As anyone who knows me will testify, it would be fair to say I am not the most organised of people. I can spend weeks with unopened letters in my bag and, as my mother will maintain, I can be seen to live my life in a bit of a dream. My favourite phrase is: Things will sort themselves out. Not ideal characteristics, it has to be said, for someone embarking on their first self-build project.
The self-builders I have met over my eight years-plus of working on Homebuilding & Renovating magazine all seem to take the whole thing terribly seriously. They approach, quite rightly, a project of this magnitude with an armoury of things like folders, diaries, receipt spikes and, heaven forfend, Excel spreadsheets. God knows I tried to do this during my wife, Sarah, and I’s first self-build project. I visited our local Staples. I stared determinedly at several spreadsheets. I even put some correspondence into an expanding document wallet. But my self-build diary remained unfettered by daily comments. I have lost more than a few receipts in my time, and the ultimate self-build sin – I never came close to working out an exacting budget. So, believe me, if someone as phenomenally useless as me can build a house, it really isn’t that difficult.
For a couple such as us, both in our 20s, with what might generously be called a limited amount to bring to the table in terms of financial backing and building skills, to attempt to build our own home might be considered a trifle foolish. Certainly, at times during the two-year-long project, Sarah and I felt a little envious as our friends jetted off to enjoy expensive holidays and spent money on nice cars, while we struggled with the complexities of an underfloor heating layout. But sitting in the finished home with the building dust finally settled, we are both convinced its one of the best things we ever did.
Having decided to self-build, we engaged in a rather frustrating plot-hunt which we had practically given up on. Finally, having rejected yet another plot for being too far away from civilisation, we told ourselves that we’d take a break from it all when, calling into a pretty market town for lunch, we drove past that mirage, the self-builders oasis – a plot with a For Sale sign outside.
Three days later it was ours. It certainly didn’t appear to be an idyllic site – it was a section of a larger corner garden a neighbour had divided into three and sold off, and looked in truth rather scruffy and awkwardly shaped – but with a bit of vision I knew that we could do something with it.
Having considered a lot of construction and build options, I narrowed down our choices by working out what would be best for our situation. We’re both busy people and I realised that we couldn’t possibly manage the day-to-day elements of a building site – chasing up materials and labour – and I also knew that we needed experts around us to make up for our own lack of building experience, so I realised that I would have to either contract a local builder or call in the services of a package supplier. In the end I did both. We had long been admirers of not just Design & Materials excellent bespoke house designs, but also their close-knit, small-company ethos – they were people we definitely wanted to do business with and we knew that the reassurance of having them in essence organise our schedules would be perfect. Having seen one too many Grand Designs shows I was also determined to ensure our design could realistically be built for our budget, which I knew D&M had years of experience in. We were very lucky also in that, after months of chasing, Keith and Darren Watkins at Bewdley Building Company – the builders we wanted – became available to start. After eight months of agonisingly kicking our heels, the build seemed to start in a rush.
With D&M corresponding directly with the builders in terms of getting materials to site, work continued apace and, in truth, there were times when we both felt a little disconnected from the project. Its difficult to feel ownership of a muddy construction site when you ponce in from a morning in the office discussing which shade of pink would work best on a cover, to find the team listening to a loud radio and doing real jobs, like bricklaying or mixing cement.
In truth, the only significant causes of sleepless nights were financial worries. As we watched our savings quickly drain away, I turned writing cheques bigger than you can ever imagine into an artform. I made a few trips back to the friendly managers at my local HSBC, who were immensely supportive and patient. I have to confess that I never really established a budget for the project – I knew in general terms what I spent but when people ask us if we went over budget, the answer is yes, of course, but not disastrously so. I would put that down to the use of an experienced builder and package supplier, and a pointblank refusal to make changes on site.
As money began to slowly run out, we could afford to use the builders less and less. Unfortunately for us that meant we had to rely more on our own efforts. Never again will I try and fit skirting boards. And, let me give you some advice – if your windows have as many glazing bars as ours and you decide that you can save a few hundred quid by getting them delivered unpainted and do it yourself instead, think again. The one time Sarah actually wept was after giving a third delicate coat to a glazing bar on our 12th window in a heatless, windy shell of a house in midwinter.
We had bags of help from long-suffering family members. We sacrificed two years of great holidays. We still have no money for great furniture and we remain haunted by the bits of finishing off I can’t simply bring myself to do. One of the great untold (until now) disappointments of self-build is that you always think you’re going to one day walk into the finished house, enjoy a nice glass of something cold and say, ‘yes, we have done it, aren’t we brilliant’. That never happens. There’s always something else to finish off. That said, we are delighted with what we have achieved. We have a home that is much bigger and better than anything we could have afforded to buy for the same money. We love living here – it is truly a great house to live in – and feel terribly sophisticated when we have friends round for dinner. Things like underfloor heating, remote-control showers and a mighty raised deck make us realise how lucky we are to have taken this thing on.
A few too many of the case studies we publish in the magazine end with the hackneyed question, Would you do it again? Our answer would be, absolutely. Indeed, we are looking for plots already. While we love the house, we both know that we have learned a lot and are itching to get started again. I’d recommend the process to anyone. Having been a little bit reluctant about self-building initially, Sarah is the one now pushing it rather than the other way around. Self-building has served us well; it has given us a massive boost and, believe me, Sarah knows a good deal when she sees one. And who wants to spend money on boring old holidays and cars anyway?
- Name: Sarah and Jason Orme
- Build Cost: £145,000 (£884/m²)
- Build Time: 11 Months
- Build Route: Package/main contractor/selves as contractor
- Region: Worcestershire