This is the house that we built

This year alone, 25,000 people in the UK will design and construct their own home - for them this is the only way to achieve the place of their dreams at a price they can afford
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The Independent Online

Among the thousands of visitors to the National Self Build and Home Improvement show this weekend in London, will be those who love the idea of creating their own house, but have only a scant idea of how to go about it. What they do know is that it is the only way they will get a home exactly as they want, at a price they can afford.

Among the thousands of visitors to the National Self Build and Home Improvement show this weekend in London, will be those who love the idea of creating their own house, but have only a scant idea of how to go about it. What they do know is that it is the only way they will get a home exactly as they want, at a price they can afford.

This year alone, 25,000 people are expected to make a start on what will probably be the largest project of their lives. It may not be plain sailing - and there are moments when even the most organised begin to despair - but all the evidence points to huge satisfaction with the finished product. Self-builders say they enjoy looking at different systems of construction, deciding where money can be saved and where more can be spent.

But before anyone is able to order that Scandinavian house they can build in a few days, they must have a plot of land, and finding one is an increasingly difficult hurdle to jump. One in three new homes in the UK is now being self-built and the number of projects increased by 30 per cent last year.

Two years ago, Les and Maxine Rumjahn ordered the timber frame for their house from the show. Within seven months the building was finished. It had taken them two years, though, to find the plot on the edge of Rye in east Sussex, followed by a six month struggle to win planning permission for the changes they wanted to make to the original scheme.

Les Rumjahn, an architect, knew that the sloping site with its listed gazebo and water garden would create complications. What he was not prepared for were the problems with planning. "I can't describe the shenanigans. Thank goodness I am an architect. It was objections from a neighbour that held things up and I don' t think people realise how drawn out the whole business can be. We knew about the plot right at the beginning of our search and it wasn't ideal. After we had been gazumped on our first choice and then spent ages looking at some absolute horrors we went back to it as a last resort."

Once the building work started, both the Rumjahns did much of the donkey work at weekends. Les had the advantage of using sub-contractors that he had worked with before, but warns anyone who takes on the role of contractor that they are likely to find themselves doing a lot of the odd jobs, many of them heavy.

"It takes a terrific amount of physical effort and time. Building is not a precise thing and you never know what problems you are going to hit. The timber frame was a month late in arriving because of difficulties with the calculations. That was annoying because we had pushed everyone to keep to the timetable."

It is also important, he says, to keep a list of the phone numbers of suppliers with you, so that problems can be sorted out immediately on site.

A couple of years on, the Rumjahns have a house that cost them nearly £170,000 which includes the £65,000 price of the plot.

They chose to put in expensive features where they deemed it worthwhile, such as the unvented hot water system that delivers hot water at mains pressure and which was only recently permitted in the UK. The house is now valued at £275,000.

"For anyone who is prepared to spend time exploring innovative ideas and materials there are plenty around that even architects don' t always get to know about", says Les Rumjahn. "We need more individualistic houses and the real shame is that it takes so much effort to find a plot."

This point is not lost on a number of exhibitors at the show. Among the tiles, paints, kitchens and fireplaces, and included in seminars for novice self-builders, is advice and information about purchasing plots. Buildstore, a new online company originally called the Self Build Advisory Service, brings together under one roof the products and services for this market. As well as providing access to approved suppliers, it also offers a self-build mortgage which releases 95 per cent of the land value in advance and the same percentage of build costs before work begins on each stage.

But one of its key services is Plotsearch, a data base of more than 5,000 plots for sale throughout the UK. Sam Malcolm, who runs this section, says that all the plots come with planning permission. New ones are added daily and checked every five days. "Where permission may have lapsed, say in the case of a building in need of conversion, we always check with the planners that it will be granted."

Plots vary in cost from £25,000 to £500,000 and the company is looking at ways of offering groups of self-builders large plots that could be divided between them.

Buildstore is also assessing the potential of brown-field sites.

In the hunt for a plot, many people find they are constantly pipped at the post by builders and developers. They harbour the suspicion that estate agents find it more lucrative to tip off a builder in the hope of winning the contract to sell the finished houses. With the idea of giving the self-builder an equal chance in the race, a new internet subscription service has just been launched which will release information about available land at the pre-planning stage.

Richard Crisp of Virginplots says that currently, builders are getting hold of land details at a much earlier stage. "It gives them a 16-week start with no competition. We will provide information to the public within days of a planning application being made, so that they can talk directly to the landowner. Individual self-builders will often pay more for a plot than a builder who needs to make a profit.'

Even when a building company puts in the application, all is not lost. "The builder can be contacted in the first couple of weeks and asked to build a house to individual specifications, " explains Crisp. "Anyone thinking of buying a new home should look at the possibility of building their own.

"Why should we lag so far behind Europe and other parts of the world."

* The Self Build and Home Improvement Show at Alexandra Palace is open today and tomorrow from 10am to 5pm (www.self-build.co.uk); BuildStore: www.buildstore.co.uk; VirginPlots: www.virginplots.com; English Partnerships will be marketing Milton Keynes plots at the show

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