Faced with a steeply sloping and densely wooded plot, the architect opted for a longhouse-style home raised on a series of wooden stilts built into steel shoes

Finding the plot of your dreams can be a long drawn-out process but once you find what you think is the one, you have to act quickly. That doesn’t mean, however, that you can dive into the project without due diligence. That’s why the plot buyer must have a checklist in their heads and go through that carefully before making the final purchase decision.

The Approach to the Plot

Your consideration of the plot should start well before you pull up outside it. In fact, before you stop and get out of the car, drive on by and explore the area to see its hinterland.

It’s too late when you’ve bought a plot in the open countryside and discover that, when the wind blows in a certain direction, the smell from the poultry farm makes going outdoors impossible. And however good a plot might be in other ways, if the approach is through an industrial zone or a rundown housing estate, anything you build will be tainted by it.

Does the Plot Have Planning Permission?

Without planning permission it isn’t a plot — it’s simply part of somebody’s garden or the corner of some field. It’s planning permission that turns the land into a plot and gives it real value. Make sure that any consent hasn’t run out of time. Read all of the planning conditions and make sure that they either have been or can be discharged.

Be careful of conditions which require somebody else to do something over which you have no control. Bear in mind, however, that where there is an existing consent it is usually possible to vary it by making a fresh application.

Working Out Plot Values 

A developer looking at a plot for the first time evaluates the profit or margin that they can make. They do this by assessing and adding up the cost of the plot with the build cost and then subtracting that from the probable value of the completed property.

There is a simple formula that works in most cases. That is: land costs (A) + build costs (B) x margin (A + B x 20-30%) = end value (C).

The self builder needs to learn to juggle the elements of this equation to ensure that they do not build in negative equity into their project. 

a cantilevered modern home in a quarry plot

This dramatic cantilevered property, designed by Hyde + Hyde Architects, sits in an isolated quarry on the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park

Check the Access

All sites need access and for all but those in inner-city areas, that access must be vehicular. The best access is obviously to a public highway but many plots are sold with access over a private right of way or driveway. Access to a public highway may involve works to the highway, which can only usually be carried out by an approved contractor.

A private driveway, shared with others, will come with obligations on all parties to maintain the driveway and may place limitations on parking or obstructing the driveway. These details and obligations need to be defined.

Services

At the point of buying the plot, it’s unlikely that the true cost of services will be known, because that will only be available once detailed plans have been sent to the various suppliers. Nevertheless, a guess has to be made.

If electricity is nearby then the provisional costs are likely to be within £1,000. If there is a long driveway then the costs could treble. Water, where you lay the pipe yourself, may cost up to £1,500 and gas, for most plots, will be around £1,000. Road crossings will increase those costs. Sewage connection in a footpath should be around £1,000 and in a road that will treble.

Ground Conditions

Poor ground conditions will affect your costs. Look out for the natural vegetation, which should give you a clue about what sort of subsoil you have — oak for clay, beech for chalk, alder for high water table, sedge grass for bad drainage, and so on.

The need to switch from a standard strip foundation to a normal trenchfill foundation may add 50% to the groundwork costs. And the need to go to a deep trenchfill will push the groundwork costs up by 170%. Yet all of these figures are unlikely to impact on the viability of the project or increase the overall costs by more than 10%.

Trees

The presence of trees on or around the plot may make the site attractive. Alternatively, the trees may impact on the space that’s available for building, especially if they have Tree Preservation Orders on them, prohibiting them from being lopped or felled.

However, the biggest impact may be on the type of foundations that you have to employ. The presence of trees with clay means that extra precautions have to be taken, not only to counter the effects of the trees if they remain but, also, to counter the effect of any removal of the trees. This may result in ‘heave’, where the ground rises as moisture that would have been removed by the trees is retained in the subsoil.

a stilted timber frame home on a flood plain

Faced with a flood-prone plot near the River Thames, the architect for this project raised the contemporary property on timber posts above steel piles

Site Topography and Features

A sloping site is going to add to the costs of construction and may dictate the design. Always get a levels survey done as soon as possible but in the meantime, try to assess the levels by means of any fencing. Each fence panel is likely to be two metres long. Standing well aside, sight a level line from the top of the fence on the lower land, along the fence towards the higher end and then measure the difference — this will give you the angle.

Watch out for stiles, indicating footpaths and overhead lines. Look out for manholes indicating sewers or services crossing the plot.

Neighbours and Neighbouring Properties

Neighbours are a great source of information. Unfortunately, you will have to learn to sift what is general and useful information from their possible reluctance to see the land developed. Try to keep them on side. You have got to live with these people one day, after all.

Neighbouring properties are going to influence design. At the very least, if there is a general conformity of design, the chances of bucking it are slim. And in a Conservation Area the chances are that whatever you build will have to conform to the vernacular features and materials of the adjoining property.

Legal Impediments

When you first see the plot you may not know everything that’s in the title. Keep an eye open for possible ‘ransom strips’, where the land doesn’t quite meet the highway (not counting the grass verge or footpath). The strip, which may be only centimetres wide, might be in the ownership of somebody else who will, almost certainly, want money to allow you to cross it.

Watch out for covenants and easements. Some may be in your favour and others may be restrictive. In many cases, restrictive covenants may have fallen by the wayside over time, but they may still exist and they need to be dealt with. The simplest way is often by means of a single premium indemnity policy.

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