1. Architects could help you find the perfect plot

“Get an architect on board early — even before you have bought a site. Most architects will look at a site with you on a simple hourly rate, and a few hours of their time might help you find the perfect site, or avoid buying the wrong one.

“Architects are trained to look for opportunities or problems even the most diligent person might miss. That goes for the rest of your design team too. The earlier you have a complete team on board the better your new home will be, and not to mention cheaper. A coherent and happy project team will create a better project. The best projects are always realised when the client, design team and contractor work together well.

“Be prepared to think outside the box, too. The perfect design might not be the one you had always imagined, or the most obvious one, although sometimes it will be. By exploring design options you will often find the right solution is not as obvious as you think or that, conversely, that exploration will confirm all your initial ideas.”

Tom Gresford, Director of Gresford Architects

Find an architect for your project in our Designer Finder

2. Be wary of plots with planning permission close to expiry 

“It is vital that self builders make themselves aware of the length of time left on any consent as many vendors don’t often sell their plot until some time after the original consent was granted — sometimes with only six months left. That may seem like enough time, until one considers that planning departments can take up to 12 weeks in considering applications for the discharge of conditions. If preparatory work or investigations are needed in order to begin this process, six months could be cutting it fine.

“Therefore, keeping a consent current is the top priority of any plot owner. If in doubt, always purchase subject to the granting or re-granting of planning permission.”

David Snell, plotfinding and self build expert

3. Thinking about the landscaping from the outset could save money

“Work out the amount of topsoil that you will require for your back garden and place this before you start building your substructure. Placing the topsoil early before your house is built will enable larger excavators to be used which are much more efficient and will therefore reduce landscaping cost. If you place either too little or too much topsoil in rear inaccessible gardens then additional money may have to be spent on dealing with it at a time when access has been restricted.”

Mark Stevenson of Potton’s Self Build Academy

4. Prepare for future extensions or conversions

“Insulate the garage floor slab like a house. It’s a low-cost solution, but allows future conversion or use without upheaval”

Bruce J Beaton, project manager

5. Buy your structural warranty before building

“If you think you may sell your property within 10 years, buy a structural warranty before you break ground. Buying it then rather than at the end will save you four to five times the premium. Also make sure you take a minimum of public liability cover on your plot once you exchange on it; accidents happen and legal bills are costly.”

Andrew Reardon of ProAktive Selfbuild

6. Don’t work to a Christmas deadline

“Many self builders make the mistake of setting an unrealistic completion date, based around a family occasion or a key birthday — this is never a good idea as it can add undue stress to an already demanding process. Prepare yourself for the self build roller coaster — there are huge ups and downs throughout the process. From purchasing the plot to planning issues… be prepared!”

Allan Corfield of Allan Corfield Architects

7. Break your self build project into stages 

“Put together a simple bar chart programme using a spreadsheet to plan each stage of the build. As your project progresses, mark off the completed tasks and circulate the updated programme between your subcontractors. If your subcontractors clearly understand the progress on site, you may find that they will plan ahead making themselves available to work on your project when you need them.

“Break up your build programme into distinct phases and plan to complete a thorough inspection before the next phase commences. By defining individual sections of work you will be able to focus on the work that needs to be done which will help you to get everything complete to the right standard before the next stage starts. Example stages would be: site preparation; substructures; building envelope; watertight; first fixing; wet trades; second fixing; finishings; and testing and commissioning.”

Paul Newman of Potton’s Self Build Academy

8. Engage with new neighbours from the outset

“Engage with your new neighbours as soon as possible. Poor neighbourly relations can hinder getting planning permission, building your house and your future life in your new house. It’s never too early to engage with your neighbours and they will be much more supportive if you do so. This doesn’t mean asking for their opinions either — you can just show them what you are intending to do and if they feel strongly about it they are likely to let you know.”

Tom Gresford, Director of Gresford Architects

9. Understand your budget

“Never start building until you have a very clear idea of the costs. Costs can easily rocket and it’s easy to end up in hot water”

Tom Gresford, Director of Gresford Architects

10. Ensure your brief is clear

“The secret of a successful self build project is the appointment of an experienced self build architect, who will lead the project from start to finish. Another secret is the proper development of a client’s brief at the beginning, which clearly defines space and design requirements, and sets a clear limit to the budget for all works. The architect plays a pivotal role to find solutions that are well designed and affordable. But without clear rules the architect will not be able to provide a satisfactory solution for the client and projects usually stall at costing stages.

“There is always the tendency to design larger and grander than the client can afford. Clients need to be very open with their professional consultants with regards to their overall budget and expectations to design a home that fits.”

Oliver Rehm, Managing Director of Baufritz UK

11. Investigate exactly what design fees cover

“Architects/designers present their fees in different formats, which can make it very tricky for the first-time client to compare. For example, a set of Building Control drawings from one architect might only cover the basic Building Regulations issues in order to get you a conditional approval. The drawings might not actually have enough information to issue a good tender, agree a fixed-price contract and to build from. Request an example set of drawings from a previous project so the level of detail and specification can be understood.

“To get the right fee proposal make sure that you brief your architect as to the level of service you actually require. Do you want them to quote for just a skeleton service, whereby the design is progressed just as far as getting the basic shell up? Or do you expect them to assist with lighting design, bespoke staircases and fitted joinery? These bespoke tasks could potentially double design time and therefore fees. It is possible to outsource the design of such items to other specialists, which may save on budget, but might not result in a cohesive design.”

Kate Stoddart, architect and property consultant

12. Bring in expert help at the start

“Planning laws and local policies, particularly for new dwellings, have become very complex so you need to know your way around the system. Creating the right design and steering it successfully through the planning system is no easy task. Few self builders are equipped to tackle this themselves and you will almost certainly need to recruit expert help. My advice is whoever you choose make sure they are highly experienced, have a proven track record and importantly, can provide reliable references for their service.”

Beverley Pemberton, Head of Design at Design & Materials

13. Invest in the fabric of the building

“Investing in the ‘fabric-first approach’ helps to lower your energy costs. Simple adjustments can be made to enhance the energy efficiency of your project. Smaller windows on the north elevation (where there is less sunlight) will reduce costs as well as the amount of heat lost through the building. Larger windows on all other elevations will take advantage of the natural solar gains.

“Do not rely on renewables if your self build doesn’t need them. These are hugely expensive pieces of kit (costing on average £12,000) and are great if you have no other form of heating. However, if you can use mains gas, use it — it could cost around £1,200, saving you over £10,000.”

Allan Corfield of Allan Corfield Architects

14. Plan kitchen and bathrooms early on in the process

“Plan bathrooms and the kitchen before starting on site. The window placement may look aesthetically pleasing from the exterior, but might not necessarily work well with the self builder’s desired bathroom or kitchen layout. Again, door positions and ceiling heights can also impact on the layout. If you catch the plans early enough you can make these changes. With a new build there is a good degree of flexibility as to where you can site the plumbing and waste, so again, it’s important to catch the design early.

“Another issue, particularly in the kitchen, is extraction. Some self builders opt for pitched ceilings or for large rooflights, but then leave it too late to include provision for extraction above an island, for example. This then means that downdraught extraction may have to be included instead, but because the floor slab is already down, it has to be dug up. If a design company is involved in the early stages – ideally before the design is finalised – then provisions can be made and the services can be put in place, thus avoiding costly alterations. But some self builders do not approach a kitchen or bathroom designer until the build is well under way, and can then end up facing the same challenges as those taking on a renovation project.”

Jim Gettings, J&S House of Design

15. Be upfront with your insurance company

“If your costs are increasing during your build let your insurer know. Most policies will have an ‘average clause’ and underinsurance will have a big impact on any claim no matter how small. Also be realistic with your timescales. If your build is likely to take over two years to complete, be upfront with your insurer at the outset. In addition, if you sign JCT minor works clause 5.4B make your insurer aware as it waves their right to subrogate a claim.”

Andrew Reardon of ProAktive Selfbuild

16. Negotiate material prices by phone

“Once there is a properly quantified list of all the materials, get in quotes from builders’ and timber merchants — don’t just turn up with a shopping list and place the order. Quotations are best dealt with by telephone or email, and remember it’s often possible to negotiate better prices on the phone. Make sure all of the prices received include VAT and delivery.

“Try and get at least three quotes before placing any orders. Go to builders’ merchants for the items they sell and timber suppliers for the timber — the timber merchants are far more competitive.”

Peter Eade, builder and project manager

17. Know how your construction method may impact insurance

“The construction you choose may impact on your household insurance. Materials such as timber, straw, zinc and SIPs for example will impact on your household insurance for years to come.”

Andrew Reardon of ProAktive Selfbuild

18. Prevent delays by ensuring materials are on site when needed

“Make your self build the easiest and best place to work for your trades. By being able to get easy access and have all the materials to hand, tradespeople will be much more productive and will therefore be more motivated and committed to your project.

“Consider using local trades wherever you can. Local companies will have a reputation to maintain and will therefore be inclined to do a good job. Ask for references and check these out before you make a final appointment.”

Mark Stevenson of Potton’s Self Build Academy

19. Don’t forget the jobs that fall between trades

“If you’re project managing the build yourself, hiring subcontractors directly, think of yourself as being the conduit via which all responsibility and information will and should flow. The liaison between trades is a vital aspect in the progress of the works, and enables timely resourcing and deliveries of materials. Remember, you are looking to manage the gaps between the identified packages of works. Think of it as hosting a ‘handover’ between one package and the next and acting as a facilitator.

“Don’t be afraid of asking questions either, even if you appear ignorant in the process. When dealing with the unknown, we often ‘clam up’ and don’t want to appear not to be understanding. This is of course the main route to assumption. You are client, manager and boss — be it!

“Make sure that everyone talks to everyone else. Prepare a project directory and distribute it so every member of the team has everyone else’s contact details. Publish the programme. Have a schedule of tasks and plans for each day/week, so the whole team are aware of how they fit into the overall process. Email is good, phone calls are better, face-to-face is ideal.”

Bob Branscombe, project manager and self build expert

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