Topping out

Gerald Cole

Six ways to make a complete hash of your self build

It’s harder than you think

1. Contact your local high street estate agents for their current lists of building plots.

You may be lucky and find one has an ideal plot that has just come onto their books. But don’t count on it. You’re more likely to be greeted by a degree of confusion.

Most high street estate agents concentrate on the sale, purchase and rental of houses and flats. That isn’t to say they don’t handle the occasional plot, or potential plot. They do, but it usually involves local professionals - developers, builders, architects, solicitors - with whom they have an existing relationship. As a result, everyday punters simply walking into a branch are unlikely to attract the same attention.

REMEDY: Turn yourself into a local developer. Establish your seriousness by explaining the sort of plot you’re interested in, your budget, your ease of access to funds, a rough timeline. Then follow up with regular, but not annoyingly frequent, enquiries. Be prepared to visit any prospect an agent suggests, even if it seems unpromising. It adds to your credibility and, you never know, plots or potential plots can appear in the most unlikely places.

2. Contact your existing mortgage provider or your bank to arrange a mortgage for your self build.

Again, expect the odd blank look. Like estate agents, most mortgage providers only loan on existing property. Most banks will regard a loan for a building that doesn’t exist yet as a commercial loan. In other words, not for a property in which you will live.

REMEDY: Go to a specialist self-build mortgage provider (see page 92) or a self-build mortgage broker, who may be able to offer you a more suitable, broker-only deal, though for a fee.

3. Decide an architect is an unnecessary expense. You know what you want. Can’t you simply get someone to draw up your own plans?

Yes, you can. An architectural draughtsperson can prepare plans for a planning application for a fraction of the price of an architect. You can also create your own plans with a free 3D online design package. For games enthusiasts Sims 4 has a Build Mode where you can add furnishings, decoration and even landscaping to your 3D creation.

But plans for a Building Regulations application require technical details, including construction materials, foundations, drains, layouts for pipework and electrical cabling and structural engineer’s calculations. In other words, professional expertise.

REMEDY: Other professionals can provide an architectural service. They include architectural technologists, who specialise more in the engineering and technical aspects of construction: useful if you are planning an eco house or eco-retrofit.

Package companies can also include an in-house design service - potentially a double cost saver since it can be discounted as a sales incentive, and the VAT can be reclaimed on it at the end of the build. (VAT charged on architects’ services isn’t reclaimable.)

That said, if you plan a complicated design or face difficult planning issues, an architect’s expertise is hard to beat.

4. Ask your architect for an indication of the total build cost and set your budget accordingly.

You’d be wiser to set your budget first and then instruct your architect so they can design with that in mind. A good architect is invaluable for obtaining planning permission, clarifying your design needs and ideas and producing elegant, practical solutions. But economics isn’t always their strong point.

Budgets only become real after a specification has been sent out to a selection of contractors and their quotes come in. This often involves a series of shocks, especially in the current economic climate.

REMEDY: The classic answer is to employ a quantity surveyor who will go through your spec with a fine toothcomb, costing every last nut, bolt and tin tack. They will, however, charge around 10 per cent of your budget plus VAT.

More often, however, once quotes are in, the specification is re-examined – with your contractor, your architect or both – to see where costs can be cut. Which takes time and, if your architect is involved, also more fees.

5. Hire a contractor because you like the work they did for a friend/ family member/workmate.

Admiration for a contractor’s previous work is an excellent criterion for choosing a contractor, only matched by glowing recommendations from previous clients. But is this contractor right for your project? Do they have experience of housebuilding, particularly using the methods and materials you want? Or of plots similar to yours?

REMEDY: If at all possible, give yourself a choice - preferably of at least three candidates, which may mean approaching at least twice as many. Talking to them, however, will give you different and often illuminating perspectives on your build, and its costs.

6. Plan to be as hands-on as possible.

Unless you already have building skills, think twice. If you plan to work alongside a contractor, they won’t know your expertise and are likely to be concerned it won’t sit easily alongside their methods and workforce. Will you cause delays if your contribution takes longer than you expected or, worse, has to be re-done? Do you have the building and diplomatic skills to ensure this doesn’t happen?

REMEDY: Concentrate on project management. If it doesn’t very quickly take up most of your time, you’re probably missing something.