Shiver me timbers: their dream home is actually a prefab

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The Independent Online

It was once associated with postwar emergency housing and freezing school classrooms.

But today the prefab is reinventing itself in the UK's burgeoning self-build market. Compared with "bricks and block" - the traditional method of self-building - prefabricated timber frames are cheaper and quicker to assemble, taking on average four months to order and be erected on site.

A growing number of companies now offer a bespoke prefab service for homebuyers, arranging all stages of the project from the architect's plans to the interior decorating.

Behind much of the prefab's new appeal is the Government's Design for Manufacture competition, launched to encourage the building of affordable homes, especially in the South-east.

"Once the foundations are down, a timber-framed house will generally not go over budget, as opposed to one constructed of bricks, which requires more co-ordination of [those working] on site," says John Hay of Buildstore, a self-build supply and advice company.

A decade of house price inflation has put conventional home ownership out of reach for many buyers, and created problems for families seeking to trade up. With self-build, you can generally expect to save about 25 per cent of the cost of purchasing a similar home on the open market. You will also save on stamp duty, as self-builders are liable for this tax only on their chosen plot of land.

"A couple paying £180,000 for a plot and £130,000 to build a property valued at £400,000 would pay only £1,800 stamp duty as opposed to £12,000 if they'd bought the home on the market," says Jason Orme of the Homebuilding & Renovating Show, which exhibits nationwide.

But although self-build offers big savings, it requires thorough research and preparation. One of the toughest tasks can be finding a suitable site. While websites such as plotbrowser.com can help, land is in short supply in some areas. For example, a trawl on plotsearch.co.uk for a plot in Cambridgeshire yields 300 possibilities; in Greater Manchester, it offers just five.

Meanwhile, outline or detailed residential planning permission for your new home is a must: buying land without securing a green light for construction could prove a costly mistake.

Most self-builders take out a loan to cover the cost of land, materials, hiring architects and builders, and employer's liability insurance (to protect yourself on site). You should try to budget for an extra 10 per cent to meet any unexpected costs.

Available from lenders such as Norwich & Peterborough and Skipton building societies, a self-build loan shouldn't cost more than a conventional mortgage. The cash will be released by the lender on completion of specified stages of construction.

For instance, N&P releases money when the "first floor joist level" is completed and then again at the "roofed-in" stage.

Merry Albright and her husband, Ben, spent £295,000 in total to construct a home on a £125,000 plot of land in Herefordshire.

"We could never have afforded this house if it wasn't for prefab," says Merry. "It allowed us to jump up the housing ladder."

Although the couple employed a self-build company, she advises would-be self-builders to take a hands-on approach to achieve their dream home.

The Homebuilding & Renovating Show takes place today at the SECC, Glasgow. For other dates and venues, see www.homebuildingshow.co.uk

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