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Self Build: The Complete Beginner's Guide

self build guide
This oak frame self build by Border Oak allowed the self-builders to have the level of involvement they required, resulting in a bespoke home tailored exactly to their needs. (Image credit: Jeremy Phillips)

A self build home is the perfect way to create a one-off house, tailored to your specific lifestyle and requirements — and there is more than one self build option out there.  

But the benefits of self build don't end there. Self building provides the opportunity to to create a low-maintenance home designed to change with you as your needs change. It can also give you scope to design in energy efficient, money saving features from the outset.

Contrary to what some people think, self build need not mean that you will be the one on site, roughing it in a draughty caravan, digging foundation trenches or laying bricks yourself. 

There are numerous self build routes available and the one you choose should depend on how much spare time you have, your budget and your skillset — from building your house on a DIY basis or acting as your own project manager to a completely hands-off approach through a package supplier.

Regardless of the route you take, the self build process requires careful thought and plenty of planning and you will need to make key decisions even before any building work begins.

Here, we cover the key things you need to consider before going on site with your self build project — from finding land and securing finance, to gaining planning permission and choosing the best construction system, all the way to snagging and reclaiming VAT on all eligible items at the end of the project.

What is Self Build?

A self build is an individual house that has been commissioned by an individual homeowner to perfectly fit their exact requirements and tastes.

This does not mean you have to get your hands dirty and lay foundations or build walls yourself. While approximately 11,000 self build homes are built each year, less than 10% of those homeowners were physically involved in the process by taking on the building work.

self build guide

Michael and Penny Young's oak frame self build, by Oakwrights, allowed them to create a low maintenance home with sustainable features (Image credit: Richard Kelly)

The majority of self builders choose to be much more involved in the creative process, taking part in the design stages, choosing tradespeople and deciding on finishing touches.

(MOREEssential Resources for a Self Builder)

How Much Does it Cost to Self Build?

On average, a self build house will cost somewhere between £1,000 and £3,000/m² to build.

Estimate your build costs with our free build cost calculator

You will also need to be aware of the factors that may cause your build costs to skyrocket, such as:

  • Location: land prices and labour costs will vary across the country
  • Size: the bigger the house, the more expensive it will be to build (although careful design can help achieve some economies of scale)
  • Plan, shape and layout: the simplest and most cost-effective floorplan is square
  • Number of storeys: multiple storeys make better use of the land and can reduce foundation and roof costs per m²
  • Specification: if you want premium or non-standard products, expect your build costs to rise considerably
  • Involvement: depending on how much of the work you are capable of taking on yourself, you can substantially reduce your build costs

(MORESelf Build Homes for Every Budget)

Reasons to Self Build

  • You could save up to 30% on the market value
  • You can usually build something bigger than you could buy for the same money
  • Your home will fit your exact needs and preferences
  • You can add the latest home technology or sustainability measures at the design stage
  • You can typically enjoy a 25% profit on your investment.

self build guide

The package route taken by the owners of this house, by Welsh Oak Frame, allows a hands-off approach to self build (Image credit: Mark Welsh)

Can First-time Buyers Self Build?

While more traditional self build routes require time and financial input that is unfeasible for most first-time buyers, the idea of custom build may suit. This route removes some of the obstacles faced by self builders, including finding land, securing planning permission and getting services to site.

This is also a more hands-off approach, but still offers the chance for an individual home that meets individual needs.

(MOREHow to Custom Build)

How Do I Finance a Self Build?

You’ll need access to money to buy a building plot, to pay for professional services such as architectural designers’ fees and any site surveys required, and to fund the build itself.

The money may come from savings, equity in your existing home, through a self build mortgage or a combination of all three.

Surprisingly few high street banks provide formal facilities for self build finance so you’ll likely need to approach a specialist self build mortgage provider.

A traditional mortgage (where the finance is released in one lump sum at the end of the project) is not feasible. Self build mortgages differ from traditional mortgages in that the funds are released in stages (either in arrears, where the money is made available after a stage of the build has been completed; or in advance, when it’s released at the start of each build stage).

self build home built on a budget of £100k

Robin Cochrane built his own home for £100,000 in the Scottish Highlands (Image credit: John Need)

Remember, you’ll also need to account for the cost of your plot, which will consume a sizeable chunk of your budget and set aside between 10% and 30% of your budget as a contingency.

Build cost + plot cost + contingency = <the value of your finished house

Finding a Plot for a Self Build

Contemporary family self build

Darren and Lucy Henderson saw the potential in a small brownfield site in Bournemouth that housed four derelict garages. It is now the location of their contemporary family home (Image credit: Simon Maxwell)

Specialist plotfinding services (like plotfinder.net) are incredibly useful when it comes to finding land, but they shouldn’t stop you from being proactive.

  • Study the local area. Drive around or use Google Maps to look for homes on large plots that have either a large side garden, or infill land
  • Contact experts. Some package companies, such as Potton or Border Oak, hold lists of available plots online
  • Visit local auctions. Many opportunities are sold buy auction so it’s worth finding out who the key agents are in your area
  • Check the local authority’s website for recent planning applications. In most cases, details of the owner or agent are included and there is nothing to stop you contacting them directly.

Plots will rarely fall into your lap, so you’ll often need to be savvy to secure one.

(MOREThe Complete Guide to Finding a Plot)

When assessing your plot, look out for:

  • planning permission that has expired, or is about to expire
  • any access issues
  • any covenants
  • services — are they already in place?
  • title deeds — make sure these deeds are ‘absolute’ rather than ‘possessory’ or negotiate on the plot price accordingly

Also, make sure you register with your local authority under the Right to Build, which requires local authorities in England to keep track of the demand for serviced plots in their area.

Open plan kitchen diner in new self build home

Faced with an awkward plot and a tight budget, Tom Allen and Natalie Scroggie have self built a striking contemporary home for £170,000 (Image credit: Jeremy Phillips)

Which Self Build Route to Choose?

The self build process is flexible enough that a self builder can decide just how involved they want to be in the project. Make this decision early as it will have major cost implications.

The majority of projects are handled by a main contractor/builder or subcontractors project managed by the homeowners, but you can choose different routes for different stages of the project, depending on your skills or available budget.

Think about how much time you will be able to dedicate to the project — the more you can be involved, the more money you can save — but this rule only applies if you take on jobs within your capabilities.

Self Build Construction Systems

self build guide

Homeowners Kenneth and Marion MacLean built a contemporary home in Edinburgh on an awkward sloping site — the house was designed to suit them as their needs change (Image credit: Nigel Rigden)

While your choice of superstructure material will have little impact on how your finished self build looks, it is well worth considering the available construction systems:

  • Masonry
  • Timber frame
  • Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs)
  • Insulated Concrete Formwork (ICF)
  • Oak Frame
  • Cross Laminated Timber (CLT)
  • Natural materials, using such materials as straw bales, hempcrete and cob

Some self builders are less concerned with how the house looks ‘under the bonnet’, and are happy to leave the decision with their architect or structural engineer.

How to Design a Self Build

While some self-builders do design their own homes, you’ll more than likely need a designer on board to help you formulate plans for your dream home. This might be an architect, architectural technologist, an architectural designer or an in-house designer at a package company.

Finding a suitable designer and completing the design process is likely to take at least a couple of months but may well take longer.

Do I Need Planning Permission to Self Build?

When you self build, you’ll have to apply to your local authority for planning permission.

The cost of submitting a planning application varies across the UK, but is currently £462 in England. However, the real cost of obtaining planning permission arguable comes from preparing the plans and documents (the design fees) in readiness for submission and any accompanying surveys (such as ecological surveys) that may be required.

You should find out when your local planning authority has approved your application after eight weeks — although more complex schemes can take longer.

All planning permission is granted with conditions attached. Failure to address the conditions will invalidate your consent, making any work done illegal. 

Self Build and the Building Regulations

All new homes need to adhere to the Building Regulations, and as such, a building control inspector will visit at key stages of the build to inspect the work and ensure it complies. These stages include:

  • excavation for the foundations
  • pouring concrete for the foundations
  • building the oversite
  • building the damp-proof course
  • drainage
  • a visit prior to completion
  • a final visit on completion

Establishing Your Self Build Team

You can establish contact with and line up a builder, main contractor, package company and/or subcontractors during the design and planning processes, but you won’t get an accurate quote for the work until your Building Regulations drawings have been finalised.

One of the best ways to find a builder and/or subcontractors is through word of mouth — ask your designer, friends, family or neighbours who’ve undertaken projects, and anyone else you know locally who’s built their own home, for recommendations.

Much like finding a designer, choosing a builder requires plenty of research. It’s best to meet with them to discuss your project and to ask them to quote (your designer can help you to prepare tender documents). It’s also a good idea to visit a project they’ve completed and to talk to previous clients.

The best builders and subcontractors will be booked up months in advance, so it pays to start your search as early as possible.

(MORE5 things you should never say to your builder)

What Self Build Insurance is Required?

As soon as contracts are exchanged on your plot, you will need to have insurance — usually a specialist policy for self-builders. A comprehensive self build policy is advised and will cover any public liability, building works, employers’ liability and personal accident.

Get a quote now to protect your self build.

Getting Services to Your Site

Getting services to your site (if necessary) can cost between £500 and £10,000+, depending on your situation and whether the connection needs to be made across private land (where you’ll need to secure a wayleave to grant access to dig) or public highways (which may involve road digs).

Though electricity and gas are not essentials during the build, a water supply is needed early on.

self build guide

Building a self build home, such as this timber frame house by Oakwrights, presents an opportunity to get a house suited to your exact requirements (Image credit: Mark Welsh)

Where to Live During a Self Build

Very few self builders are in the position to remain in their existing homes while building a new one, so you will need to consider where you are going to live while you build your dream home.

  • Staying with family/friends: the average self build project takes around a year on site, so if you are planning on staying with friends or family, make sure that you are realistic about the timescale of the project
  • Renting temporary accommodation: this is an option, but an expensive one (even more so if your project hits any unforeseen delays)
  • Living on site

How Long Does a Self Build Take?

Once you’re finally ready to start on site, you’ll need to know what happens and when, regardless of how physically involved you are in the process. This typical self build schedule will give you an idea of what to prepare for and when.

What is a Snagging List?

Despite lacking a concrete definition and not being part of the JCT suite of building contracts, it’s generally accepted that snagging concerns identifying parts of the work that have been completed, but may require remedial action prior to official sign-off.

Do I Qualify for CIL Exemption?

The Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) imposes a fee on the creation of new homes, which is determined by the local authority and is based on the size of the house.

The good news is, subject to criteria (i.e. this must be your principal residence for three years or more), self builders are now exempt from paying CIL. However, the four-stage exemption process must be followed to the letter.

How to Reclaim VAT on Your Self Build

New Oak Frame Home on a Greenbelt Plot

Homeowner Shelagh Krasno was able to reclaim £18,000 when she completed her first self build project in Hampshire (Image credit: Simon Maxwell)

One of the major benefits of self build is that you can reclaim VAT on most of the building materials. VAT-registered builders and subbies should also zero-rate their invoices (while, of course, if they’re not VAT-registered, they shouldn’t be adding it to bills in the first instance).

In general, you can reclaim for all materials that are fixed into the house, although interpretation of this can be quite complex.

You can only make one claim (using the VAT 431NB form) and that must be made within three months of the project completion.

Obtain and keep hold of all VAT receipts to submit with your claim. Don’t underestimate the time you’ll save by keeping your VAT receipts safely in one place as you go along.