Build Your Dream Home In The Country's Mark Millar gives his self build advice — plus what NOT to do!

portrait shot of presenter Mark Millar on self build building site
(Image credit: Channel 5)

Build Your Dream Home In The Country presenter and DIY SOS star Mark Millar has pretty much seen it all when it comes to building work, always bringing his 'can do' attitude to every disaster. 

And there's no better example of how his experience and upbeat outlook can help shape a build, with his latest show, Build Your Dream Home In The Country, which is airing on Channel 5 at the moment.

So when we had the chance to speak to him about the show and to find out exactly how he always seems to make a job run with ease, we jumped at the chance. And the first thing he told us was that, like with housebuilding, lots of problems can be avoided by starting off on the right footing with your building contractor.

Knowing how and what to nail down with your builders before work starts on your self build or renovation comes with experience. So Millar – who has 30 years of experience in the industry – has some pointers to help those building for the first time.

1. Ask to visit your builder's previous job

Choosing a builder can be a minefield but the best way to find the best – and weed out any you won't want to work with – is to first pick a builder based on recommendations, then ask plenty of questions and see photographic evidence of their work, explains Millar.

"I'm a great believer in recommendation," Mark says. "Talk to your friends and family and people around who you know have had extensions built to find a builder. It's so important that you do your research because this is your money that you've worked very hard for."

Ideally, he adds, ask to visit the builder's last job yourself so you can speak to a previous client and see how they got on with them. If they aren't local, ask for their telephone number.

Millar had a good list of questions you should ask too. He said: 

  • "Ask them if they were reliable, and did he turn up every day?
  • did they get the job completed on time?
  • how were they when it came to extras? Were these discussed with you before they were carried out?
  • when the job was finished, was the snagging list covered before you made the final payment?"

2. See if the estimates include rubbish clear up

One of the difficulties at the moment is that fixed price contracts are often no longer fixed due to the changing price of materials, explains Millar. If you have a smaller job, say four or five weeks, then a fixed price might still be possible but if you are looking at anything longer than that, more than likely you'll be working off an estimate. 

And that's where things can get tricky and if you don't have a fair and honest builder, it can leave you open to being overcharged. Unfortunately some builders will deliberately underestimate the work to secure the job, explains Millar, saying that spotting this is about scrutinising the estimate to make sure everything is included.

"I would get three estimates and weigh them all up and what each estimate delivers and what it's going to do for you," he says. "One really important thing to look at on estimates is that the rubbish is cleared up and taken off site and that is included on the estimate."

3. Don't just go with the cheapest estimate

Getting a number of estimates from different builders is important, but don't always simply go with the cheapest. This can often end up costing more, if the builder has underestimated how much the job will cost and comes back to you later to add on additional things that weren't included.

Knowing which is the best estimate comes with experience, says Millar. "But you should look at people's estimates and see what they are covering. Also, I think it is really important to look at an estimate and see how far away that contractor is from your job and what the travel time is. 

"Have they considered all that if they are going to have an hour and a half travel or 10 minutes travel? This is really important because someone who's travelling a long way is suddenly paying a lot of money on fuel and all those things start adding up. And then they start adding extras in." 

When it comes to extras, adds Millar, never accept an extra unless you've discussed it and said you are happy and ideally have it confirmed in writing. 

4. Play it straight and always insist on invoices

Any good builder that's out there will be more than happy to be straight down the line with you, explains Millar. It's the ones who start claiming they will save you money by knocking off VAT with WhatsApp Agreements only rather than proper invoices, that you need to watch out for, he says. This can leave you open to be overcharged as you have no invoices detailing the work you've actually paid for.

"You may as well say to the contractor well if I'm paying you cash for that job at say £5,000 you're not paying the VAT on it and you're not paying the corporation tax on it so maybe you should make it cheaper again. And then you'll watch them run a mile," Millar explains. "Be straight, go straight down the line. You're going to gain more than you'll lose."

5. Manage your own expectations

"The homeowner needs to know that you need to break eggs to make an omelette. You're going to make mess, you're going to make noise, that's how you build," Mark begins.

"A lot of clients are lovely. However, with a few, you can sit around the table and have a bit of cake discussing a job and then suddenly it's like Jekyll and Hyde and you turn up and they're precious about everything," says Millar, explaining that it can make it very difficult doing a job with the owner intervening too much.

It's also about having respect for your contractor and builder and understanding that these people have lives too.

"People in this industry are creative, they are hard working, they are the people that put the roofs over your head," he adds. "They build the hospitals, the schools, the police stations... everything that is in our infrastructure."

6. Talk about working hours before the job starts

When people complain about the hours builders work, they often forget how physical the job is, says Millar. That said, there are some builders out there who do take the mickey with hours and the best way to deal with this is to have a conversation with your builder about working hours at the very beginning.

"The one thing I would state when I was taking on a job, is that I'd like to know what hours they're doing," he says. "Do they work weekends? What time do they start work and what time they finish? Will they clear up every night when they finish? This is something they should be doing."

7. Ban mobile phones from the building site

This is a really good one for getting the job done quicker, as well as it making the working environment safer.

"You speak to the boss, you say you don't want mobile phones being used on your job during the day," explains Millar. "You could lose an hour off each man by taking texts and phone calls through the day.

"Get them to put the phone away, leave it in their van. Do not take it on the job, go and check their messages at lunch time and say to your contractor this is one thing I don't want. I don't want people on this build on mobile phones."

If you have six builders, each losing an hour a day on the mobile phone, that's six hours labour you are losing every day of the build. It soon adds up.

"That's nearly a day's work for somebody. And they'll probably be happier after a couple of days away from the phone. It's such a nice thing to step away from," Millar adds. "You'll get more done, you won't have all those stops, you'll have momentum and the job will move further forward."

8. Talk about the site radio

It's worth having a conversation about the site radio too if your build is in a built-up area, says Millar. Nip all these things in the bud at the very start.

"Are you happy with the site radio blasting all day? Think of the neighbours because you don't want to come home from work at night, sit down and have your neighbours come round to complain when you're having your tea."

9. Don't forget to draw up a builder's contract

This is a simple one, says Millar. "I would always have a contract in place all the way through the build. No matter what size it is."

Failing to agree a contract leaves homeowners open to all sorts of problems, from being overcharged to builders not showing up, not to mention disputes about who should pay when building problems arise. You can find more information about building contracts in our guide.

10. Never underestimate the weather

In the construction industry, the one thing that knocks our body clock out is the weather, says Millar. All the way through, builds can get delayed with weather conditions. The weather can affect drying times as well as conditions, turning a site into a complete mess because of the amount of rain turning the ground into clay.

"If you're on a fixed price you are safe, the only thing is you will have to put up with builders a little longer sometimes," says Millar. But if you aren't, it can end up costing you more. This can mean any subbies scheduled to come in like plumbers, electricians and plasterers may need to be pushed back. "The whole timescale can get knocked out," he adds.

11. Pay for a job AFTER you've inspected it

Some cowboy builders can do a good job of making a job look pretty at surface level, hiding the fact that's they've bodged it underneath.

Maybe 20 years ago, there was this one job that really upset me, explains Millar. These guys had come in to lay a floor in a property at ground floor level. Somehow they managed to cut the joists too short by 200mm so they didn't reach from one wall plate to the other. 

It all looked perfect from the top but underneath, when I closely inspected it, I saw that they'd taken car jacks and jacked up this bit of timber underneath the floor and just left it there.

"It was another case of a cash job to pay the builder and they'd gone and there was no getting them back to fix it," he said.

12. Avoid bespoke sizes for windows and doors

When you are drawing up your project, think about using a size that comes off the shelf for windows, doors and rooflights if you have a small budget.

"It will reduce the price of the build by an awful lot," says Millar. "If you can get a four door bifold for example straight off the shelf, don't try and stretch it to a five door."

Stretching to that bespoke five door, could end up costing you an extra thousand or even more. "Anything that is not off the shelf is going to cost you a lot more money so see if you can do your build using window and door sizes that come straight off the shelf."

13. Don't forget to work as a couple

If you are taking on a build as a couple, rather than alone, don't forget to support your partner during the project and vice versa. 

"You have to work as a couple. Take a role, whoever is going to project manage it, the other person is going to project manage them emotionally and physically. They need to be looked after because when it comes to self build or doing extensions yourselves, all that sort of stuff, you really do need someone there to pick you up at the end of the day," Millar adds.

14. And... you can still do a lot with a small budget

Mark Millar's new show, Build Your Dream Home In The Country, features one young couple Rob and Becky who renovate a large five-bedroom house in Gloucestershire with only a £60,000 budget.

"This couple were the happiest, most in love couple I've ever come across in my life and to be honest it wouldn't have mattered if that cottage was falling down around their ears, it wouldn't have affected them," explains Millar. 

"But there was water problems with the house, there was moisture coming in, there was damp, there were electrical problems, the land had to be cleared, there was a well... They had a catalogue of disasters going on in this house."

However, if you have the skills and can do all or some of the work yourself, you can make a small budget stretch, as this couple showed, hand-building their own kitchen and taking on all the lime plaster work themselves.

"They did only have £60,000 but what they'd done is recycle and upcycled all the way through the build," he says. "They did run out of money so it took a little bit more recycling and upcycling to get the build finished but nothing dampened their spirits. That was a build that was built with love."

The programme airs tonight at 7pm on Channel 5.

Amy Willis

Amy spent over a decade in London editing and writing for The Daily Telegraph, MailOnline, and before moving to East Anglia where she began renovating a period property in rural Suffolk. During this time she also did some TV work at ITV Anglia and CBS as well as freelancing for Yahoo, AOL, ESPN and The Mirror. When the pandemic hit she switched to full-time building work on her renovation and spent nearly two years focusing solely on that. She's taken a hands-on DIY approach to the project, knocking down walls, restoring oak beams and laying slabs with the help of family members to save costs. She has largely focused on using natural materials, such as limestone, oak and sisal carpet, to put character back into the property that was largely removed during the eighties. The project has extended into the garden too, with the cottage's exterior completely re-landscaped with a digger and a new driveway added. She has dealt with de-listing a property as well as handling land disputes and conveyancing administration.