Finding a plot for a self build boils down to putting in the work to look for it and a sprinkle of good luck. In order to find and secure a building plot, you're up against some stiff competition — and not only from other self builders. Professional land finder, small builders and the rest of the development industry are all also searching for great build plots.
If this is your first self build, you might not even know where to start, so we've pulled together 21 places to look (and those to avoid) to set you off on your self build journey.
"None of these suggestions are a guaranteed route to a site, although some are easier to follow than others," says architect Julian Owen, self build expert and author of Self Build: How to design and build your own home. "For the best chance of success, try as many of them as you can manage."
1. Keep an Open Mind
Refusing to compromise on a build plot can be a major stumbling block in your hunt for land to self build on. If you're not willing to accept anything but the 'dream', you're unlikely to find success in purchasing a plot, as these plots without fault just don't exist in many cases.
"If you have some very rigid requirements about where you want to live, the constraints imposed by the the available sites may dictate what type of house you will build," explains Julian. "On the other hand, if you have a firm idea of the character of the house you want to build, then you should be more flexible regarding the location. For example, if you want to live in a classic English village, the chances of getting planning approval for an innovative, modern design are, sadly, slim. If you can compromise and match your desired build style to your dream location, you improve your chances of achieving your main goal, by widening the choice of plots."
(MORE: 20 Tips for Plot Hunting Success)
If an existing property is in a poor state of repair, is a small property on large land or is a bungalow, the sellers may not realise the potential the land has as a building plot, as it may not be out of the question to demolish and replace on the land.
2. Understand the Different Types of Plot Available
When you are trying to find the perfect plot, it often helps to think outside the box. Yes, many plots come packaged as a plot with planning permission, but often pieces of land are ripe for building a home on, but not advertised as such.
It therefore helps to understand the many different types of self build plot which may be available to you, if you are willing to look that little bit harder. For example, there may be a small plot sitting behind some existing house, not visible from the street. And don’t overlook houses that are for sale that may not be what you are looking for, but could be demolished and replaced with the home of your dreams.
3. Study Maps
Using Google Maps and even Streetview is a huge boost to the armoury of the would-be self builder looking for plots. You’ll be able to identify gaps in the streetscene, small bungalows on large bits of land, and potential backland plots, all of which are ripe for redevelopment.
4. Get to Know the Area
At the start of your search, you need to familiarise yourself with the area, and gather as much information on it as possible. Even if you are looking in your own neighbourhood, you may be surprised by what you find out with a little research.
To be effective, you need to focus in on selected towns, villages or suburbs. If you pick too large an area at the start, your resources will be spread too thinly.
While most of us are accustomed to searching for stuff on a mobile or behind a screen, there’s actually no replacement for getting out and about when searching for land. You might think you know the area you’re searching, but it’s easy to overlook the details that could lead to you identifying a parcel of land that might be suitable to build on.
5. Use Specialist Search Engines for Finding a Plot
Specialist plotfinding websites are an essential part of any plot search. Because they’ve been developed with self-builders in mind, they’re very convenient and a great tool for doing market research and understanding where plots are available and at what price. A great place to start is Plotfinder, but remember, it’s very popular so if you find a good plot you’ll need to move fast to beat the competition.
These can save you a lot of legwork, and offer a good range of sites in different areas. "They are a useful starting point, and at the very least will help you to identify those agents who are active in selling land in your target areas," says Mark Stevenson, self build expert and MD of Potton. "They will also give you an idea of how much land is coming on to the market, and at what sort of price."
7. Visit Planning Departments
"If anyone wishes to get planning permission approval to build on a piece of land, they must submit an application, which then becomes a matter of public records," says architect Julian Owen. "What this means is that you can walk into any planning department and ask to see the Planning Register, in which all the applications and decisions (where they have been reached) are recorded. Many councils now publish them on their websites."
"What you are looking for is recent applications, preferably outline (i.e. no detailed drawings), for single houses. If an approval has not come through, so much the better. A plot will not usually be advertised for sale until the planning approval has been granted, because this enhances the value, and, if someone spots it early enough, they can make an approach before many others are even aware that it is going to be for sale."
"If you find a likely application, make a note of the applicant’s details and approach them directly; they are usually, though not always, the owners of the plot. If the application is for outline approval there is a good chance that they are planning to sell, because there is no point in getting a detailed set of plans drawn up which may be changed by a purchaser. But sometimes they may have obtained detailed approval, with a full design, probably because the planners have insisted on it."
"Either way, there is no reason why you should not make a polite approach, either by letter or telephone."
7. Pester Estate Agents and go to Auctions
Despite being the most obvious professionals to go to when looking for land, not all estate agents will be able to help you. The commission to be earned on land is not as attractive as that for houses, and many agents — especially the large chains — have no interest in selling land. Local agents, or those which run property auctions, are the most likely to have something of interest on their list, and there are usually at least one or two in a given area who will be willing to help.
Unfortunately, a few less-scrupulous agents would rather sell the land to someone with whom they have an ongoing relationship, like a local builder, because, apart from oiling the wheels of their business network, they are also likely to be the agent who gets the commission on the sale of the newly built house. So don’t just leave your details with them and expect them to call you as soon as they hear of some land that may be of interest. Phone them regularly, and, if possible, visit them as well.
If you are going to sell your house and then rent while you search for a plot, try to chose one of those agents who do sell land. The aim is to try to get into that magic drawer in every agent’s office: the one with the list of ‘hot’ clients, who will get first crack at any good properties the agent is offered.
8. Ignore the Current Planning Permission
Your dream plot may currently have planning permission for a house you would never consider building. When turning pieces of spare land into building plots, the developer will usually submit plans for the least controversial option in order to get the outline planning permission. These are often bungalows or small houses. The reality is that you may well be able to upgrade this planning approval to the kind of house you want.
9. Tell People You're Looking for a Plot
It might seem counter-intuitive in the highly competitive world of land buying, but tell everyone that you’re looking for a building plot. There are lots of people with land they don’t want to build on, so if they know you’re looking they might signpost a hot lead.
Think about the places you’ve been, especially any large gardens you may have visited — they may make ideal building plots, so it might be the time to rekindle relationships with long lost family and friends!
As well as the letter drops we’ve already discussed, consider posting ads in the village shop, on notice boards or on social media. Keep it simple, play up your credentials and never look like a developer as this will put people off. It’s a good idea to offer a small finder’s fee to encourage tip-offs for anything that might lead to a purchase.
10. Consider Custom Build Schemes
In recent years custom build has emerged as a new industry that helps people to build individual homes. Custom build is very different to self build but the end product is the same: a home that you’ve had primary input into the design of.
Where custom build differs from self build is in its delivery. Self builders find their own land, choose and commission designers and builders, and in doing so take on quite a lot of development risk. With custom build, most of these things have been prearranged by a developer or an enabler.
Plots are serviced and have a guarantee of planning consent, and professionals are lined up waiting to work on your behalf. This all reduces the development risk for plot buyers, making custom build very attractive to anyone wanting to build their own home.
As a result of councils having obligations to maintain, including maintaining a register of people who want to build their own homes, we are now seeing councils collaborating with builders and implementing policies to make plots available. Most of these come forward in the form of custom build as part of larger developments.
We also know there are 55,000 people signed up to the Right to Build registers and the numbers are growing all the time. This means that the number of custom build sites coming to market will increase, as councils try to meet demand. For this reason, custom build should be at the top Google search for anyone looking for land.
An ideal place to start when looking for a custom build plot is The Custom Build Homes' Plot Store. Here you’ll find custom build plots throughout the UK along with lots of support to help move your project forward.
11. Befriend Builders
Builders are not your natural allies when it comes to finding land, more your competitors. But there are some circumstances in which you might find a builder that wants to help you. Sometimes a small builder will not want the risk of developing a site, perhaps because of cash-flow problems, and may be prepared to sell you something from their ‘land bank’.
They will, however, usually add a condition that you have to use them to build the new house. This is a serious drawback, because if you agree to it before you have detailed plans and specifications you will find that the construction cost is very high, and every extra above the standard requirements may be charged at the highest possible rate.
12. Beware of Landbanking
There are a few people prepared to exploit desperate, unworldly plot hunters and relieve them of their money, for maximum profit and minimum outlay. These companies offer what are apparently prime potential plots, for a bargain price. The catch is that there is no planning approval. It is suggested that, in the fullness of time, the land may eventually get planning approval, and you will then own a prime building plot.
The truth is usually that although the land may get approval one day, it probably never will, and you have wasted your money. If you are considering taking up one of these offers get independent advice first, regardless of how attractive it seems. Unfortunately, several of these companies will actually refuse to deal with you if you try and take independent advice as to the viability of these sites — which should be all the warning you need.
(MORE: How to Value a Building Plot)
There is a huge army of seasoned experts out looking for ‘the real thing’, backed by big money from developers who will risk significant capital to acquire the rights to future development land long before it becomes available — sometimes decades in advance. The hard truth is that these bona fide organisations are not going to sell this land to you, but will build their own housing development, because the profit is far bigger. If anyone offers you a bargain plot, unless they are a generous relative, think again.
This is now usually referred to as ‘landbanking’. There are a series of good guides around, from the Land Registry and on the FSA website.
13. Use Professional Land Finders
If trudging the highways and byways isn’t your kind of thing, then employing a specialist land finder might be right up your street. A land finder is an individual or agent who has the skills to search for a plot on your behalf. Their services can be costly and are usually charged either as a percentage of the plot purchase price or as a monthly retainer.
Land finders usually work in the volume housebuilding industry and focus on land with multiple plots to maximise their earnings, but there are some who offer a more personal service focused on individual plots.
Be cautious when it comes to land finders. In theory they offer a great service but in practice finding a plot that suits your individual whims, design aspirations and budget is tough.
If you do decide to employ a land finder then there are three key things that must be agreed from the outset:
- Terms of engagement — what the service will cost and what the terms of payment are.
- Level of service — what you’re paying for. This might include land finding, land appraisal and managing the purchase.
- What they should look for — a detailed scope of what you want to build, your budget, and the type of location you want.
Remember, there’s no guarantee of success when looking for a plot, so avoid non-specific agreements, particularly those that require monthly fees paid monthly on direct debit!
14. Look at Asset Disposal Websites
When we think of finding a building plot we immediately turn to using websites such as Plotfinder, Rightmove and Zoopla. While these are all great tools and cover most of the market, there are other websites that are less well known and may yield a plot with a little less competition.
A good example of this is the Government’s portal for asset disposal. A simple postcode search will identify properties the government is selling, some of which may be suitable for self building. There’s lots of assets that won’t be suitable, such as hospital buildings or large office buildings, but occasionally something appears that might be ideal — such as a disused ambulance station we found online. It was located in a residential area and between two housing developments so consent to replace it with a self build home should be fairly straightforward.
15. Search the Council's Brownfield Register
In 2017, The Town and Country Planning (Brownfield Land Register) Regulations were introduced. These regulations require local authorities to prepare and maintain registers of brownfield sites that are suitable for residential development.
There are a few caveats for sites to be included on the register: they must be 0.25ha in size or support five dwellings or more; they must be suitable in planning terms for residential development and they must be available and achievable. The register is displayed in two parts:
- Part 1 is a comprehensive list of all brownfield sites
- Part 2 lists those brownfield sites that have been granted permission in principle.
The register is a really useful tool for self builders, particularly those who are working as a group and considering larger sites with multiple plots. It offers an opportunity to identify likely sites before they’ve hit the market and it facilitates communication with local councils, who may be interested in helping people signed up to their Right to Build registers to find sites suitable for self-building.
Finding out what’s available in your area is as simple as putting ‘brownfield register’ plus the name of the relevant local authority into your search engine.
16. Use Self Build Companies and Architects
There are a few companies, some connected to kit suppliers or builders, who buy up larger sites, split them into individual properties, and sell them on to self builders.
Check whether you are tied into using a particular firm if you buy a plot. If this is the only way you can get a site in the right area, make sure that you get independent expert advice before signing on the dotted line.
17. Study the Local Plan
Local authority planning departments, in association with national government and county councils, prepare maps and plans of their area that identify which locations are suitable for new development, and the rules that will be used to govern infill sites. This information is published in the form of the Local Plan. It is a useful document, giving the background to planning policy, and can be browsed at the reception of the planning department.
At any given time, a revision of the Local Plan is usually in progress and, if it is going to replace the existing one fairly soon, it can give useful information on sites that may be released for development in the future.
18. Read and Use the Local Paper
Ensure that you get the local paper (often the weekly free sheet is as effective as the daily) on the day it comes out — otherwise other, keener self builders may well have beaten you to the best opportunities. Use the paper proactively — take out an advertisement for ‘Building Plot Wanted’ and play up your credentials as private individuals looking for a nice quiet place to live. People would often rather sell a plot to someone they can choose as a neighbour rather than a builder.
19. Approach Larger Landowners
Self building is now considered a mainstream form of house building, meaning that large landowners who may have traditionally sold land assets to volume housebuilders are increasingly considering self build as a route to sell building plots. From time to time, these landowners will want to sell disused and unwanted sites, many of which may be small and unsuitable for larger builders.
Self builders should look out for these opportunities and may even want to consider making direct enquiries for land that may look to have been forgotten — you never know, yesterday’s pumping station may be tomorrow’s self build plot.
Larger land owners include:
- Government (local and national)
- Canal and River Trust
- Network Rail
- Statutory service providers
- Traditional landowner (e.g. Duchy of Cornwall)
20. What to Look for When Plot Hunting
When you are out scouting an area, you can train yourself to spot opportunities. Once you start thinking like this, stopping and walking through a village while you are on holiday will never be the same again — potential building plots loom up on every road. These are some of the clues that you should look for:
- Large gaps between and behind houses. It is usually easier to get planning approval for development in between, or next to, existing houses. If there is space beside a house, and especially if it has easy access to the road, it is a potential plot. If there is a big back garden, and access for vehicles to get to it down the side of the house, building on a garden plot may be possible.
- Narrow gaps that are not overlooked. Sometimes sites that are apparently too narrow can be used to squeeze in a small house, provided that the access or windows of the houses either side are not affected.
- Look for houses of a similar size and quality to the one you wish to build. The way that houses are valued means that it is less economic to develop a house that is massively disproportionate to those surrounding it. You can end up over-developing, that is spending far more money on a house than you could ever sell it for; or under-developing, that is building too small a house and failing to realise the full potential of the site.
- Vehicle access. Whatever land you find, unless it is near a city or town centre, will have to have parking space, so there must be a way of reaching it by car.
- Disused land and brownfield sites. These are very easy to miss. It takes a lot of imagination to see a petrol-filling station, a telephone exchange, a disused industrial unit, or a scrap yard as the site for a beautiful home, but they all could be, subject to planning approval.
- Site assembly. If you see a number of gardens that are too small for a house, but together could be big enough, take a leaf from the professional developer’s book and consider assembling your own site. It needs tact, patience, and a bit of business acumen, but it has been done — particularly when the homeowners realise that a small bit of their garden can earn them some money.
21. How to Scout Out a Site
If you want to find a potential site that no one has thought of selling yet, there are several rules to follow:
- Select a few key areas, for instance two or three villages or areas of a town. Limit your search to these key areas, in order to ensure that you cover them thoroughly.
- Buy a map that shows houses, for instance OS Pathfinders show houses at 1:25,000. You will be able to use this map to record where potential plots are.
- Walk around your chosen areas since, if you drive, you may miss the less-obvious sites.
- Methodically take details of sites. Note the address, location and size. Take photographs if possible, and draw sketch plans. These details will help you to remember which site is which, after you have visited several one after the other.
- Deliver standard letters to houses adjacent to potential building land, asking the owner to contact you if they are interested in selling. Always be polite and never be ‘pushy’ — people are often suspicious of anyone who makes this kind of approach.
- Talk to locals. Visit the local pubs and shops, and ask if anyone knows of any land for sale. If anybody seems helpful, leave a contact address or telephone number.
Mark Stevenson is a self build expert, MD of Potton & Kingspan Timber Solutions Ltd, and Chairman of the Structural Timber Association
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