How to start a self build project

Embarking on a self build project can be daunting... but incredibly rewarding when the end result is the house of your dreams. Here’s our beginners guide to starting a self build project.

Work out your self build budget

We’ve all seen those episodes of Grand Designs when the budget is blown, so the family must spend another winter in a leaky caravan. There’s no doubt that a self build is a big financial commitment, but with careful planning you can create a realistic budget and keep costs under control. 

Firstly, figure out how you will fund the build. This could be one or a combination of a cash sum, remortgaging or selling your current home, or taking out a self-build mortgage.

Next, estimate the costs, including a plot, design fees, building contractors, groundworks, building materials, fixtures and fittings, planning and legal fees. Don’t forget to budget for your  living costs during the build, such as rent or mortgage. Finally, add on at least 10% contingency fund to cover any unexpected costs.


Find your building plot

It can be tricky finding a spot for your dream home, so patience, creativity, and an open mind are needed! Start with online tools Plotsearch, Plotfinder and Plotbrowser which list available plots. Check newspaper classifieds and community message boards. Spread the word to your family and friends that you’re on the hunt for a plot. Look out for land and property auctions, disused brownfield sites or spacious garden plots. You could even buy an existing property to demolish then build your home on the plot. 


Start the planning permission process

You must have planning permission in place before you can start building. Get in touch with your local authority planners early on, to make sure your project and the plot you have in mind are viable. Most planning departments offer pre-planning advice (possibly for a fee) so you can learn about your area’s Local Plan and find out about what is required to submit a plan that is likely to be approved.

Planning permission has two levels. The first is outline planning permission, where you seek approval of an outline plan. This is permission that the land can be built on, but specific plans have yet to be agreed. Some plots may already have outline permission.

To start construction you need full or detailed planning permission. This is where the proposed construction is agreed, which includes submitting detailed building drawings. Planning can be a long process, so you may decide to choose an architect or package supplier that include planning assistance in their package, or even hire a planning consultant if your plans are particularly complex.


Decide on your design and build approach

One of the first choices to make in a self build project is how much you want to be involved in the process. Do you want to get hands-on with the building or take a more eagle-eyed view and let the professionals run the show? Options include:

  • A package home company that handles the whole process from design to build. Some offer fully bespoke designs or standard designs that can be customised.
  • Appoint an architect and main contractor, then hire a professional project manager to manage the build
  • Appoint an architect and main contractor, and do the project management yourself.

While it can be tempting to take on a lot of the work to save costs, be realistic about how much time you commit and how often you can be on site.

Related: How to put together your building project team


Choose your method of construction

The construction method you choose for your project has a big influence on the project overall, from the cost, duration of the build, energy efficiency, and the look of the finished house. The right method will depend on your budget, design criteria, your plot and planning permission. Available methods include:

  • brick and block - an outer layer of brick with an inner structure of concrete block. The inner cavity is filled with insulation.
  • timber frame - quicker on-site build time and ideal for open plan designs
  • structural insulated panels (SIPs) - composite panels that layer a rigid insulating material between outer boards. Sturdy and energy efficient.
  • insulating concrete formwork (ICF) - lightweight polystyrene forms that fit together on site to create a structure, which is then filled with concrete. ICF is quick to build and insulation is built in.


Find your self build project team

A dream home needs a dream team. Do loads of research before appointing a contractor. Check online reviews, ask friends and acquaintances for recommendations. Interview all contenders in person, and ask them for examples of previous work and if you can speak to past clients about their experience. 

When making the final decision, don’t just consider the quoted price. A self build is a lengthy process, so it’s essential to feel you have trust in your contractors and communication is clear and regular.

Related: 12 questions to ask your builder before signing a contract


Sort your insurance

Make sure that onsite insurance cover is in place with a specialist self build insurer before construction begins. This covers risks like theft, fire, injury and legal expenses. You also need a structural warranty. This covers your house for 10 years if anything goes wrong. The warranty provider inspects the build regularly during construction.


Time to build

Finally, it’s time to get your dream home started. Once your plot is prepared for construction, building is roughly a five stage process:

  1. Building the foundation
  2. Making the house weathertight - installing roof, windows
  3. First fix - structural carpentry, plastering
  4. Second fix - work carried out after plastering
  5. Final decoration - make that house your home.


Best of luck, and enjoy the process!

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