The first step in your self build journey is tracking down a viable building site. Keep yourself ahead of the competition with these hunting tips
Tracking down the right plot for your project is a little more complex than purchasing an existing house. The good news is 13,000 people manage to do just that every year - but if you want the best possible chance of identifying a viable site, it's worth getting to grips with the process first. Here's what you need to know.
Land Finding Routes
Few self builders simply stumble on a great plot by chance and end up building on it. Identifying the right opportunity can take considerable time and effort, so it pays to adopt a multi-pronged approach. So what are the best land hunting routes?
Use your contacts
Tell your friends and co-workers that you are looking for a plot. They may have head of someone selling in your preferred area, for instance, or even have a large garden they'd be willing to split at the right price.
Walk around the locale to identify potential opportunities such as empty land between houses, garden plots or disused garages. If you spot a site you think has scope to build on, approach the owner and let them know you are interested. If the owner isn't obvious and you can't find out via the Land Registry, try speaking to the neighbour.
Talk to locals
Head to pubs and shops in the area you're considering to meet residents, as they may be able to tell you about opportunities not yet listed. Professionals such as architects, building surveyors or planning consultants in the region may be a useful source of leads, too - and you might want to use their services further down the line.
Speak to business owners
Local farmers, breweries, universities and other organisations may have surplus land they want to sell (or would consider selling). Many do so via estate agents, but there's no harm approaching them directly.
Sign up for your Right to Build
Councils are now obliged to maintain official self build registers, thanks to the government's Right to Build legislation. You can record your interest in obtaining a plot and state the type of project you are keen to pursue. If 200 people sign up, the council is then supposed to permission 200 viable sites within a three-year period. You aren't guaranteed land, but the legislation should see the availability of build-ready plots improve dramatically.
Visit the council's website
Local authorities list current planning applications online, usually under the "planning" or "housing" sections - with details of the scheme, who has applied and when. If you find a likely-looking opportunity and can get in touch with the owner before they get consent, you'll be in a strong position to secure a purchase.
Use plot finding databases
BuildStore's Plotsearch lists thousands of sites with planning consent across the UK. Happily, it's also free to use. As well as giving you the chance to find a good plot, this resource helps you get a feel for land prices and availability in different areas. You can also see which estate agents are active in your region.
Check out property auctions
Many good quality plots change hands this way. Auction houses such as Clive Emson, Allsop and Savills sell a variety of sites, so get on their mailing lists for catalogues. Remember that you will need to have finance in place - once the hammer goes down, the contract is triggered and a deposit is due.
Register with agents
Many building plots are still sold through traditional estate and land agents. Monitor the books of both types, as some may have overlooked the planning potential of properties they're selling (eg for a demolish and rebuild opportunity). The personal approach can pay dividends with this route, too - if they know you, they're much more likely to give you a heads up when something's coming onto the market.
What makes a good plot?
Picture the perfect piece of land and it will probably be in a pleasant area, affordable, completely level, easy to access and have good ground conditions, no obstructions and no planning issues that might hamper your plans. Trouble is, that plot doesn't exist (or at least if it did, a big developer probably snapped it up ages ago). In practice, even the best site will require you to make a few compromises. So it's crucial to access contenders properly to check you can get as close as possible to your goals at a cost that stacks up.
Plots generally come with planning permission in place: either outline (which is a fairly loose affirmation that the site can be developed); or full (consent for a particular design). Beware any site that doesn't have a current approval. Land is worth considerably more once consent has been granted, so if the deal looks too good to be true, it probably is.
Once you've spotted a likely-looking opportunity, there are two key questions to ask before delving in further. Can the house you want to build be comfortably accommodated on the plot (eg in terms of size, local property values and like)? And does the existing planning consent allow for that house, or could it be amended to suit? If you can say yes to both of those, then it's worth a bit more research.
In terms of site suitability, you need to check for issues that could increase construction costs (which should be factored into any offer for the land), make it difficult to get the right kind of design for your household, or affect the viability of a project. Some of the most notorious budget-busters include steep slopes, difficult access to services (electricity, gas, water etc) or obstacles such as trees, existing structures and overhead cables. But these issues may not be insurmountable, and with good design some can even be turned to your advantage. A sloping plot is likely to offer great views and the potential for a basement, for instance, and you won't face much competition from developers.
From a planning perspective, check how long is left on the consent. If it's less than about six months and you need to redesign the house or sort out any conditions the planners have put on the permission (such as approval for materials), this could be problematic. It might sound obvious, but you should also scrutinise the plot boundaries to ensure you're buying all of the land included in the approved plans.
If early-stage investigations seem positive, you can move on to more a more in-depth appraisal of exactly how suitable the site is in terms of planning potential and build costs. This will take in things like access, trees, ground conditions, drainage and legal considerations. If you come up with anything you're not sure about, seek advice from suitable professionals. That might mean speaking to your local council about planning matters or engaging a solicitor on the legals.
A planning consultant, architect or specialist design-and-build company may also be able to point you in the right direction or help you undertake a full viability assessment.