1. Build Small
The greater the floor area, the greater the cost. Whether you’re going to spend £600/m² or £2,000/m², if you want to build a house for under £150,000, you’re going to have to build a relatively small one. Of course, the ‘small’ of the self-building world isn’t quite the ‘small’ of the regular house: a typical four bedroom developer home might be no more than 100m². Most self-build homes come in at double that, so even a relatively small self-built home will be 150m2 and feel relatively spacious. Many builders will give their initial prices for labour on a cost/m² basis and, of course, the bigger house requires more bricks, blocks, floor ing, roof tiles etc. By keeping your floor area to the more modest end of expectations – 150m² will get you a pretty comfortable four bedroom home – you’ve got every chance of coming in at under £150,000.
2. Build Simple
The more complicated the design, the more cost you’re likely to incur not just in materials but in labour too. Builders spend much more time dealing with valleys, edges, corners and so on, than they do if they’re building straight. It’s the number one reason why commercial developers – who know a thing or two about saving every penny on build costs – tend to prefer Georgian-style designs: they are symmetrical and usually based on a simple box shape. Give two drawings of the same size house to a builder – one in simple box form and one with complicated roof and wall detailing – and the former will always get the cheaper price. The good news is that, done well, a simple design can look incredibly elegant.
Gordon Aitken’s self-built house in Fife is one of the more remarkable budget stories of recent times. His impressively styled contemporary four bedroom one-and-a-half storey house cost just £59,858 (an astonishing £393/m²) to build.
3. Don’t Discount Smart or Eco Features
As the market for renewable energy generation matures and gets more competitive, prices are being driven down to make them much more realistic for self-builders trying to build to a modest budget. Solar panels (for heating) are now achievable for between £2-3,000, while it’s possible to buy heat pumps – both ground and air source – for less than £5,000. These are obviously additional capital costs but you can offset part of the cost against alternative mainstream heating sources. The same applies to smart home technology. Whereas once this was an area that would have been well beyond consideration for budget self-builders, it’s now possible to achieve a fully connected multi-room system controlling audio and visual for in the region of £2-3,000 (try abb.co.uk or digitalplumbers.com). Again, this incurs extra capital cost, but it is no longer the budget-breaker it once was.
4. Get Involved
The more you can contribute to the project in terms of time and effort, the more money you’ll save on build costs. That means not just DIY, but also involvement in other aspects of the project such as managing the site, buying materials and so on. The rule is simple — if someone else does it for you, you’re generally going to have to pay a premium. Now, when it comes to skilled aspects of a project, such as design, electrics, roofing and so on, it is something of a false economy to try and take on jobs that are done better (and quicker) by a professional. But when it comes to the more straightforward aspects of a project that simply require a bit of legwork – for example, ordering in essential site facilities, keeping the site tidy each night, basic landscaping and decorating – you should be able to use your involvement as a relatively easy way of reducing labour costs. Don’t forget that if you’re using a builder to order in materials, he’s likely to be adding on something for the trouble — if money’s really tight, you’ll want to order in as many materials yourself as possible. In the current climate, most builders will be happy for work of any sort — you can use this to your advantage.
5. Build in Blockwork
You’ll spend around 15% of your build costs on the external wall and, metre for metre, blockwork is considered to be the cheapest. According to Dan Mutti at leading package supplier Design & Materials (who offer blockwork and SIPs options), “Blocks are proportionately cheaper now that than ever. Add that to the fact that there are lots of brickies looking for work, and it’s a nobrainer.” Bear in mind, however, that alternative walling systems (timber, SIPs, ICFs) offer different qualities that might reduce your expenditure in other aspects — particularly insulation.
6. ‘Uplook’ Basic Kitchen and Bathroom Fittings
One of the simplest truths of budget analysis for housebuilding projects is that it’s the things you see that cost you the money — not least the kitchen and bathrooms. This is especially true because of the astonishing variation in prices for fittings in these areas. Those whose entire build budget is less than £150,000 might be surprised to learn that there are many new one-off houses in the UK for which the kitchen would account for one third of this entire sum, perhaps more. In no other aspect of material specification for a new house does price vary so wildly and, it could be argued, with so little final effect. The good news for the more money-conscious amongst us is that it is perfectly possible to achieve a great look in a kitchen – and one that really belies a tight budget – through one of three routes.
Go to a smaller local firm for low-cost, high-quality units. Suppliers such as Pineland Kitchens will be able to supply units with no chipboard or ply for less than £5,000 — cheaper if you paint them yourself. Pick out the better ranges at high street names. The mainstream kitchen suppliers are desperate for trade at the moment and some of their ranges are impressive. Make the most of (almost-constant) sales or be prepared to negotiate.
Mix basic and luxury fittings. You can pick out standard carcasses from trade outfits and mix them with doors from high-end suppliers; you could mix standard units from Wickes with top-quality handles and worktops. The overall look and first impression is very important with kitchens, and you don’t have to spend a fortune to achieve it. The same goes with bathrooms.
A four bedroom oak frame in a Conservation Area in one of the most affluent parts of Oxfordshire might not be the obvious place for a build budget of just £134,000 (£770/m²), but that’s exactly what Terry Morgan has achieved.
7. Minimise Design Fees
Go to a recognised architect and you’ll expect to pay 10% of your build costs in design fees — that’s a staggering £15,000 on a project that probably doesn’t warrant this type of expenditure. Architects really add value to projects where design is the number one priority, not budget — they produce original design ideas and can, it has to be said, be responsible for some of the best-looking one-off homes you’ll see. Those looking to spend less than £150,000 shouldn’t forgo the design process but they should take a different approach. Start the process off with a pretty good idea of the kind of house you’d like to build, perhaps using examples from homebuilding & renovating magazine or visiting the be inspired section for inspiration. Work out a broad idea of the internal layout you’d like – visit developer showhomes to get an idea of how room sizes on plans measure up in reality – and perhaps use one of the basic CAD software packages (around £40) to draw up some simple ideas.
Take those formulated ideas to someone with design skills but without the ‘Architect’ title — perhaps an architectural technologist or skilled local house designer (speak to local builders to get a few recommendations), who can then draw up workable planning and Building Regulations drawings for you. This process will potentially save you £1,000s at the start of your project.
8. Choose Your Cladding Carefully
The simple fact is that if you’re building in a stone belt (where planning laws will pretty much dictate that you’ll be cladding your house in local stone), you’ll be spending much more money on cladding than might otherwise be the case. Those budget selfbuilders lucky enough to have more of a choice in the matter will in all likelihood find either a blockwork/render or brick outer skin the most economical of all. Timber framers looking to spend less on their cladding will find weatherboarding the most efficient and economical way of constructing that outer shell. Of course, there are many choices when it comes to render solutions, but you should expect to pay £75/m² facing (it can go up to £125/m² with one of the anti-crack, self-coloured systems). Those using brick should avoid the very basic wirecut facings but should be able to find attractive bricks at £300/m². You could also inject a bit of instant character by mixing together two or three stock bricks, which doesn’t cost any more than a uniform selection. Those in a stone belt might be able to save money by specifying reconstituted stone (from a supplier such as Bradstone) but if planners insist on real local stone, try specifying it as a half-cut facing (similar to a brick slip) to save money on materials. Unfortunately, a lot of the cost of stone is in the laying, which you won’t be able to avoid.
Caron Pain’s cost-planning skills were so good that she came in £20,000 under her original £130,000 budget when building her five bedroom home in Norfolk, meaning it cost just £110,000.
9. Design and Specify for the Basic, but Don’t Make False Economies
Building a new house is all about design options, and if you make the right choices, they can have significant cost-saving implications. Again, it pays to look at how the developers do it. One example of this is that very few ordinary developer houses have regular chimney stacks — as many houses so rarely have traditional open fires these days, a traditional chimney is not essential. Replacing a chimney with an exhaust vent terminating at a subtle roof grille will save between £2-5,000. If you’re really keen to save every penny, you’ll also be interested to learn that most developers put in conventional ‘fink’ roof trusses rather than attic trusses (which allow the attic space to be used as a room) — it can save between £1-3,000. It’s a relatively easy saving to ask for from your designer; however, don’t ignore the implication that you’ll be missing out on future space potential — it’s a difficult decision to reverse and is widely perceived to be a false economy.
Another significant saving that can be enjoyed with less implications down the line is to specify an attached rather than detached garage. Not only is there a saving on basic structural material costs, but it’s much easier for electricians to lay on services to an attached garage rather than one 5m from the rest of the house. You should be able to save £2-5,000 this way.
Another potential saving is in the heating system — owing to the huge variety of options now available. A top-of-the-range, whistles and bells heating system, complete with underfloor heating, designer towel rails, controls and a high-quality boiler, could easily cost £5-7,000 (unfitted). A basic setup, however, with a standard condensing boiler and cheap radiators, will cost in the region of £1,500-2,000 (unfitted).
10. Shop Well
There is a modest silver lining to the recession for budget self-builders — there has never been a better time to bag a bargain from materials suppliers. As commercial housing development stalls to a halt, the self-build sector is increasingly important to many materials suppliers and as a result selfbuilders have a much stronger bargaining position than ever before. Being clever with your materials shopping – and playing suppliers off against each other – can save £1,000s on the bigger purchases. Use the internet to research prices and don’t be afraid to negotiate. Of course, this all means that it’s much better to buy your own materials — it’s both unlikely that a builder will negotiate as hard on your behalf and also that they will pass on the full benefits of cost reductions. It’s a great example of why taking control of decisions can be particularly beneficial.
Don’t forget, too, that you’re in the market for labour as well as materials. Use the current climate to your advantage and try to negotiate labour prices against one another. It pays to contact a range of local tradesmen in order to do this – “X down the road says he’ll do it for £100 a day…” – but bear in mind that if you end up paying ridiculously under a reasonable rate, the tradesman will simply move onto a better paying job if, and when, it comes up.