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10 Top Tips for Project Managing Your Self Build or Renovation

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Mike Hardwick has built his own home and helped countless others achieve their dreams. Here, he sets out his golden rules to take the stress out of running a scheme
enjoyable self build project

For some self builders, the roller coaster of emotions they go through during a project can make them feel alive and they just can’t wait to plan their next. Others might swear that they’ll never take on this kind of scheme again – but I think it’s fair to say that nobody embarks on a self build or serious renovation lightly.

Those who do will invariably find a way to make it over the finish line, no matter how smooth or rough the road to their goal, and end up with a home to be proud of. So what can you do to make the process as hassle-free as possible? Here are my top 10 coping strategies.

1. Plan ahead

Time spent researching what you want, what it will cost and how you can get it is seldom wasted. I’d recommend you take as much time planning what you’re going to do as you do actually building the house. There’s so much choice in terms of design options, structural systems and finishing materials that making decisions can seem overwhelming.

But by adopting a patient approach, researching what’s out there, speaking to experts and visiting shows such as Build It Live, you can ensure you’re making the right choices and getting good value for money.

2. Set a budget (and be realistic about the costs)

Mercifully, very few projects fail. But if it’s going to happen, it’s probably because the money has run out. If this occurs, things tend to get tricky both practically and emotionally.

I am still yet to meet the self builders who have found themselves coming in significantly under budget, and most will admit that their finished home cost a little more than they originally thought it would. But provided you use a little common sense, you won’t end up with a Grand Designs-style overspend.

The key to achieving this is to work out how much you can raise in total for the project and use this figure as the basis for your design choices, rather than trying to make an inadequate budget fit an overambitious scheme. This total sum should include a contingency of at least 10% of your build costs to cover unforeseen events – trust me, you’ll use it.

Read more about setting your self build budget »

oak frame self build project

Above and top: Winners of the 2016 Build It Award for best self build project, Darren Findlow and Anthony Higham ensured their site was an enjoyable place to be and made the effort to be there virtually every day “even if it was just to pop in to answer questions or deliver some well-deserved cakes to keep the workforce happy,” says Darren

Read the full story

3. Get references & check them

One of the biggest stress inducers is hiring the wrong builder or tradesperson – or even worse, an incompetent one. Knowing the difference between a cheap quote and good value for money will get you halfway to making the right choice.

It’s worth noting that trades are heavily in demand in the current economic climate and, as you’d expect, many are capitalising on this by pushing up their prices. Bricklayers, in particular, are having a field day after experiencing a few relatively lean years.

What does that mean in practice? Well, you’re unlikely to get a low quote from anyone unless they’re either desperate for work, new to the game or for some reason unwanted by anyone else. And as good builders and trades will be in demand, they probably won’t be available immediately – so you need to plan ahead.

Look for people who’ve built up a strong, positive reputation and, crucially, make sure they can prove it by asking for references and following them up. If they’ve done a good job for others, they can and will do the same for you.

Read more about hiring trades »

4. Follow the rules

Like or loathe them, we have laws controlling planning and development for good reason. You can’t build a new home without full planning permission – and any consent is likely to come with conditions attached that must be complied with, so don’t try to bend the rules.

Just to complicate matters, there are some situations where obtaining formal planning consent or building control approval is not actually required. This can often be the case when renovating (or sometimes extending) an existing property. Note that there will still be permitted development rules to follow in these circumstances, and every project has to meet the minimum standards laid out in the Building Regulations – even if approval isn’t needed.

While you might think you can get away with it, works that don’t have planning and building control approval tend to surface when the house is put up for sale. This is when purchaser’s solicitors start asking awkward questions that can be expensive to answer. It’s best to get it right and follow the rules from the start.

Find out whether you need planning permission »

riverside self build home

Some projects bring greater challenges than others – and this was certainly the case for the Myers’ island build, which was only accessible by boat. But the difficulties of getting materials and plant on site were outweighed by the thrill of creating a tranquil, individual riverside home

Read the full story

5. Protect your investment

The chances are you’re going to be putting most, if not all, of your wealth into a self build project, so it makes sense to cover your liability should things not go right.

Unfortunately, domestic buildings and contents insurances don’t apply to self builds (they don’t usually extend to major renovation works, either). So purchasing a self build insurance policy that covers contractors’ all-risk is just common sense, as it will offer some welcome reassurance against the worst happening.

Taking out a structural warranty to cover the first 10 years of a new build’s life is also sensible – in fact, it will be essential if you need a mortgage to fund your scheme. Don’t forget that even if you are a cash buyer and think this is unnecessary, a warranty will be a prerequisite if you sell the house on to someone who needs to raise a mortgage themselves, so it’s worth having anyway.

6. Keep your neighbours onside

While you are (potentially) having the time of your life building your dream home, your neighbours may well be suffering the stresses that come from noise, parking and general disruption associated with your project.

Failing to appreciate the concerns of those around you can sometimes lead to years of festering resentment and the last thing you want is to fall out with those living around you. So before you start work on site, be sure to tell neighbours what is happening, how long it’s likely to take and who to contact if there is a problem. Be quick with an apology and a bunch of flowers or a bottle of wine if you have given any cause for grievance and any minor disputes will soon be forgotten.

well managed self build project

Checking references is vital when appointing partners for your build. Andrew and Elaine Torrance went the extra mile when appointing their architect, Keith Renton, talking to a number of his previous customers and even staying in one client’s home

Read the full story

7. Don’t sweat the small stuff

Running yourself ragged trying to save a few pennies on material purchases just adds to the natural stresses and strains of self building – and it takes up an extraordinary amount of time for relatively limited gain.

I would always recommend that you reserve your negotiating skills for the big-ticket items like bricks, tiles, windows and doors, where getting a decent discount can be worth hundreds or in some cases thousands of pounds. One good deal on a big item can easily negate all of the little savings on bags of screws and tins of paint.

8. Make your site a nice place to work

You’re not trying to make friends for life with builders and trades when you set out on a project, but just like any other working environment, if your site is a nice place to be then people will want to be there. Provide a suitable area for breaks, a liberal supply of tea, coffee and biscuits, and settle the invoices on time.

Clear direction, timely decision-making and a smile and a thank you for work well done will more than repay themselves – and you might find your trades willing to go the extra mile when the situation calls for it. Building sites can be great fun to be on if the atmosphere is cordial and a sense of humour is allowed to thrive. Creating your own home should be enjoyable, after all.

high-quality brickies

Good brickies are in demand at the moment, so don’t expect a cheap quote – and be sure to book the job in well in advance

9. Realise that ‘stuff’ happens

Every project will be different and every job throws up its own challenges. Just when you think you’ve dealt with one issue, along comes the next and this can be a real test of patience, especially if you have taken on the role of project manager.

If several problems arise simultaneously it can seem overwhelming but rest assured that this is normal and your project will get to completion, even when that goal might seem a long way away. If you have fostered a good relationship with your trades, this is where they can help by offering advice or solutions.

10. Call in the professionals

If any or all of the above makes you think ‘this isn’t for me’ then you should consider calling in a professional project manager (who could possibly be your architect or a general builder) to take on the role, if your budget allows for it.

Of course, it will cost you more – probably 10%-15% of your build costs because there is a lot of work involved. But if you are at all unsure of your ability in terms of organisational skills, temperament or time you might well find the increased investment worthwhile.

First published: January 2017

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