20 Tips for Plot Hunting Success

aerial view of village of houses
(Image credit: iStock)

Finding the perfect plot for your project is the vital first step for those looking to build their own homes, but it can be a daunting and frustrating process for first-timers.

Here, Homebuilding & Renovating experts, who have been there and done it (multiple times) share their tips for plot hunting success.

1. Open Your Eyes up to Opportunities

If you drive around your favourite towns or villages, you’ll see plenty of potential plots. They’ll be old buildings that have fallen into disrepair or disuse. They’ll be large side gardens that in the street scene have become incongruous due to the fact that many of their neighbours have developed similar plots.

They could be large back gardens where a plot could be formed with its access either running through from the road at the front or, better still, from an existing side access. They could just be vacant parcels of land hidden away behind walls or hedges. Plots are everywhere.

Why are they still there? Because either those who own them don’t realise their potential, or they’ve decided they don’t want to cash in on that potential just yet.

David Snell, plotfinding and self build expert

2. Look at Local Planning Applications Online

Identify building plots before they come on to the market by scouring weekly lists of planning applications and decisions — usually published on local authority websites. You can also use Google Maps to identify infill plots as gaps in the streetscene that might have potential.

Sally Tagg, planning consultant and MD of Foxley Tagg Planning

3. Get on Estate Agents’ Lists

There’s no harm in registering with local estate agents as well as online sites, such as Rightmove, but it shouldn’t be the only thing you do. In most areas there are only one or two agents who are likely to deal with land — identify them and pester them to keep you informed.

David Snell

4. Knock it Down and Start Again

The easiest way to find a building plot is to buy a dilapidated house on a good site. This means, critically, that the principle of a house is already established, and you won’t be battling with planners for change of use. You could potentially live in the house for a couple of years while you are thinking about what to do.

Piers Taylor, architect and founder of Invisible Studio Architects

(MORE: Should You Demolish and Replace?)

5. Approach Potential Plot Vendors

If you find a good opportunity that isn’t on the market, you must obtain the courage to knock on the owner’s door and ask if they’d like to sell. They may tell you that they’re fed up with being bombarded with requests to sell their land. But they may be willing to entertain your ideas.

The thing to impress upon them is that you’re not a developer — you’re a self builder who wants to create their own home and anything you build will preserve the value and amenity of their home.

David Snell

6. Enlist the Help of Professionals

Whether you call upon local architects, builders, package suppliers or planners, speaking with those in the know can unlock plenty of opportunities that others hunting for a plot might miss.

The first step is make contact with local builders and architects. Chances are, if you drive around the area you will notice builders’ boards with their contact details on. Speak with them to see whether they know of any land for sale in the area that the bigger developers aren’t interested in — they will have plenty of insight which you can benefit from.

Daisy Jeffery, former HB&R Features Editor

7. Hit the Auction

A large number of good opportunities go through auctions — either specialist auction houses or the auction arms of local estate agents. They’re not always well advertised unless you register first, so establish the key agents in your area who sell through auctions and get on their list for catalogues. The majority of disposals from major companies, former national utilities and repossessed properties go through this route.

Plotfinder.net has comprehensive relevant auction listings (subscriptions start at £5 per month). If you see something you like and have satisfied yourself of its viability, make an offer before the auction date. 

Jason Orme, HB&R’s Editorial Director

8. Challenging Plots can Yield the Best Designs

The most interesting sites for new builds are the funny leftover parcels of land that are typically overlooked but can be found in many places in our cities and towns. These might be easements owned by statutory authorities and rail networks, or brownfield industrial sites or old garages — all with constraints that, for the resourceful, can be overcome.

Piers Taylor

9. Consider Custom Build and Serviced Plots

If you can get in touch with like-minded self builders in your area and act together to raise funds, you could buy a plot that perhaps would be out of the reach of an individual self builder. There may also be custom build enablers and/or serviced plots available in your local area.

Hundreds of plots are beginning to come to market through these routes, thanks to developers and local authorities releasing land for large-scale individual homebuilding.

Daisy Jeffery

10. Do More than One Viewing

A first look will really concentrate on whether the plot is in the right location and price range. Only then can you begin to assess where the boundaries are and how wide and deep the plot is. It’s always a good idea to drive on past the plot and approach from a different direction to gain a different perspective.

Always make a second visit before you take matters further; you’ll notice things you didn’t see before. You’ll notice where the neighbour has encroached on the land and may be seeking to gain permanent possession of part of the plot. You’ll look out vegetation that might either impede the development or give an indication of conditions below ground.

Back home you’ll be able to make some checks on property values and you’ll be able to make a clearer assessment of value.

David Snell

(MORE: Guide to Plot Viewing)

11. Don’t Assume You can Cut Down Trees on Site

Check whether any trees on site are subject to a Tree Preservation Order (TPO). If a plot features a tree – or trees – with a TPO, then any design scheme must take into account the preservation and protection of that tree.

David Snell

You’ll need a good solicitor experienced in conveyancing for the particular issues that a building plot throws up (as opposed to a house). These include checking for covenants, easements, access, rights of way, and so on.

You should be clear with them about what you want to do — it is then their responsibility to make sure it can happen.

Jason Orme

13. Check Planning is in Place

Make sure your chosen plot has a current planning permission and that it has not expired or is about to expire. There is no guarantee that you will be able to successfully reapply.

Bear in mind, too, that the permission the site actually comes with is unlikely to match your dreams entirely. There is nothing to stop you continually applying for your chosen design, but the existing design (and approvals process in particular) should give you a good clue as to the possibility of, say, increasing the approval from a bungalow to a two-storey home.

If you do happen to find a plot that already comes with outline or detailed planning permission, then assess this consent carefully and be sure that if the plot has outline planning permission, that again this hasn’t yet run out. Look at the Design & Access Statement that accompanied the original application to see what the potential of the plot is.

David Snell

14. Beware Covenants and Ransom Strips

If a small strip of land – it may only be 150mm wide – between the plot and the highway isn’t included in the plot, it may be a ransom strip. A ransom strip may exist to prevent the land being developed. Maybe that is its sole purpose, but more often than not its purpose is to extract payment for its release.

It comes about most often when a party agrees to sell land with little or no immediate prospect of it being built upon but they want to have some benefit or clawback if it ever does get planning permission in the future. The normal or recognised value of such a ransom strip is one third of the uplift in the value of the land with planning permission over and above its value without it.

Another way of obtaining a clawback is for the land to be sold with a covenant requiring payment of a specified amount or percentage, in the event of it being developed or developed further than originally envisaged. Your solicitor will want to make you aware of such a covenant in their report on title, prior to formal contracts being exchanged.

However, your solicitor may not be aware of, or may not notice, any discrepancy in the measurements of the land leading to ransom strip. Which is why a careful survey is always to be recommended.

David Snell

15. Check it Stacks up Financially

Work out your rough build costs using HB&R’s free calculator, add them to the plot price and you should end up with a figure that is at least 20% below the estimated value of the finished house (get the selling agent to estimate one for you).

If the end value will be less than the land and reasonable build costs (plus a small profit margin), you will be in a good position to negotiate the plot price down.

Jason Orme

16. Check Ground Conditions

It’s a good idea to commission a soil survey as soon as possible to determine the ground conditions and subsoil type before carrying out work. It is often just as well to also talk to the building inspectors at the local authority — they will have seen everything that has been built in the area and their profound knowledge could end up saving you a fortune in the long run.

Even in worst-case scenarios, it is unlikely that any extra foundation costs will endanger the viability of the plot. They may, however, restrict what you can build.

David Snell

If you find a suitable plot but it does not have planning permission, you will need to enter into a contract with the landowner. This should be conditional on achieving consent — never agree an unconditional contract, which effectively means that you will buy the site regardless.

Sally Tagg 

18. Watch out for Japanese Knotweed

Japanese knotweed is number one on the list of the UK’s most invasive plant species. It can break through cracks in mortar, expansion joints in concrete, splits in drains and joints in paving.

The most common form of damage, however, is caused by laying a hard surface, such as asphalt, concrete, patio slabs and the like, over Japanese knotweed-infested ground. Covering over the plant might hide it temporarily, but it won’t solve the problem in the long term.

There are a few different methods for eradicating it, and getting a reputable professional in is advisable.

Nic Seal, MD of Environet

19. Invest in Good Design

Often, planners are seen as the enemy, or as wanting the most banal of house designs, but in my experience, they are far more intelligent than people give them credit for.

If the principle accords with policy, planners will usually be delighted to see a well-designed alternative to a dumb, ‘fitting-in’ box.

Aim high for the best possible building, with the best possible architect. Good design has real currency here, and will, above all else, help you gain consent.

Piers Taylor

20. Check the Access and Services

A ‘plot’ is not a plot without proper access. If it’s got planning permission, then the original application will have included details of the access arrangements.

Never forget that planning says that you may build; it does not say that you can build. If there is a legal or physical impediment to you building then that impediment is not overruled by the granting of planning permission. So if there is a need to bring in or pay off third parties in order to obtain an access or visibility splay, this needs to be dealt with before you purchase the plot and any costs should be either paid by the vendors or reflected in the price you pay.

In a similar vein, principal services such as sewerage will also have been referred to in the application. But just because it says ‘connection to mains drainage’ does not necessarily confer a right to do so. If a third party agreement has to be made, then this needs sorting out in your favour before you make the purchase.

David Snell

(MORE: Does Your Plot Have Access Issues?

Lindsey Davis