If you have always dreamt about building your own home the first thing is to find that ideal plot….
First things first – in order to find a building plot you are up some fierce competition — other self-builders, certainly, but also full-time ‘land finders’, small builders, and all the vested interests of the development industry.
Keep an open mind
The main reason that people fail to purchase a plot is not that they fail to find any potential sites. It is because they will not compromise, and will accept nothing less than their dream plot, which in many cases simply does not exist. Before you start looking, think carefully about what you really need but also what you could do without. If you cannot compromise on anything, then be prepared for a long wait. If you have some very rigid requirements about where you want to live, the constraints imposed by the available sites may dictate what type of house you will build. On the other hand, if you have a firm idea of the character of the house you want to build, then you should be more flexible regarding the location. For example, if you want to live in a classic English village, the chances of getting planning approval for an innovative, modern design are, sadly, slim. If you can compromise and match your desired build style to your dream location, you improve your chances of achieving your main goal, by widening the choice of plots. Sometimes even the people selling a property may not realise that they have a potential building plot on their hands, even the professionals. If an existing property is in a very poor state, or structurally damaged, it may not be out of the question to demolish it and replace it with a new house. If you find a relatively small house on a large plot, this might also qualify for the same treatment. Sometimes a plot with a solitary bungalow on it can be replaced by several two storey houses.
Using Google Maps and even Streetview is a huge boost to the armoury of the would-be self-builder looking for plots. You’ll be able to identify gaps in the streetscene, small bungalows on large bits of land, and potential backland plots, all of which are ripe for redevelopment.
Know your area
At the start of your search, you need to familiarise yourself with the area, and gather as much information on it as possible. Even if you are looking in your own neighbourhood, you may be surprised by what you find out with a little research. To be effective, you need to focus in on selected towns, villages or suburbs. If you pick too large an area at the start, your resources will be spread too thinly.
Visit planning departments
If anyone wishes to get planning approval to build on a piece of land, they must submit an application, which then becomes a matter of public record. What this means is that you can walk into any planning department and ask to see the Planning Register, in which all the applications and decisions (where they have been reached) are recorded. Many councils now publish them on their websites. What you are looking for is recent applications, preferably outline (i.e. no detailed drawings), for single houses. If an approval has not come through, so much the better. A plot will not usually be advertised for sale until the planning approval has been granted, because this enhances the value, and, if someone spots it early enough, they can make an approach before many others are even aware that it is going to be for sale. If you find a likely application, make a note of the applicant’s details and approach them directly; they are usually, though not always, the owners of the plot. If the application is for outline approval there is a good chance that they are planning to sell, because there is no point in getting a detailed set of plans drawn up which may be changed by a purchaser. But sometimes they may have obtained detailed approval, with a full design, probably because the planners have insisted on it. Either way, there is no reason why you should not make a polite approach, either by letter or telephone.
Ignore the current plans
Your dream plot may currently have planning permission for a house you would never consider building. When turning pieces of spare land into building plots, the developer will usually submit plans for the least controversial option in order to get the outline planning approval. These are often bungalows or small houses. The reality is that you may well be able to upgrade this planning approval to the kind of house you want.
Tell friends and family
Most people already have a valuable source of help for finding a site, just waiting to be used: their relatives and acquaintances. Make sure that everyone you know in your family, business and social life knows that you are looking for some land. A classic kind of plot for a one-off house is found in the garden of an existing property, so check out as many gardens as you can for this potential.
Builders are not your natural allies when it comes to finding land, more your competitors. But there are some circumstances in which they may want to help you. Sometimes a small builder will not want the risk of developing a site, perhaps because of cash-flow problems, and may be prepared to sell you something from their ‘land bank’. They will, however, usually add a condition that you have to use them to build the new house. This is a serious drawback, because if you agree to it before you have detailed plans and specifications you will find that the construction cost is very high, and every extra above the standard requirements may be charged at the highest possible rate.
There are a few people prepared to exploit desperate, unworldly plot hunters and relieve them of their money, for maximum profit and minimum outlay. These companies offer what are apparently prime potential plots, for a bargain price. The catch is that there is no planning approval. It is suggested that, in the fullness of time, the land may eventually get planning approval, and you will then own a prime building plot. The truth is usually that although the land may get approval one day, it probably never will, and you have wasted your money. If you are considering taking up one of these offers get independent advice first, regardless of how attractive it seems. Unfortunately, several of these companies will actually refuse to deal with you if you try and take independent advice as to the viability of these sites — which should be all the warning you need.
Use self-build companies and architects
There are a few companies, some connected to kit suppliers (Border Oak, for one) or builders, who buy up larger sites, split them into individual properties, and sell them on to self-builders. Check whether you are tied into using a particular firm if you buy a plot. If this is the only way you can get a site in the right area, make sure that you get independent expert advice before signing on the dotted line.
Study the local plan
Local authority planning departments, in association with national government and county councils, prepare maps and plans of their area that identify which locations are suitable for new development, and the rules that will be used to govern infill sites. This information is published in the form of the Local Plan. It is a useful document, giving the background to planning policy, and can be browsed at the reception of the planning department. At any given time, a revision of the Local Plan is usually in progress and, if it is going to replace the existing one fairly soon, it can give useful information on sites that may be released for development in the future.
Read and use the local paper
Ensure that you get the local paper (often the weekly free sheet is as effective as the daily) on the day it comes out — otherwise other, keener self-builders may well have beaten you to the best opportunities. Use the paper proactively — take out an advertisement for ‘Building Plot Wanted’ and play up your credentials as private individuals looking for a nice quiet place to live. People would often rather sell a plot to someone they can choose as a neighbour rather than a builder.
What to look for
When you are out scouting an area, you can train yourself to spot opportunities. Once you start thinking like this, stopping and walking through a village while you are on holiday will never be the same again — potential building plots loom up on every road. These are some of the clues that you should look for:
Large gaps between and behind houses. It is usually easier to get planning approval for development in between, or next to, existing houses. If there is space beside a house, and especially if it has easy access to the road, it is a potential plot. If there is a big back garden, and access for vehicles to get to it down the side of the house, it may be possible to build at the bottom of it.
Narrow gaps that are not overlooked. Sometimes sites that are apparently too narrow can be used to squeeze in a small house, provided that the access or windows of the houses either side are not affected.
Look for houses of a similar size and quality to the one you wish to build. The way that houses are valued means that it is less economic to develop a house that is massively disproportionate to those surrounding it. You can end up over-developing, that is spending far more money on a house than you could ever sell it for; or under-developing, that is building too small a house and failing to realise the full potential of the site.
Vehicle access. Whatever land you find, unless it is near a city or town centre, will have to have parking space, so there must be a way of reaching it by car.
Disused land and brownfield sites. These are very easy to miss. It takes a lot of imagination to see a petrol-filling station, a telephone exchange, a disused industrial unit, or a scrap yard as the site for a beautiful home, but they all could be, subject to planning approval.
Source: Jason Orme