Caron Pain’s self-build story is quite simply inspirational. She has built a large, well-appointed house in Norfolk in double-quick time and at an amazingly keen price. In fact, her cost control has been so good that she managed to come in £20,000 under her £130,000 budget. In doing so, she has built up a huge increase in the equity of her house. Hers is a textbook case of how to ‘do’ self-build.
She had, in fact, self-built before with her then husband, back in the 1990s, so she knew quite a bit about what to expect. But the marriage ended, the house was sold and she found herself living in a small house with her two teenage children, Jasmine and Hayden, running a curtain-making business from home and also working as a teaching assistant in the mornings. Caron figured that she could fit another self-build into this busy schedule and work her way back up the property ladder in the process. On her previous self-build project, they had used a builder to construct the watertight shell and had only been involved in organising the finishes themselves. This time, Caron thought that she would manage the whole process herself from start to finish and thereby have much more control over budgets. Her equity was in the small house she owned and her borrowing was limited by her moderate income, so she had to make every penny count.
She put her house on the market and started looking for building plots. After the inevitable one or two false starts, her parents found the plot she eventually built on with a private ‘For Sale’ sign on it with a phone number. The vendor, who ran a local plant hire business, wanted it to go to auction with a guide price of £150,000, but Caron approached him directly with a slightly higher offer and eventually they agreed a price of £170,000. The deal was completed in September 2005. Three months later, she was hiring diggers off him.
Caron used other local contacts to her best advantage. She got to know Graham Sibley, her structural engineer, because he purchased her old house. He was naturally interested in her ambition to build her own home and offered to detail the house for her and also arrange an architect’s certificate for the build for mortgage purposes. “In fact, I really undertook the design work myself,” says Caron. “I wanted it as open plan as possible — ideally I’d like to live in a big barn with exposed brickwork. Our first self-build didn’t have any architectural features at all so I was determined to do something a little different. Graham took my ideas and detailed them for Building Regulations.”
The process seems to have been amazingly fast. By January, barely three months after buying the plot, Caron was at the controls of the mini-digger, putting in all the services on her own. By May, the family had moved into the house. How did she manage to achieve all this and come in under budget?
Firstly, she decided to take charge of the shopping list. She worked really hard to find bargains out there, scouring eBay and the local DIY stores, making full use of their 20% off days and other such promotions. Secondly, she decided that the men working for her were not going to give her the run around and that everything was going to be done on pricework. In fact, her experience was that the subbies actually rather like this method of working: they didn’t have to think about anything but the job in hand. Caron seems to have elicited two quite separate responses from the Norfolk building trade: some were dismissive of her, letting her know that a building site was no place for a woman and that she would simply mess it up; others really admired her pluck and went out of their way to help her project get up and running. These were the guys she hired. She reckons that the men working on her house were universally helpful and supportive.
Her organisational skills and timetabling seemed to have been spot on — you don’t get from breaking ground to moving in within five months if they aren’t. In fact, Caron reckons she was a little lucky. “At one point, my carpentry crew told me that they couldn’t come and do my roof trusses for two weeks because they had a prior commitment on another site, also fitting roof trusses. But, as luck would have it, the lorry delivering the roof trusses to the other site went under a low bridge and smashed up much of the load. I got a phone call on a Friday evening asking if they could come and do my job instead, starting Monday.
“It wasn’t always easy. For instance, I sourced my kitchen from B&Q for just £3,300 including all appliances. However, when they came to deliver it, they found that the driveway was still muddy and they refused to carry it across to the house, so they left it all on the road. I thought that it stood a good chance of getting hit by some passing lorry, so I went and parked my car in front of the boxes and barrowed the entire kitchen across to the house on my own!”
At the outset, Caron started by taking her house plans to a builders’ merchant for pricing. They charged her £100 to do this and she didn’t much like the prices they were quoting, so she decided she could do much better herself just shopping around. “My main tool for doing all this was an A4 pad. Everyday I would just write down everything that was needed for the job and I made dozens of phone calls until I knew everything that I needed was done. My budget was tight, so I had to watch every penny. And I did.” For instance, she spent just £2,500 on sanitary ware for the whole house, which covered two bathrooms and a downstairs WC, and also included a walk-in shower enclosure, normally valued at around £800, which she picked up off eBay for £450. “Buying off eBay is a bit nerve-wracking because you are never quite sure what it’s going to be like until you unpack. But everything was fine except for my bath, which turned out to have a crack in it. Worse still, I didn’t unpack it for a couple of weeks, so they were not happy about replacing it. But I was able to show them that it almost certainly happened in transit and they ended up replacing it at no extra cost.”
In fact, Caron’s story is a textbook case of how to build economically. The house itself is a fairly simple structure: there are a few embellishments to make it interesting, such as the long staircase window, the brick corbelling at the eaves and the pitched roof in the master bedroom. The interiors are modern and clean and every single item has been bought at a really keen price. It just shows what you can do, if you have enough gumption.