or land and that there are no hidden problems waiting to be uncovered," says Henry.

Searches with the local authority and elsewhere will confirm whether the land is fit for building. While it may be madness not to use an experienced solicitor for land purchases, it is optimistic to leave all the work to him. Solicitors do their research from the office, using the internet or documents. They don't get their Wellingtons on taking the view that if things match up on paper they have done their job. It pays the self-builder to walk his plot with a tape measure to ensure that the boundaries and dimensions are correct.

It's much better to spot that a neighbour has taken part of the plot for his shed or that he uses it to get access to his garage before rather than after purchase. If the boundaries are not clear, mark them out with fencing and get your solicitor to write to the neighbours telling them you have done so. If they challenge the boundaries, either renegotiate with your vendor and get him to spend the money establishing the correct boundaries or pull out. Living next to a building site can annoy the most peaceful neighbours. If yours are already in a huff about boundaries or access going ahead it could lead to a costly legal battle.

If the site is large and overgrown check for the presence of wildlife which might prevent development. It is illegal to disturb a badger's sett or a bat roost, and certain rare plants, insects or newts could also hinder building work. Local people who know of the existence of endangered flora and fauna may only speak up once they realise the site is to be built on. The discovery of rare species could halt development altogether or expose the self-builder to the extra expense of re-homing the creatures. Bumping them off secretly is not a good idea.

Buying a suitable piece of land is the first major hurdle to be overcome, but the self-builder still has legal problems to address. He must sort out full planning consent, comply with building regulations, deal with procurement of materials, sub-contractors and a host of potential perils. If a trespasser comes on site at night looking for something to steal and falls into the foundations breaking his legs the self-builder could end up paying compensation. Public liability insurance covers the self-builder for damage to third party property or injury to visitors or trespassers. Employer's liability covers for injuries or death of the people working on the site. Contract works insurance protects against damage or theft of materials on the site and damage to the building while under construction.

Most self-builders plan to live in their dream home for many years, but situations change and it is vital to remember that the house must be saleable. This means: not just getting proper guarantees that all work has been completed to a satisfactory standard, it also means saving every scrap of evidence.

Tony Reeves says, "Keep a full paper trail of all planning consents and variations. Try to get everything in writing rather than coming to verbal agreements with builders and contractors.

If you have to bring in a civil engineer to propose how to strengthen the foundations, then make sure your builder gets a collateral guarantee from him, so that you can give this to your buyer. This ensures that if anything goes wrong further down the line, then your buyer can sue the engineer. You should always keep salability in mind and remember all the information you will need to supply for a Home Information Pack which the Government wants to bring in."

Jenny Knight