Around 13,000 people successfully self build every year, so clearly the plots are out there. However, unlike the normal housing market, individual building plots are not so obvious to find – you have to work that much harder to secure a good one.
In some cases, it can take years to find a plot - especially if you're particular about elements such as size and the amount of work you're willing to take on. So be prepared to revise your goals if your search isn't going well. Flexibility, combined with the ability to focus your time and energy on the hunt, will give you the best chance of success.
Where can I start?
There are many routes to finding a plot - we've picked out some of the biggest in the 'key plot finding routes' panel, right. A common mistake made when plot hunting is searching over too wide an area. If you don’t focus your search to a specific and manageable geographic location, don’t be surprised if the sheer scale of the task overwhelms you. It’s better by far to pick the area you want to be in and then blitz it.
Key plot finding routes
The internet is the best by far the best source of plots. Websites such as Plotsearch feature thousands of land listings. General property-hunting portals such as Rightmove also allow you to refine your search to 'land' only.
Estate & land agents Registering your interest with estate agents (especially independents) in the area you're keen on remains an effective approach. Get in touch with local surveyors and architects too, as they'll find out about new plots early.
Personal approach Exploring the area you're interested in gives you a chance to spot potential plots as well as get a better sense of what's available. Get the locals on board and let them know you're keen to join the community, too - the best plots are often snagged before they make it to the open market, so word-of-mouth is a powerful ally.
Drive or even better walk around your selected towns and villages looking for potential building plots. These could be infill sites, side gardens or disused garage blocks, but all may have potential.
Knock on owners’ doors and enquire – or write them a letter introducing yourself as a potential purchaser. You just might find someone who hadn’t realised they were sitting on a potential source of revenue.
Keep an eye on planning applications in your target region, too. Local authorities publish a register of these on their websites. It could be that the applicants are looking not to build, but to sell the plot on.
Write to the applicants and ask if they are interested in selling to you. If you are lucky you might just get a letter back inviting you to discuss the matter further.
What are the main barriers?
Plots are relatively scarce in the UK, due partly to an abundance of protected areas compared to other European countries. Currently 90 per cent of land in England can't be built on, though organisations such as the National Custom & Self Build Association are working to secure the release of more sites for self builders.
Planning policies restrict most schemes to development boundaries around existing settlements. The government is trying to relax this under its Localism Bill, but building new houses (as opposed to replacement or conversion) in greenfield areas is still difficult.
New plots, then, tend to be within these development boundaries. But in high-demand areas the obvious sites have been picked clean by developers. The plots that remain are often brownfield sites – meaning it’s land that has been previously developed – and it’s here that the most opportunities will lie.
How much should I budget?
Your plot will be the biggest single purchase you make for your project. In the past, the final value of a self-build house could be roughly split into thirds - one third plot cost, one third build cost and the final third profit. But in areas where plots are rare and prices higher, land may account for more like 50% of the total value of the completed house.
Although you will be looking for the perfect plot to go with your perfect house, you need to be realistic about what you can obtain within your budget. The perfect plot, if such a thing even exists, is going to be both elusive and expensive. So, for the vast majority of people some form of compromise must be called for.
The trick is to see past what is there and spot the potential in the site. What looks like a tangled mess of brambles and rubbish at first glance can become a very nice plot after a few hours of work with a JCB. If you can realistically change what you don’t like then do so, but if the compromise needed is too much to bear, then move on to the next plot.
What are the main types of plot?
Brownfield The government focuses much new housing on brownfield sites (previously developed land), so local councils should look favourably on plans for these plots. Services are likely to be already in place, too. However, you'll need to apply for a change of use, and design restrictions may be imposed, such as maintaining the previous building's footprint. Brownfield sites are usually relatively affordable upfront, but you may need to factor in costs for a buy to demolish project.
Greenfield This term refers to land that's not been built on before - whether open countryside, gaps in rural areas, on the outskirts of villages or between existing houses. It's not impossible to gain planning permission to build on a greenfield site, but there's a distinction when it comes to fiercely-protected 'green belt'. Opportunities for an entirely new home in green belt are rare - you're more likely to be granted permission for an extension or buy to demolish scheme.
Garden grabbing The coalition government has amended the definition of brownfield land to exclude domestic gardens. Nevertheless, Planning Policy Statement PPS3: Housing still advises that 'options for accommodating new housing growth may include additional housing in established residential areas'. So infilling and small scale development on gardens is still possible, and one-off houses are likely to be preferred over compact development - so self builders contemplating this approach can breathe a sigh of relief!
Buy to demolish Popular because it's usually cheaper than renovating an existing property in spite of the fact that demolition fees can run into £10,000s. You're less likely to encounter hidden costs by knocking down and starting afresh, and VAT is reclaimable on new-builds but not refurbs. You'll generate a lot of waste by demolishing an existing property, but you could sell on salvageable materials such as bricks or even re-use them yourself. You may only be allowed to build to the same height and footprint as the previous building.
Designated areas Self building in locations with special designations - such as conservation areas - is subject to strict controls. You're very unlikely to be granted planning permission for a new house, or even a demolish and rebuild, in these cases. Renovation opportunities are a better bet, but you'll find that permitted development rights are often severely restricted.
Why are plots sold with planning permission?
Land is available with one of two types of planning consent in place - outline planning permission (OPP) or detailed planning permission (DPP). The former is consent in principal for development to occur, leaving some or all of the particulars to be established in a later application for DPP (you must apply for this within three years of OPP being given).
But don't dismiss a plot just because the permitted design doesn't suit you. Even if DPP is already in place, you can submit a new application for a different design without revoking the existing permission - so you don't necessarily have to stick to a plan that doesn't suit you.
Because of their scarcity, building plots are notoriously expensive and the cost differential between land with and without planning can be huge. You should never buy land without planning permission so, resist the temptation to buy a cheap plot of land on the basis that ‘it will get planning one day’.
By all means, make an offer subject to achieving satisfactory consents but if you sense that you won’t get them, walk away. Ask yourself the simple question as to why outline planning has not already been obtained if it’s a feasible plot; it costs just £335 to apply for and can turn a relatively inexpensive field into a plot worth possibly several hundreds of thousands of pounds.