Choosing to self build for the first time is a big decision and you may feel overwhelmed with the vast array of options or jargon flying your way. Below, we explain crucial elements of any self build project below to help you navigate the process of building your own home with confidence.
A is for Architects
The design of your home is the most important thing of all, so don’t scrimp on it. ‘Architect’ is a term devoted to a type of designer who has passed all their qualifications and is registered with the Architects Registration Board, so be careful on terminology — not all house designers are architects and not all architects are (good) house designers. Choose the person rather than the title.
Many designers will offer a full project management service, likely to be costed as a percentage (around 7–12%) of the total build. Some will operate on a fixed-fee service for designs only. Others offer supervision and stage sign-offs.
B is for Bricks
With the exception of the stone belts running through areas like the Cotswolds, brick remains the cladding material of choice for most people building one-off homes — something like two-thirds of self built houses use brick in some form. Remember that the brick outer skin is not structural, and homes finished in brick can be constructed using any system, including timber frame.
For calculation purposes, bricks laid in a regular bond (stretchers, the long face) will cover at a rate of 60/m² (facing). Bricks are usually priced on a cost per 1,000 basis, and the typical home will need in the region of 10–20,000 bricks. Prices vary hugely, from £150/1,000 for basic ‘engineering’ bricks up to well over £1,000/1,000 for handmades. The other key variance is in the laying pattern (bond), which can be any combination of stretchers and headers.
C is for Costs
Estimating a build cost without a detailed set of plans and a specification will, of course, result in a generalised answer. Check out our build cost calculator to get a rough idea — most estimates tend to be in the £900–£1,400/m² stage.
D is for DIY
Only around 9% of people who build their own home actually take on DIY to any significant degree. The majority will take on smaller tasks, such as decorating, towards the end of the project.
With labourer rates in the £100–£150 per day range, it’s tempting to do what you can; bear in mind that the danger is you’ll hold up the project with slower work and not do as good a job as the pros — in which case it’s best to stick to tasks outside of the critical path (i.e. on which other tasks aren’t dependent). That said, with labour costs accounting for around 45–50% of your overall spend, the savings can be huge.
This home by the coast in Devon was designed by local architect Stan Bolt
E is for Eco
It has become something of a meaningless term — all new homes are to an extent ‘eco’ but defining it is a moving feast. For the most part, people building their own home wish to minimise their home’s energy use and put in place systems that generate the energy their home needs in the most efficient manner.
Insulation and good windows remain the key starting points for the ‘eco’ home, with airtightness, orientation (all the better to pick up passive heat from the sun) and ventilation all part of the considerations. When it comes to energy generation, renewables (such as solar panels, heat pumps and biomass boilers) make more sense for those living off the main gas grid, although the high capital cost of such systems has been offset by the Government’s Renewable Heat Incentive, which pays out a handsome tariff over seven years.
F is for Finance
The number and value of self build mortgages available is at its highest level since 2008, with loan to values (the size of the loan as a percentage of the actual price/cost) up to 80–90% in many cases. Self build funding works in exactly the same way as a regular house mortgage for the plot purchase, while the ‘build’ element of the mortgage is the same except that the loan is drawn down in stages rather than at the point of purchase.
If you’re taking on a mortgage for the build project itself, you’ll get a certain percentage of the total for the foundations, another 20% or so for the walls, and so on — it’s usually six stages (and, thanks to the Accelerator mortgage available from Buildstore, in advance of the stages being completed).
G is for Groundworks
This is part of the foundations process and the start of any project. You’ll need to get soil and land cleared (ideally to another part of the site to be used later for landscaping), any existing services relocated and new ones installed and, finally, trenches dug for the new house foundations.
Most firms calling themselves ‘groundworkers’ actually offer a full foundations package, building up blocks (or using another foundation system such as piling) to get your house ready to ‘slab’ or ‘oversite’ stage — ready for the builders to get going.
H is for Heating
More complex than ever, your home’s heating system is one of the major decisions you’ll need to wrestle with. First of all, do you have mains gas or not? If not, then renewables such as heat pumps and biomass boilers become viable options for the choice of fuel source.
That is only a third of the heating trinity, however – the others being the controls (increasingly sophisticated, as they can reduce your bills significantly) and the emitter – it usually comes down to a choice between radiators or underfloor heating. It all starts with working out how much heat your home needs, so this consideration really should be a fundamental part of the design process and planned in from the start.
This house was built using insulated concrete formwork, creating a super-insulated build that requires minimal heating
I is for Insurance
You’ll need specialist self build insurance for your project. Ideally it should include cover for the site itself – including loss and theft of building materials, and public liability – if, for example, someone wanders onto your building site and injures themselves.
You may also need employer’s liability cover if you are running your own project. You would also want an insurance product to cover the works as they are constructed, along with any legal cover you might need along the way.
J is for Joists
Joists are a supporting timber (although they can be made of steel or concrete, too) that runs horizontally to support a floor or ceiling. There has been significant innovation in this product area in recent years to eliminate the key issues people faced, namely occasionally squeaky floors, limited span length and the requirement to drill into them for services (e.g. running electrical cables). Look out for brand names such as TJI, I-Joist and Posi-Joist.
K is for Kits
The concept of ‘kit’ homes has become popular in recent years. The general principle is that almost all of the construction work is carried out off site in a factory and the home is delivered to site ready to put together, flatpack-style, in a matter of days.
It has significant advantages in terms of standardising work quality, reducing the requirement for local tradespeople, as well as minimising time spent on site (meaning less days lost to weather). All of this tends to come at a price, of course, and there is the added disadvantage of not being able to change your mind once factory work has started.
L is for Landscaping
The classic self builder’s mistake is to treat landscaping as an afterthought for both budget and design purposes. It’s not always easy, but try and include at least a driveway/entrance scheme in your design as well as some basic landscaping — you’ll be surprised at how easy it is once the diggers are on site for other reasons.
Plus, if you carry out the landscaping as per the approved scheme on your planning permission, you can reclaim the VAT (see V) on it — a huge incentive.
A beautiful home deserves a beautiful garden
M is for Merchant
Despite many of the materials that self builders specify being supplied directly, it’s still vital to engage with a local builders’ merchant if you’re managing your own self build project. At the very least you’ll need a reliable and fast supply of sand and other building sundries in the construction stages of the project. Check out a few of your local merchants and establish an account with the one with the best terms — perhaps 30 or 60 days’ credit, and a set discount.
N is for Neighbours
Politically important and expedient to a happy and successful site; yet many self builders go through plot purchase to planning consent and the construction of a new home without a friendly smile or kind words with their neighbours.
Thankfully for those unfortunate few whose experience is closer to the latter, although neighbours are consulted on planning applications, any objections they may have only carry weight on certain issues. Things like boundary disputes, loss of house value and the construction works themselves are not ‘material considerations’ and therefore not taken into account.
However, if you can, try to keep neighbours on side and fully informed of your plans. If nothing else, a friendly neighbour can help with water supply and more besides.
O is for Oak
Not many oak frame homes are self built each year – probably around 100 to 200 – but it’s fair to say that those that are end up being some of the more beautiful, perfectly replicating the charm of their medieval ancestors.
Oak frame homes are usually supplied by specialist package companies, because the design of the house needs to reflect the unique qualities and structural issues that building with oak entails. While many new oak frame homes still have oak visible on the outside, an increasing number of oak frames are only visible internally, wrapped in a super-insulating shell of structural insulated panels.
P is for Plot
This is the first and by far the most difficult hurdle when getting your own project underway. The price of plots depends on the local housing market and you should aim for a plot of at least around 0.2 of an acre (for a guide, the homes on most housing estates have plot sizes around 0.08–0.10 of an acre), although most self builds are on much larger sites than this.
In actual fact, fewer self builds take place on virgin green plots (usually garden sites) than in the place of an existing dwelling. With demolition costs low, planning not usually so much of an issue, and the ability to utilise existing utility connections, replacement is just as good a way of finding your dream ‘plot’.
Websites like Plotfinder are a great resource for those who are plot hunting.
This house was built on a piece of land the owner bought from his parents
Q is for Quantity Surveyor
Many self builders use quantity surveyors (QS) on their building project. Traditionally a fixture of large commercial projects, a good QS can help you establish a detailed specification document for builders to ensure you are not receiving inflated quotes for works. They also provide a detailed cost breakdown of your project to assist with planning and cashflows and, best of all, give advice on project management and budget controls.
In many cases, homeowners who have engaged with a QS early on in their project insist that they have saved more in removing unnecessary costs than their QS fees. Fees tend to be a (low) percentage of the overall build cost, although some fixed-fee services are available.
R is for Regulations
All construction work on new homes must comply with the Building Regulations — a set of standards that apply to everything from foundations to window efficiency. You can view the Building Regulations in full online at planningportal.gov.uk.
The usual course of events to gain approval is to submit your detailed building drawings to the local authority Building Control department and wait for its conditional approval. You’ll then get a series of inspections at key stages of the project to ensure that the work you’ve carried out meets your original plans and, therefore, the regulations.
S is for Size
One of the more confusing parts of the building world for beginners is the sizes referred to by builders and designers.
For guideline purposes:
- a typical three/four bedroom detached house on a new developer estate will be around 120-140m²
- a small terraced house is likely to be nearer 70m²
- self built homes tend to be roomier, and so a typical four bedroom self-build will be in the region of 200m²
The size refers to a measure called Net Floor Area — it’s everything measured from the inside of the external walls (and includes partition walls). So a square, two storey house where the external walls measure 9x9m, will actually measure 8.4×8.4m (the 600mm reduction being because the thickness of both external walls has been removed). This is multiplied by two (for two storeys), so 141m².
T is for Tax
One of the more confusing but potentially more attractive parts of the self build process. There are two elements to the tax issue — Capital Gains Tax (CGT) and Value Added Tax (VAT).
The VAT rules are simple — anyone building their own home can claim back the VAT paid on most labour and materials, usually amounting to a five-figure rebate at the end of the process. See VAT Notice 431NB for more information and the fine details on how to manage your claim.
As your principal private residence is exempt from CGT, you won’t pay it on the sale of your self build (assuming it’s your only home). The only way it could be charged is if you’re lucky enough to be able to sell off a large (i.e. more than half a hectare) part of your garden for a building plot.
One of the other benefits of self build is that it’s a fairly smart way around the stamp duty burden — you’ll only pay stamp duty on a property purchase, which means that you’ll pay on the plot but not the total build cost.
The owners of this home had a tough decision to make; remodel the existing bungalow, or demolish it and rebuild it thus taking advantage of the zero-rated VAT available for self builds. They chose to remodel in the end, but it is always worth adding up the costs and benefits of each option
U is for Underfloor Heating
Underfloor heating (UFH) has been around in one form or another since Roman times, but it is self builders who have brought it into the mainstream of today’s housing stock. The key benefits of having warm water pipes in your floor structure are that they effectively turn the floor into a giant radiator, so the required water temperature you’ll need to generate is much lower than with radiators. Also, people seem to enjoy the benefits of not having hot-to-the-touch radiators (particularly with young children around) and freed-up wall space.
Costs are coming down and whole-house systems cost around the same as top-end radiators. As no joints are buried underground, UFH systems are incredibly reliable and largely maintenance-free. They work best when the floor is covered with tiles, rather than carpet (with thicker underlay acting as an insulator stopping the heat getting up).
V is for Ventilation
Such are the high levels of airtightness in most self built homes that maintaining a flow of fresh air is an important consideration — just as important as making sure warm air doesn’t escape. Ventilation was traditionally something that happened to a home without much intervention (if you have an older home, you’ll know that areas around windows tend to be quite draughty). More modern requirements insisted that trickle vents were placed into window designs to ensure air flow.
However, more and more people want to manage their ventilation (to ensure greater control over warm air being lost as well as fresh air coming in) and the installation of mechanical ventilation (often with heat recovery) systems is beginning to become commonplace in self build projects. There are alternatives, too — passive ventilation is another area to look into which in itself has a huge variety of offerings.
W is for Warranties
You’re not legally required to take out a structural warranty on your project, but you would be very wise to do so. If there is any possibility that you might sell your home then a solicitor will ask for the warranty details; any potential mortgage lender will also require evidence of a structural warranty.
Y is for You
By far the biggest culture shock for first-time self builders is the emphasis that the whole process places on them. You’ll be the one making all of the key decisions and the best projects (i.e. the ones that are built most cost-effectively and are just what the homeowner wanted) are the ones where the self builder has engaged with every decision.
So get started now — there are plenty of things to be decided, from positions of garages and trees to construction and heating systems; from who is going to build the house and how much will you spend, to the positions of windows and the colour of the roof tiles. Experts will be able to help you with all of those decisions but if you’re not excited about making them, then think again.
Z is for Zero Carbon
The Government has exempted sites with fewer than 10 units (including individual self builds) from the need to achieve so-called ‘zero carbon’ standards. This standard tried to match the amount of CO2 required to run the house with the amount of energy it produces.
In many ways self builders would be wise to come as close to zero carbon as possible. The additional cost of extra insulation and airtightness is minimal and the higher capital cost of renewables has been offset for the most part thanks to generous Government incentive schemes. What’s more, a well-insulated home is cheaper to run.