1. Planning permission
Assuming you’re buying a plot with outline or detailed planning permission, the first thing to check is the date of that permission. Planning only lasts three years (not five, as it used to) and a permission that’s only got six months left to run might leave you short of time if you want to amend it in some way. Also, lenders will look at how long a permission has to run and won’t be happy if the timing is too tight.
Renewal of permission isn’t a foregone conclusion, so don’t risk running out of time before you can start your build.
2. Planning conditions
Planning permission, be it outline or detailed, always comes with conditions attached. Some require you to seek the council’s approval for the details like external materials or landscaping, but can be more fundamental, such as, on outline permission, restricting the house to a single storey.
Worse still are conditions that require something to be done, like improving access, where not all the land necessary to complete the works would be within your control.
Increasingly, councils are granting planning permission for new houses subject to ‘contributions’ being paid towards local infrastructure or facilities, such as road improvements, parking schemes, or new sports fields.
Two things matter here: amount and timing. The amount is pretty straightforward, but can vary from a few hundred pounds through to £20,000 or more. Needless to say, higher sums will affect the value of the plot and should certainly colour the level of offer you make for it. Timing varies from having to pay ‘up front’ when permission is granted, to paying before first occupation of the finished house.
4. Legal matters
Ask about covenants early on in your investigations and check the plot’s title deeds to see if any show up. It’s quite possible for a plot to have planning permission yet a restrictive covenant that prevents you from building, or restricts what or where you can build – the two systems operate independently. They can be old and often written in obscure language, so again, get your solicitor to check for them and to explain any that exist.
You also need to check that you have adequate rights of access to the plot: especially important where access is over a private road, shared drive or where there’s a wide verge between the plot and the public highway. If there’s a private right of way, who’s responsible for maintaining it and what, if any, expenses could fall on you?
Check whether the plot is in a conservation area, or close to a listed building. Both could impose constraints on how you develop the house and grounds in future and could impose extra costs, for example by requiring the roof or wall to be built of particular, and possibly expensive, materials to blend your new house into its historic surroundings.
So-called ‘permitted development rights’, which enable you to extend your house or put up outbuildings without having to get planning permission are restricted in conservation areas, so take this into account if you’re thinking of expanding your house in future.
6. Drainage and flooding
Flood risk will have been taken into account when permission was granted on your plot. That said, since permission was granted flooding could have got worse, or improved due to some mitigation scheme. If your plot’s in a flood risk area (see the Environment Agency’s website), double check that nothing’s changed before you buy.
If foul drainage is to a public sewer, check you can connect without crossing someone else’s land, and that there’s adequate capacity. With surface water, if the chosen method of disposal is via a soakaway, check that water does indeed soak away (which it probably wouldn’t on heavy clay). Different solutions have different cost implications which you need to know about before you finalise an offer.
As well as the legal side of rights of access, you must also make sure there's physically enough room to accommodate the access and any specification for sight lines imposed by the planning permission.
Sight lines are lines of clear visibility up and down the road, meaning you could be required to keep a certain distance each way clear of obstructions. This is fine if you own all of that land, but not so fine if you would have to cut the neighbours’ hedge back hard in order to comply. They could resist this, then you’d have difficulties complying with the condition, which, at worst, could jeopardise your planning permission. Problems like this are best referred back to the seller of the plot to resolve.
If you like an open sunny garden, and the plot’s covered in trees, don’t just assume they can all come down!
Trees on plots can be a bane or a blessing. Check whether any have tree preservation orders (noting that in a conservation area, all trees are protected) and which, if any, are to be felled. A tree survey will probably have been submitted with the application which could specify particular protection measures during the build, or even specific foundation requirements, which could have cost implications.
9. Flora and fauna
The number of protected species, both plants and animals, is huge. If any are suspected on your plot, the council will probably have taken this into account in granting permission. Sometimes, though, if protected species are suspected on a site, conditions are imposed on planning permission, meaning it requires follow-up surveys.
These surveys, and any mitigation works needed if protected species are found, can be expensive and can cause considerable delays. So, if you find a badger set on the plot, the best advice would be to leave it to the badgers!
10. Ground conditions and contamination
Planning takes no account of ground conditions, and foundations costs vary greatly depending on whether a plot is on stable rock, heavy clay or made-up ground. Make sure you know what’s under yours.
If your plot was formerly in industrial use, or subject to tipping, or perhaps a hole or pond was filled in the past, then contamination or instability is a possibility. Usually contamination is picked up at the planning stage, and as ever, conditions attached to the permission might require follow up investigations and mitigation measures. Needless to say, these can prove expensive.
Main image: This garden building has been let out as a home for several years, and could have potential to be replaced with a larger bungalow