How to Choose a House Building Plot?

A personal touch is what turns a house into a home. And nothing says 'personal' quite like building a house from the ground up. Self-building your dream home can be very rewarding, but it all starts with finding the ideal house building plot.

If you don't have land of your own, you'll soon find that good building sites are hard to come by these days. And they're even harder to snatch off the market. So, we've put together a brief guide for those who want their self-build project to get off to a flying start.

Types of Building Sites

Various types of building sites lend themselves to home building. But few of these would secure development approval because planners tend to prioritise derelict, redundant, or low-quality land for urban development. Most of the land you'll find on the market can be classed as follows:

  • Greenfield sites have never been built on before, and they tend to be hidden between residential properties or scattered on the outskirts of villages;
  • Brownfield sites include uncontaminated land and vacant buildings in built-up residential areas, such as disused industrial facilities and scrap yards;
  • Agricultural land is usually only approved for residential building if qualifying conditions are met – prospective buyers must have a farming background, they must be locals, and they must ensure that the building blends in naturally with the scenery;

The easiest way to check if land is viable for homebuilding is to look at the council's Development Plan and Local Area Plan. Identify greenbelts, rural housing control zones, coastal areas, natural heritage, special protection or conservation areas, areas of geological interest, etc.

Established dwellings are another option. Demolishing isn't very costly, but planning permission may only be granted for similar size buildings that use the original footprint. Established buildings are more likely to be built on good-quality land, but extending the foundation could be costly if the surrounding land is poor.

Listed (NI) and Protected Structure (ROI) buildings come with strict and very specific guidelines. The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage can help identify them. Your local authority can also send you a declaration under Section 57 of the Planning and Development Act 2000. It refers to the structure and the curtilage of the building, it's free, and it takes under 12 weeks to receive. If you disagree with what it says, you can appeal to An Bord Pleanála.

Finding an Individual Building Site

Until you find a plot, there's no reason to start designing the house, So, now that you know what type of land you want, it's time to do the legwork. Focus on small areas and specific towns, so you don't spread your resources too thinly. Here are a few ideas:

  • Register your interest with local and online estate agents;
  • Subscribe to land listing platforms like plotfinder.net;
  • Visit local pubs, newsagents, and post offices;
  • Put an ad in the newsagent's window and on local shop pinboards;
  • Write to homeowners with large gardens, or get the estate agents to do it;
  • Check the local council's planning applications page for outline planning consent (i.e. no detailed drawings) for single houses, and approach the applicant politely via phone or letter;
  • Ask local surveyors and architects for input;
  • Attend private sales and auctions;
  • Scour local newspapers for ads;
  • Scout on foot or by driving slowly, and look for old, obscured 'For Sale' signs;
  • Use Google Maps and Streetview to find backland, infill, gaps in the street scene, small bungalows with extra land;
  • Check estate departments and traditional private estates (think Duchy), railway management bodies, universities, coal authorities, and county councils;
  • Get an Ordnance Survey map (or OS Pathfinders) for local roads and tracks;
  • Hire a property finder with a background in surveying, especially if you live far away from the area and you're pressed for time, because they can connect you with 'off-market' offers;
  • If all else fails, charter aircraft to spot

Keep in mind that some agents have no interest in selling you land because of the small fees involved. Others have a vested interest in selling to a large developer because they'd then earn fees on any new-builds sold. If you have any properties on the market or if you'd like to buy a new one, choose an estate agent who also sells land, to get into their good graces.

Custom build schemes often come with land released by developers for self-build. Some smaller builders may also be willing to sell some 'land bank', but they probably intend to build your house and charge far more than competitors. Before you agree to anything, get expert help, because 'landbanking' often results in money wasted on unusable land.

Things to Consider

As you look for the right land for building your house, consider the following points:

  • Buying small patches from neighbouring gardens and joining them together with so-called site assembly may be cheaper than buying an individual building site.
  • Assess the neighbours and the area's appeal on the housing market.
  • Connection to mains services can be expensive, depending on the distance. Things like soakaway systems for waste water are only allowed on suitable land.
  • If there's no vehicular access and access for construction work, it's unlikely that the local planners will grant it.
  • Some trees can point to certain types of sub-soil (beech trees to chalk, oak trees to clay, alder trees to waterlogged soil).
  • Other trees, like willows and poplars can damage the property with strong roots. You must never cut trees down without approval, so check Tree Preservation Orders beforehand.
  • Removing trees (oak, etc.) from clay could lead to waterlogged soil, swelling, ground heaves, and damage to the property.
  • Buying double plots can be lucrative. You could invite local builders for building cost estimates and see if they're interested in buying part of the plot.

Shortlisting Land for Building

Once you've found a few candidates, check for planning permission, especially if it's your first build. It can be an outline or full planning permission. You're not necessarily tied down to that specific design. You may be able change it or scale it down; upsizing is a problem, unless you use permitted development rights or add to the plans and build in increments later on.

If there is no planning permission, look at the Local Development Plan and ask a local planning officer for their input. Once you've found your finalist, make an agreement with the vendors that requires them to sell the land to you if you get planning permission. It's called option to purchase after approval is granted. Otherwise, once permission is granted for a residential build, the vendor could decide to take advantage of it themselves.

If you're sure you'd get permission, you could buy the land and only exchange the title when the planning permission is received.

The Pitfalls of Buying a House Building Plot

Before you commit, hire a good solicitor to make ownership, boundary, and restriction checks. There are more pitfalls with land purchases than there are with buying houses. Here are a few:

  • Easements, sewers between adjoining properties, electric cables or services, access or requirement for visibility space;
  • Ransom strips (small strips of land that don't belong to the vendor, and must be bought outright or rented);
  • Restricted covenants – large houses in suburban areas with specific conditions for the location of windows, ridge heights, boundary hedges, road access, etc.; some expire as the people or property involved cease to exist, but you could draw out a restrictive covenant indemnity policy;
  • Ransom covenants – give people the right to claim a share of the uplift in paddock land price after it's been developed;
  • It's easier to get approval to develop on land between or next to existing houses;
  • Ribbon developments on village outskirts are not allowed;
  • Planning permission conditions come with a dead-line and they need to be discharged before you can proceed with the build;
  • Conditions are discharged within 8 weeks or they are automatically deemed satisfied;
  • Planning permissions are only valid when legal conditions are met;
  • Service connection costs can soar to 5 figures if the water mains and services are not on your side of the road - for backland development, electricity cables and gas pipes can double or triple in thickness, and gas may not even be an option in rural areas;
  • To avoid building in negative equity, make sure the value of the finished house would be equal or higher than land purchase costs, build costs, and a 20% to 30% margin.
  • If it's an auction buy, you need to have the money available. Once the gavel is down, you hand over the deposit – same as when you exchange contracts, and it's non-refundable, so read the legal pack beforehand;
  • If it's a sealed bid tender, you make an offer without knowing what everyone else is offering, and the estate agent or vendor is not required to accept the highest offer;
  • Over-developing (spending more than a house is worth) can be just as bad as under-developing (not making the most of the land available).

There's much to learn and plenty of research to do before you sign the title deed for your house building plot. That being said, a self-build is a labour of love, and the extra effort will make signing on the dotted line all the more rewarding. And as soon as you tick that box, your self-build project is off to a flying start. Get in touch with us at BIY, and we'll help you put your personal mark on the house of your dreams with an affordable and comprehensive suite of home building services.