HPH117 : What to look for in a plot of land – with David Snell, author of Building Your Own Home
Serial self-builder and author David Snell advises how to appraise a potential plot of land.
Interview with David Snell
We spoke with David back in Episode 50 in a fascinating discussion about hiring contractors and sub-contractors, which was packed with invaluable information gleaned from years of experience. That was at a time when he was undertaking his 14th and ‘final' self build. After deciding to move back to Gloucestershire to be closer to his grandchildren, he’s now working on his 15th! This time he joins us to advise what you should be looking out for in a plot of land, and how to know if it's the right one for you.
Use ‘fisherman’ tactics to find a plot!
David uses the analogy of a fisherman who puts a handful of bait into the water to attract the fish to where he’s going to be fishing, before throwing in his hook and line. And in a sense that’s what David does when he’s looking for a plot. He puts the bait out by speaking to as many people as he can: architects, estate agents, solicitors, developers, etc. He'll also mention that he's going to be searching earnestly in a few weeks’ time and hoping they will have something for him at that point.
Double plots are ideal for self-builders
David’s reason for this is that most self-builders know someone else wanting to build too. His current plot is exactly that – a double plot that was bigger than he needed. He had approached a local builder that he knew to come and take a look for a rough idea on cost estimates to build on it. The builder himself decided that he would like the remainder of the plot so David immediately sold it on for a £10,000-£15,000 profit.
Consider the neighbourhood if you’re planning a replacement dwelling
Unlike a greenfield site, with a replacement dwelling your environment is already fixed. You’re effectively relying on your neighbours to share the same values; that of preserving the kerb appeal of the area so as not to devalue the properties. This is why it is important to look rigorously at its immediate surroundings and approach.
“It could be lovely when you get to the plot, but if you’ve got to drive through somewhere horrid to get to it, people’s spirits have sunk by the time they get there, and so has the value of your home!”
By choosing where you’re going to live you’re choosing your neighbours, and in a way they’re choosing you because they will freeze you out and make you not want to live there if tensions are high! David says that he has never not had animosity from neighbours when he has self built, because by building nearby he is upsetting the status quo. Within a few years however the house will be built and then by being part of the new status quo he expects to eventually win them over!
Choose a plot that “sings to you”
With so many different types of plots available, and different things being of importance to different people, it’s wise to choose a plot that calls out to you and says “I’m for you”. If it’s the right plot you’ll move heaven and earth to get it and be more likely to take on and overcome any challenges along the way.
Don’t consider land unless it has some form of planning permission
David doesn’t recommend a first time self-builder to even consider buying land if it doesn’t already have either outline or full planning permission.
Even if the plot has planning permission on it the chances are that you will be able to change the permissions – within reason and subject to local planning approval – to a different design more suited to you. If you’re wanting to scale down the plans then it’s unlikely you’ll have any argument about it. If you want to increase the size however then either it might not be the plot for you or you might have to do it incrementally, i.e. build to the plans and then later on submit plans to extend it or use permitted development rights.
All planning permissions have conditions
In most circumstances planning permission is only granted with conditions attached. So when buying a piece of land, pay attention to when planning permission expires because you need to have enough time to discharge all of them.
Some of the conditions are discharged in the normal course of events, such as getting building regs etc, but others may need to be discharged before works can commence.
There is now a time limit of 8 weeks in which planning officers need to make a decision on discharging conditions. If after the 8 weeks they have not given you a decision, then the condition is deemed to be satisfied.
It is important to add that while planning permission states that you ‘may’ build something, it doesn’t mean that you ‘can’. If there isn’t a legal right to build, i.e. somebody else owns the land you want to build on, then even if you have planning permission you will not be entitled to act upon it.
Ensure the plot has suitable access
Without access, it just isn’t a plot. And that applies both to vehicular access and access for construction. Land that can't demonstrate suitable access is unlikely to get planning permission anyway.
Trees on a plot can give you an understanding of the land
The types of trees on a plot can give you an indication of the sub-soil you’re likely to come across. Beech trees might indicate chalk, oak trees can indicate clay. Alder trees can indicate that the land is heavily waterlogged, and the roots of willows and poplars can be incredibly damaging to property. If you have clay, the removal of trees can lead to soil becoming waterlogged and creating heave, which can be disastrous to a building.
The presence of trees and understanding the ground conditions better can help you budget more wisely, knowing that you may need to factor in extra for the foundations.
Tree Preservation Orders can also be challenging, though not necessarily impossible to overcome. David highlights the importance of negotiating about them, and not cutting the trees down without approval!
A covenant gives somebody else rights over your piece of land
While covenants are not necessarily going to put you off buying a plot, they are certainly something to take into consideration. Some covenants may expire over time because the property or people to which they relate are no longer there. David suggests a restricted covenant indemnity policy to cover such a situation.
In many cases covenants that self-builders will come across have been put in place by the owners of the property that have sold part of their garden off as the plot. These tend to be extremely difficult to remove and might cover things like not having any windows overlooking their property, etc.
In other cases there may be a ransom covenant, whereby someone has sold off their land as a paddock, but uses the covenant to clawback any uplift in value if that purchaser later gets planning permission.
Find out more
David Snell talks about how to find a plot of land, in this video for Potton Homes
Download a transcript of the interview with David Snell.
The Hub update
Tying in to the theme of today's podcast, we'd like to remind you about our course on Finding Land, which is available in The Hub. It is free to access and draws information from all the sources and chats we've had so far, and puts it in a logical sequence without being overwhelming.
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About The Author
Lucy Cowell is owner of the Virtual Assistant company Quantum PA. Being immersed in the world of architecture for over 20 years and since working with Ben Adam-Smith, she is now determined to build her own house one day too!