Self Build Guide

1. What is self build

1.1 Dictionary definitions of self build from Collins Dictionary

1. The practice of building one’s own home (noun)
2. A house that one has built oneself (noun)
3. Built by the occupant (adjective)
4. To build a home for one’s own use (verb)

1.2 The legal definition as defined in the Self Build Act 2015

The Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Act 2015 (as amended by the Housing and Planning Act 2016) provides a legal definition of self build and custom housebuilding. The Act does not distinguish between self build and custom housebuilding and provides that both are where:

‘Individuals or an association of individuals, or persons working with or for them, build or complete houses to be occupied as homes by those individuals.’

The government goes on to say that in considering whether a home is a self build home or custom build home, relevant authorities must be satisfied that the initial owner of the home will have primary input into its final design and layout.

1.3 What is custom build?

During a debate in parliament back in October 2014, Brandon Lewis, the housing minister at the time, said:

‘The definition of self build covers someone who directly organises the design and construction of their new home, while custom build covers someone who commissions a specialist developer to help to deliver their own home.’

While the use of two terms makes a distinction between custom build and self build, the former could be said to be a type of self build, with self build being a broader, more encompassing term, and custom build being a narrower, more specific term.

1.4 What is collective custom build?

The government’s definition of self build and custom housebuilding also alludes to another type of self build – that by an association of individuals. This type of self build has been referred to as collective custom build, a form of self build where groups of people come together in order to provide their own homes collectively or as part of a multi-unit site. Some view this form of self build as the most viable way to scale up self-provided housing. The term ‘self-provided housing’ is another perhaps more generic and appropriate term that encompasses all forms of self build.

1.5 Our definition of self build

To self build therefore does not necessarily mean physically building your own home. Rather self build is more broadly understood to mean that you have some involvement in the building of your own home. Furthermore, there are different types of self build with varying levels of involvement and also the possible possibility of self building with others.

2. Why self build?

2.1 Push factors and pull factors

When considering whether to self build, or perhaps, whether self build is for you, there are various push factors (motivations for self build) and pull factors (benefits of self build) that you may want to consider.

2.2 A lack of good alternatives

In our option (one shared by 75% of home buyers), the majority of new building housing in the UK is not only poor quality but also generic, uninspiring, and outdated. This is due to the fact that a significant proportion of new build housing is built by a small number of very large speculative housing developers. In fact, about two-thirds of housing completions are built by only the ten largest housebuilders. Numerous government reports have made the assessment that this lack of competition has resulted in poor productivity and a lack of innovation in the industry. You only have to look at the appearance of most of the housing built to see what we mean. They all look the same. On the outskirts of practically every town and city up and down the country, there are identikit housing developments that are; traditional in style, of predominantly brick and block cavity wall construction, with white uPVC windows, and pitched roofs. The above observations are reflected in buyer attitudes towards new build housing. A report published by the RIBA Future Homes Commission in 2011 reported that 75% of UK home buyers wouldn’t buy a new build home. We rest our case.

2.3 Value for money

The speculative business model adopted by most housebuilders favours the production of short-term exchange-values (i.e. house prices) rather than long-term use-values (i.e. the quality of those homes as places to live in), as their priorities lie in dividends for their shareholders rather than the quality of life of their customers. This is regrettable, but what is even more unfortunate is that the problem gets worse over time. While house prices (exchange-values) have rocketed over the past decades, use-values have remained virtually the same, and thus value for money has decreased significant over time. The size of the homes built is a good example. With an average floor area of 76m2, we build on average the smallest houses in Europe, and yet they are still sold for absurdly high prices. In contrast, self build is a form of housing procurement that by its very nature prioritises the creation of long-term use values over short-term exchange values, because the end users have a stake in the quality of the homes built as places to live in.

2.4 Unmet needs and wants

We have also made the observation that there is an insufficient variety of homes being built. Most speculative housing developments typically consist of three or four bed homes designed with the traditional nuclear family in mind and apartment blocks of one and two bedroom flats for first time buyers. We believe these house types do not cater for large segments of the market which is far more varied than it was decades ago, as households compositions have changed. There is now a diversity of households including; single-person households (29%), single parent households (11%), and multi-generational households (7%). Perhaps you have found yourself in a house that does not meet your needs. Perhaps you have looked on the open market and you are struggling to find anything else that ticks your boxes. Perhaps you have a disability or need a home that can accommodate multiple generations of your family. If this is you, we gently suggest that self build might be for you.

2.5 Better quality of life

We passionately believe that well-designed buildings can improve our quality of life, and that the quality of our housing, as the most basic of building typologies, has the most direct impact on our quality of life – for better or worse.

2.6 Opportunity to build something unique and bespoke to you

This is the pull factor that is most widely promoted by advocates of self build and it is true. You can build whatever you like and we have all enjoyed episodes of Grand Designs where adventurous souls have built all manner of unique and sometime peculiar homes including; a real cave home, a converted water tower, a house boat, and a restored castle. That being said, we actually don’t think that being unique is the most relevant reason to self build and we would probably put this at the bottom of the list of reasons to self build.

2.7 Opportunity to build better

We are passionate about the opportunity to build better homes and would certainly put this reason close to the top of the list. Over the past decades, a number of Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) have been developed that offer superior performance when compared to traditional construction. These typically utilise at least an element of prefabrication or offsite manufacturing to achieve faster more efficient construction, and higher standards of quality management, as well as more sustainable and environmentally-friendly homes which also boast low energy bills for end-users. Furthermore, in the past few years, there has also been rapid growth of a new tech based sector developing smart home technologies from smart door locks to smart thermostats and security systems. These systems not only change the way we interact with our homes but also enable greater efficiencies such as being able to turn off all the appliances and lighting with a house at night with a click of a single button. There is also a growing awareness regarding the need to specify healthy homes by paying careful attention to how products that make up a home affect indoor air quality and the health of occupants. There is lots more that can be said about these ways to build better homes and we would refer you to our other guides that cover each of these topics in more detail. 

2.8 Profitable

Self build can be not only a cost effective option but can also be very profitable one. With no or low stamp duty, no VAT on most of build cost, and no developer profit – the total cost of self build homes are typically up to 30% lower than the end market value. Please note that you will need to live in the house for 3 years after completion otherwise you could be classed as a developer and may need to pay a Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL). 

3 Who can self build

3.1 Available to the many, not just the few

While the TV show Grand Designs has been fantastic in that it has popularised self build, our observation is that it has also proliferated an idea that self build is only for the wealthy and the adventurous. This is a concept that we at protaHOMES want to combat as we strongly believe that self build can and should be more widely accessible. The chair of the National Custom and Self Build Association (NaCSBA), Michael Holmes, said that self build should be:

“a choice available to the many, and not just the few

3.2 Wealth

On the wealth point, we are not saying that a wealth imbalance does not exist. In fact, statistics show that the majority of self builds are funded by savings alone or by significant equity in existing homes. Clearly having lots of money helps, but it is possible for those without access to significant capital of their own to self build with the help of financing. If this is your case, you will typically need at least 5% of the build cost for a deposit and a decent household income.

3.3 Income

Statistics show that the average (median) household income for self builders is £50-59,000 (i.e. within the top 20% of the population by household income). Around 30% of self builders have household incomes below £40,000, but should it be noted that many in this income bracket are are retirees with fairly significant accumulations of wealth in either savings or housing equity. It should also be noted that there is some variation in average household incomes when it comes to the types of self builder. The average household income of a DIY self builder is £47,261, while the average household income of a self builder using a main contractor is £102,242.

3.4 Age

Statistics show that the majority of self builders are older. The age band with the most self builders is the late 40s. The age band with the highest proportion of self builders is late 50s to the early 60s.  The average (mean) age is 51 years old. Less than 5% of self builders are in their 20s.

3.5 First time buyers

While there are significant barriers to entry, self build is an option for first time buyers. With younger self builders typically being more reliant on borrowing, the size of the deposit required is the first hurdle. Deposits for self build projects are typically higher than one would need for the purchase of starter homes, because while the latter are typically flats within apartment buildings, most self builds (91%) are detached houses. Having made this observation, there are a number of approaches that first time buyers who want to self build could take and these approaches may well make self build a more feasible option than buying a property on the open housing market. Consider building smaller, thereby reducing the build cost and in turn the size of the deposit required. Consider collective custom build, perhaps banding together with some friends to commission the building of your own apartment building. Consider doing some or all of the building work yourself to reduce the costs of self building. There are lots of options and first time buyers should not be put off by apparent hurdles. It is also worth noting that the government has recently introduced the Help to Build equity loan scheme which is designed to make building your own home a more realistic choice, even if you only have a small deposit, hence this is something that first time buyers may want to look into.

3.6 Active third agers

We have also observed that there is a significant market for homes specifically designed for active-third agers, those approaching and/or of retirement age who are still physically and mentally active, and who also often have significant capital as the outright owners of 4 or 5 bedroom family homes that are too large for them now that their children have all left home. While downsizing and perhaps upgrading is an attractive proposition, the speculative housebuilding industry does not sufficiently serve this demographic. This leaves self build as a very compelling option with the scope to create a bespoke home that not only meets your needs in the short term but can also be future proofed to meet your needs in the long-run. 

3.7 Serial self builders

One special category of self builders are those who not only undertake the feat once, but perhaps after building a first self build, decide that they so enjoyed the process that they want to do it all over again. Sometimes referred to as ‘serial self builders’, these self builders can often end up mortgage free after 3 or 4 self builds, and some undertake the challenge essentially as small developers – meaning they make a living from self building.

3.8 Groups

You don’t have to build on your own. Instead, you can build as part of a group. Self building in a group is referred to as “collective custom build”. 

3.9 Couples

Statistics show that 90% of self builders do so as a couple. Being in relationship with two decent incomes combined offers greater access to self build mortgages due to the constraints of affordability calculators. In addition to this, the mutual support from building as a couple should not be under-estimated. As the saying goes “one will chase a thousand, two will chase ten thousand”.

4. Where to self build?

4.1 Finding a plot

The difficulty of finding a suitable plot of land upon which to self build remains one of the biggest hurdles to building your own home, however some recent piece of legislation may be beginning to change this.

4.2 The right to build

Two recent pieces of legislation have established a legal ‘right to build’ your own home in England (see lower down if you live in Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland). The Self-Build and Custom Housebuilding Act 2015 (which came into force in April 2016) placed a legal duty on all local authorities in England to keep a register of individuals and associations of individuals who are seeking to acquire serviced plots of land in the authority’s area in order to build houses for those individuals to occupy as homes. The Housing and Planning Act 2016 (which came into force in October 2016) reinforced the Self Build Act by requiring local authorities to make "serviced plots" of land available to those who have expressed an interest in building their own homes within three years of the demand being registered..

4.3 Self build registers

Since the Self Build Act 2015 came into force, the National Custom and Self Build Association (NaCSBA) has periodically issued freedom of information requests to all councils in England in order to take stock of registered demand. By the close of the first base period on October 31st October 2016 (the first six months) 18,000 people had already registered, by a year later the number was 33,000 and the most recent report (published in January 2020) was that at around 55,000 people had registered by that date. If you have not yet signed up, why not register now? Rather than searching for your local authority’s register directly, we recommend that you use the Right to Build Portal (operated by the NaCABA) as after you log in and enter your postcode, the portal displays the local authorities nearest to you and some useful information such as the number of people already on the register and the number of serviced plots already consented. Doing this will give you a good idea how engaged your local authority is with respect to your right to build. The portal will also provide a link direct to your local authority’s self build registration page. Note that you typically need to have a local connection (meaning that you live, work, or have some other connection to the area) in order to sign up to a local authority’s self build register.

4.4 Key outcomes 

In our estimation, the right to build legislation has the potential to:

  • alleviate the problem of land availability as self build plots should become more easily obtainable.
  • de-risk the planning process by bringing forth plots with outline planning.
  • facilitate the creation of communities by grouping together those who aspire to build their own home – potentially opening up opportunities for collective custom build.
  • reduce the cost of building in comparison to stand-alone builds due to the economies of scale brought about by the collective provision of utility services.

4.5 Self build in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland

Since housing is devolved issue, the self build legislation brought in by the UK government applies only to England. The approaches taken by the devolved administrations differs.

  • Wales – In January 2019 , the Welsh Government announced Self Build Wales, a new £210 million self build scheme that aims to see local authorities and housing associations bring forth serviced plots for self build. The scheme offers loans to self builders for up to 75% of the plot cost and up to 100% of the cost of the build, and these loans are repayment free until the new home is completed and mortgaged. A new Self Build Wales website, operated by the Development Back of Wales, list the plot opportunities available. This initiative is the first significant step in making self build more accessible and viable in Wales.
  • Scotland – In 2019, the Scottish government passed the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019, which requires local planning authorities to prepare and maintain a list of anyone interested in acquiring land for self-build across the authority’s area, much like the Self Build Act 2015 in England. The Act provides for local plans to have regard to the list, but unlike England’s legislation, it does not go so far as to require authorities to permission sufficient plots to reflect this demand. In March 2021, the Scotland government published a white paper titled Housing to 2040, which set out its route map for housing up to the year 2040, including an ambition to grow custom and self build year on year. 
  • Northern Ireland – Self build is somewhat of a cultural tradition in Northern Ireland, particularly in rural areas where there has historically been presumption in favour of building even in open countryside, with a peak of 7,000 permission for single new dwellings in 2003. As of 2006, more development controls have placed on rural regions with a view to protecting the character and openness of the countryside. This has reduced the amount of development, with approximately 1,075 self build completions in 2016. This is still equivalent to just over 16% of all new housing, meaning that Northern Ireland can boast the largest self build and custom housebuilding market in the UK relative to the size of the population. If this level of self build per capita were extrapolated to the whole of the UK, the sector would deliver over 37,000 new homes per year.

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