Welcome to the self-building boom

It’s so stressful it can lead to divorce – but do-it-yourself housing is more popular than ever, as an army of cost-conscious amateur builders construct their way out of recession. Jonathan Christie reports
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There has never been a better time to build your own home. A fairly strong statement, but the growing band of amateur builders amounts to nothing short of a small army. Each year, an estimated 20,000 self-build houses are completed, 8 per cent of all new homes and a figure expected to double over the next five years, and it’s a market that's come into it’s own during the recession.

Self-build specialists Buildstore have seen a 40 per cent increase in demand for plots of land and financial services in 2009. “Plots are selling very well and land sales our up 145 per cent from the first-quarter of the year,” says Raymond Connor, the company’s chief executive. He adds that Buildstore have also added more than 6,000 new plots to their PlotSearch site since the beginning of 2009, creating a rare beast in the present property market – an opportunity.So despite the stress, hard work and potential for relationship disasters self-builders – inspired by glossy and television programmes such as Grand Designs – still dream of poured concrete floors, sweeping staircases, teak decking, floor-to-ceiling windows and massive master bedrooms.

A major factor here are the falls in land prices – 6 per cent over the last six months compared to house prices which have risen 6 per cent since May. There’s also the stamp duty holiday (due to end this January), tradesmen eager for work and suppliers offering discounts on materials.

For many, the primary lure of self-building is the money that can be saved – typically 25 to 40 per cent off the cost of a similar ready-built home. If house-hunters haven’t found their dream home yet, now could be the time to “build” their way out of the recession. Especially considering that if the value of their home has fallen, any remaining equity will go further in a self-build than buying a ready-made one.

One such couple poised to “break ground” on their new plot are Andy and Dayle Bowden. They sold up and rented in late 2007, then sat back and watched the market shift. In June this year they pounced, buying land near Ringwood in Dorset, and have progressed through the finance and planning stage. But playing the waiting game set their nerves on edge.

“We searched for plots by reviewing the local planning applications online,” says Andy. “Then we basically knocked on the door of anyone whose application was of interest to us. This put us right at the front of the queue when planning was granted as somebody else had done all the leg work. We watched the prices of land fall, some plots dropped from £250,000 to £175,000. Now we’re about to build a truly better, bigger and far more impressive house than we ever thought possible.”

The Bowden’s and their two sons Harisson, 4 and William, 2 hope to be in their new home by July 2010. It will eventually be a 5-bedroomed house, featuring an open-plan family area leading out to the garden. Locally sourced oak is planned for some of the interiors, a detail Andy picked up in his research along the way.

“The whole self-build world revolves around a few magazines and some exhibitions and shows,” he continues. “This made it easy to find advice. BuildStore provided help with our Accelerator mortgage – we chopped and changed lenders as the rates fluctuated – and now we’re working with Design & Materials who’ll steer us through the regulations, design and build of our house. Through them we’ve also gone direct to the manufacturers for our materials – they’re another voice to listen to and draw advice from.”

Andy Bowden and his family will soon be discovering the small milestones that mark out their journey. Foundations being dug, the lights going on for the first time and waking up in their finished house. It’s a journey all too familiar to Phillippa Lambert, a landscape designer, who – along with graphic designer husband Steve – undertook a sensitive new-build near St Lawrence on the Isle of Wight.

The site was a derelict 19th-century garden within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Planning was only given on the proviso that the restoration of the grounds was given priority. Local architect Michael Rainey proposed a contemporary Japanese “boathouse” design with decks that appear to float over the garden’s lake. As with many self-builders, Phillippa and Steve were exacting about the whole process, but knew when to allow the people they were employing space to think as well.

“The Golden Rule,” states Phillippa, “is to employ a ‘proper’ architect. Do your research to find someone you are in tune with, brief them with the basics and then get out of their way while they draw you the house of a lifetime. Having someone use their brain on your behalf will make the difference between the mundane and the sublime.”

The result was Haddon Lake House, arguably one of the loveliest properties in the country which now sits admiring its own reflection in the surface of the freshly dredged lake. It was shortlisted in the Grand Designs Eco-Home category and now provides the base for the Lambert’s flourishing design business as well as garden tours.

But architects don’t just build houses for clients – they sometimes take the plunge themselves. Peter Kent, an architect based in Wiltshire gained permission to demolish some “grotty farm buildings” and replace them with a home. But despite his 27 years of experience, there was still plenty to learn.

“This is an innovative house with a mixture of technology,” states Kent. “I wanted to design a zero-carbon building with contemporary features like passive solar heating – but I also wanted a house that was nice to live in. The insulation’s been so efficient, that we’ve yet to switch the heat pump on.”

Kent recycled the demolition materials back into his build and tried to keep everything else sourced from Europe – to his environmental criteria. And that’s the joy of self-build. At best it offers the chance to organise, at a fundamental level, your own living space and completely transform your life. Looks like we’ve never had it so good.

Peter Kent Architect ( peter-kent-architect.net ); Michael Rainey Architect ( raineypetrie.co.uk); Steve & Phillippa Lambert ( lakehousedesign.co.uk ), to visit the garden, call 01983 855151. BuildStore ( buildstore.co.uk ); Design & Materials ( www.designandmaterials.uk.com )