Ted Stevens, Chairman of the National Self Build Association in the UK, gives his advice on how to find a good plot of land at a reasonable price. Plus, why Almere in Holland could be a blueprint for other large scale self build developments across the world.
Interview with Ted Stevens
Ted details how he became interested in construction at an early age, inspired by his technical drawing teacher at school. After running a student newspaper at university he then got a job at an architect's magazine called Planning, before setting up his own marketing company. When an opportunity arose to sell his business and take early retirement, he seized it. However, the retirement didn't follow! Over the years he's renovated a few properties, but between 2004 and 2005 he built his own house and soon after that, he got a call from a friend who wanted him to oversee the publishing of Build It magazine. It was during this time that Ted realised nobody was championing the self build industry in the UK, which was when he got together with other key figures from the industry and the National Self Build Association was born.
The Self Build Market is Small in The UK
Ted reels off an amazing fact about the UK market: only 10% of new homes are built using various forms of self build. In most other developed countries that figure is between 30-50%. Ted explains that the process used to be simple and that you'd buy land from the local farmer and build your house. However, due to being slightly more populated and having slightly less land, this has gradually changed. The UK is also unusual when compared to its European neighbours, in that it has big national house building companies filling the space where the self builders might be.
The Government is Keen to Diversify UK Housing Market
The then Housing Minister Grant Shapps was shocked by this data and wanted to see much more self build delivered in the UK, perhaps increasing to 20% or more. This would mean that there wouldn't be such a dependency on the national house building companies and it would also add variety to the new housing stock as self builders will have very different agendas (no shareholders to satisfy, etc.).
Self Builders Don't Tend to Move!
With self build you put more in, but you also get more out. Ted highlights the fact that home owners move on average once every 6 years. Conversely, self builders move on average once every 25 years! It's partly because or the blood, sweat and tears along the way and partly because you have a place that is purpose built to you – there is nothing else on the open market that meets these needs.
‘Self Build' is a Misnomer
Self build is not a great term to use as only 15% of people put one brick on top of the other. 85% take another route and they hire:
- A kit home company. All they normally have to do is organise the concrete slab underneath.
- An architect and builder.
- The brick-layers, electricians, plumbers, etc. and they project manage them.
- Professionals to do some of the work, while they do the rest.
‘Custom build' is a term that better describes what most people do – you are commissioning and procuring a home custom built to you.
Spend 3 Years Planning and Then 6-9 Months Building
Ted likes the advice that Grand Designs presenter Kevin McCloud gives: spend 3 years building up your knowledge of exactly what you're going to do and then nothing will go wrong and it will be built in 6-9 months. Doing it the other way around, with only three months of planning, it might take 3 years to build and cost twice as much! So preparation is everything.
- Go to see other self build projects
- Visit the exhibitions
- Read the self build books and magazines
- Do research on the internet
- Get advice from people who have been there and done it
If Land Has Been Advertised, Expect to Pay More
The easiest thing to do is sign up to a plot finding website. Unfortunately, you will then be in direct competition with the other people signed up to the service and inevitably the land will go to the highest bidder. The same is even true if you see land advertised by your local estate agent or in a local newspaper. Thus you need to be more innovative in your approach if you want to pick up a bargain.
Ted looked at over 100 plots when he built his home. He says 90 of them were not places in which he wanted to live – they were next to railways, sewage farms etc. Ted reiterates that it's very easy to find a rubbish plot that nobody wants! His strategy for buying land at a good price is to find it yourself.
- Decide where you want to live. Narrow it down to a particular area or village, etc.
- Order up a giant scale map of that area. In the UK, the Ordnance Survey maps cost about £75 each and are 2 metres by 2 metres, but they have every detail. Google Earth may work just as well.
- Look at the map and work out where there might be a bit of land at the back of somebody's house. Check out these areas on foot. If a large garden is overgrown, perhaps the owner is struggling to keep it up and may be willing to sell it to you? Don't be afraid to knock on doors – they will probably say no but you'll never know unless you try.
It's also worth posting up on Facebook that you're looking for land in a particular area. Your friends or relatives, or people that they know, might be able to help you.
The National Self Build Association has set up a website to help self builders in the UK. If you're starting out, it's got an interactive game that allows you to juggle the numbers and figure out what you can afford to buy at a particular location. The Self Build Portal is packed full of information and advice to help any would-be self builder.
Green Belt vs Brown Field Sites
Generally speaking, although there are plenty of exceptions to the rule, if a site has been built on before it is far easier to get permission to build on it again. Whereas building on green belt land, an area of outstanding natural beauty or a national park will be near impossible.
Also be aware of defining boundaries. For example, villages and rural areas normally have, in planning terms, a red line drawn around them. If you purchase land outside these markers you will probably struggle to get planning permission. You can ask your local planning office for more information.
Quite a popular route these days is to find a small bungalow or chalet that is falling apart and then you may be able to negotiate with planners about knocking it down and building a slightly bigger, new house.
Almere in Holland – a Blueprint For Self Build Communities?
Ted talks about an innovative project in Holland, where they are building an extension to the town of Almere. It will take 3000 new self build homes when complete, but midway through the development it is already regarded as architecturally diverse and a vibrant place to live. By doing a lot of planning upfront, the councillors were able to create a quick and easy process, with very few rules. Plots were divided up and priced on a proportional scale according to the amount of land required. Where planning permission had taken between 3-6 months, the turnaround was reduced to 3 days! The key point is that they trusted the self builders not to create eyesores and the results speak for themselves.
Self Build Towns Could Be The New Wave of Garden Cities
People can be quite negative about planners, but good planners are some of the most visionary people going. A century ago it was planners (Sir Ebenezer Howard) who came up with the idea of garden cities. Welwyn Garden City and Letchworth were seen as both innovative and scary at the time. Nearly a century on and they are fantastic places to live. Could a self build development, like Almere, be exactly where we should be heading in the 21st century? Also, the bonus of self builders constructing their own town is that they are not just building a house but a community. They know their neighbours and they get on famously. They also play their part in delivering the services for the area and deciding where the amenities will be, etc.
Ted's Top Three Tips For Tackling a Custom Build Project
- Increase your knowledge by reading books from the people who have done it. Also visit as many self build projects as possible.
- Don't expect it to happen overnight. It can be mentally and physically draining. Expect to make lots of decisions.
- Be innovative when it comes to finding and buying land as it can save you a lot of money. Be a detective!