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Building the Future: Why don’t more Brits self-build.

26 Jul 2019 | 4 min

If Grand Designs’ viewing figures are anything to go by, we’re a nation obsessed with building our own homes. Yet in reality, only about 10 per cent of new homes are self-built.

We Brits are seriously lagging behind our mainland European neighbours and their 50% self-build rate, and the US, which stands at 45%. So why aren’t more of us channelling our inner Kevin McCloud?

The availability and price of land

There was a time when it was relatively easy to find a piece of land for a reasonable price, but things have changed over the last 20 years. More and more developers are snapping up available land and using it to create new estates and, as figures reveal that 51% of the UK’s net worth is now in land - streaking ahead of property values and investments - fewer and fewer landowners are willing to let go of their valuable acreage.

Figures also show that the value of farmland, for example, increases by 100 times when the Government designates it for housing, making it accessible to only the highest bidders – generally huge national developers.

Planning rules are complicated

In other European countries, the rules on developing land you own are much looser than they are in the UK. In Germany, your right to build on your own land is part of the constitution, and you need a building permit rather than planning permission to get started on your build.

The rules on what is and isn’t acceptable are also much clearer in mainland Europe too, which means that not only is it easier to get on with your own build, builders know exactly what is and isn’t acceptable.

Planning rules in the UK make it intentionally difficult for landowners to build, due to a period where so-called ‘plotlanders’ built whatever they liked on their own land – often without foundations or amenities.

The foundations of modern planning regulations in the UK date back to the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947. While there have been several substantial revisions ever since, could be due for a rethink.

Our climate

Using prefabricated elements is a popular means of making self-building cheaper, quicker, and less stressful.

Research from Dale Steinhardt and Karen Manley, of Brisbane’s Queensland University of Technology, reveals that the world's leading nations in prefabricated houses – including Sweden and Japan – are contending with issues that force the issue: extreme weather, and natural disasters.

Japan has large housing industry that intensively researches to develop new construction methods that are durable against earthquakes. In Sweden, freezing conditions encourage quick building and manufacturing in climate-controlled factories.

We don't have to contend with those issues in the UK – so there's less demand.

The availability of finance

Self-building in the UK is complicated from a financial perspective for a number of reasons.

Firstly, there's buying your land: many lenders are reticent to secure a loan on land if you've not secured planning permission in advance. And as we've seen above, buying land before securing permission might be appealing because of the cost savings involved.

Then there's the build. Most mainstream lenders don't provide self-build mortgages, so you'll need a expert in the field. Once you've found a lender, the funds are often provided in stages, after a particular phase of work has been completed and inspected – like the laying of the foundations, for instance. So you typically need a large chunk of working cash to pay your builders up front for each stage.

And then there's refinancing. Rates on self-build mortgages tend to be significantly higher than you might find on a typical high-street mortgage. So once the work is complete, you might want to remortgage onto a lower-rate deal with another lender – but that could be difficult if your home's method of construction isn't bricks and mortar, as in homes built using prefabrication.

The future of self-building in the UK

Despite new build estates springing up all over the country, research from the Future Homes Commission revealed that only one in four Brits would actually consider buying a new-build home, as so many estate homes fail to deliver the space, facilities and character buyers are looking for.

RIBA’s Case for Space report showed the size of new homes in the UK is seriously lacking compared to our European neighbours – Danish homes are 53% larger and German homes have a whopping 80% more space. So, as our requirements change, so could the rush to fill every piece of land with lookalike estates.

Self-building may also be less of a daunting prospect now; while Grand Designs typically focuses on individual homes, the recent Grand Designs: The Street showed a range of self-builders, from experienced tradespeople to young couples, building their own homes and a community – another thing many Brits feel is missing on your average new build estate.

The series follows some of the first owners on a large development of up to 1,900 self-build and custom-build homes in Graven Hill, Bicester. Instead of buying off-plan, each resident is able to create a home that works for their individual needs; planning permission is fast-tracked, and the fixed price plot includes groundworks and foundations to suit the approved plans. Once these are complete, your contractor takes over.

The site is just one example of a local authority relaxing planning rules or allocating land specifically for self-builds. Plymouth City Council's Plan for Homes scheme, introduced in 2013, waived all planning pre-application fees for self-build projects, appointed dedicated planning officers, introduced a £500,00 bridging loan fund to get projects off the ground, and released over 138 acres of council-owned land for building.

So, the tide may be turning – albeit very slowly.

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