Finding a Plot

This is the first and biggest hurdle and one which deters many prospective selfbuilders. Unless you are lucky enough to own building land already or are seeking it in a remote area, finding a suitable plot is likely to take time and effort. Not only are the most popular areas highly developed or fenced off by planning restrictions, plots that come on the market are constantly sought by local and national developers.

So what chance does the lone, usually inexperienced selfbuilder have? Actually, he or she has advantages denied to the professional. The first is that paying the keenest price is not always a priority. A developer will usually need to build and sell a new property as soon as possible - to reduce borrowing and maintain his business.

A selfbuilder, however, is likely to spend several years in the house they build, allowing them to spread the cost of the plot over a long period. Not all plots are going to appeal to developers. They may be too small to generate sufficient short-term profit or they may have potential problems such as a steep slope or an awkward shape. Remember, no plot is going to be perfect. Often solving a local problem can inspire you or your designer to think in new and imaginative directions that might never have occurred to you otherwise.

Where to look

Estate agents are a good starting point, though don't be surprised if many insist they rarely handle land sales. Get on the mailing lists of those who do, but don't expect them to call you first when opportunities arise.

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The reason is simple. Agents receive commission on plot sales, just as they do on houses and flats. If, however, they sell to a developer or builder, they are also likely to receive commission on the sales of the houses that are then built. The answer is to contact estate agents regularly - at least once a week - to convince them you are a serious player and to stand a chance of grabbing opportunities first.

Local authorities have come under increasing pressure from the government to do more for aspiring selfbuilders, including setting up registers, where you can indicate that you are interested in building a home in their area. This interest has to be taken into account in local planning policy. Read more on PlotBrowser’s Right to Build page.

Custom build is a fairly new concept that provides opportunities to selfbuilders in areas where plots may otherwise be thin on the ground. Specialist custom builders usually offer a range of services, from turn-key packages, which include the complete design and build, to part-builds, where the shell is erected leaving the selfbuilder to apply the finishing touches.

Another approach is to use a plot-finding agency, which, for a subscription, will typically provide plot opportunities from, say, three chosen counties for a six-month period. SelfBuild & Design's PlotBrowser provides this service in the magazine and on our website for free (www.plotbrowser.com), where details are updated constantly.

Auctions are another plot source, but demand strong nerves and ready cash. A 10 per cent deposit is normally required at the fall of the hammer, with the remainder payable within a month. Read the PlotBrowser Guide to Buying at Auction

If you are targeting a particular area, visit it often. Chance conversations in pubs, wine bars or cafés can sometimes flush out potential vendors. Even more importantly, explore the area, preferably on foot. Look for large, neglected gardens, particularly with road access, and gaps between terraces. Find out the owners by asking locally or through the Land Registry (gov.uk/land-registry).

Another source of plots is the local authority planning department. Successful applications for planning permission go on file for between three and five years. Occasionally, applications are not acted on. You may spot an opportunity.

Unsuccessful applications also remain on record. Sometimes you, or your designer, may see a way of making an application successful - perhaps by changing the size or position of the house. Many people are unaware that you can apply to build on land you don't actually own. If planning permission is granted, that may well encourage the original applicant to sell to you.

Finally, an increasingly popular option in high priced areas like the South East is to buy a run-down property and replace it. At least you know that planning permission exists for a dwelling on that spot, even if the new house - as sometimes happens - has to cover the same footprint.

Planning permission

You are buying land on which planning permission has been granted for a dwelling to be built. There are three forms of planning permission. Outline consent grants the right to build in principle - only rough details of the eventual house are needed.

You then have three years in which to submit a further application to establish ‘reserved matters’, which give precise details of the proposed development including appearance, layout, access and scale. This gives you the right to actually start building, and lasts for two years from the date it’s granted. Alternatively, you can apply for full planning permission straight off. Once granted, the consent lasts for three years.

If you are buying a listed building to convert or renovate - or you plan to build or convert within the boundary of one - you will also need listed building consent.

Plots sold at bargain prices without planning consent are, in almost all cases, a gamble not worth taking. Generally speaking, if planning consent had been possible, it would have been obtained, and the plot sold at a much higher price.

Read Top Tips for Finding Your Plot on the PlotBrowser website.