Buying Building Materials

Tracking down the right materials is all about researching what suits your project, budget and work schedule
Articles by Build It magazine
by Build It
26th November 2012

If you’ve decided to self-build, the chances are that you’ll relish the opportunity to delve into researching the materials and products that will make your build stand out from the crowd.

Of course, there’s more to it than that. You’ll need to set your budget, figure out where you want to spend big and where you want to save, make sure you’re getting the right materials for your build system and style – and get things delivered on time!

There are three major routes to securing the materials you need. You could contract a single merchant, go it alone or take a middle ground. Your choice rests on your own skills and the amount of time you have available – read on for a rundown of what’s involved.

Working with a builder’s merchant

Builder’s merchants such as Wolseley offer access to a wide range of materials and services, and many self-builders find that sticking with a single supplier is the easiest option.

“Once you have planning approval for your house, it’s a good idea to take your plans to your builder’s merchant and get quotes for high value items, such as concrete, bricks, timber frames and roofing,” says Robin Batchelder, project manager at BuildStore. “Trade account partners will often work out quantities for you and give you indicative lead times, too.”

Delivery & storage: what to consider

Build schedule A comprehensive schedule, governing the timing of deliveries and works, is vital to keep your project on time and to budget

Access If your plot doesn’t have adequate access for articulated lorries and plant vehicles, you’ll have hefty delays on site. Worse still, your local authority has the right to decline planning approval where it deems that suitable access can’t be guaranteed

Plant Check whether you need forklift trucks or cranes for unloading bulky materials, and ask whether your merchant is able to supply this service free of charge

Receiving goods Always ensure there’s someone available to accept deliveries – otherwise expensive materials could be dumped anywhere on site, or being taken back to the depot. Keep a log of all deliveries, including details such as the product and quantity delivered, company and driver name

Security Theft and bad weather are the bane of building projects, so secure storage is a must for everything from materials to tools. That could mean anything from a lockable garage to sturdy site fencing. Get suitable self-build insurance in place, too

Independent merchants are well worth considering, too. “Our long-serving staff has in-depth knowledge of local products,” says Mark Northway, financial director at Scottish firm Beatsons. “We can offer a wide range of materials at highly competitive prices. Most of our branches have three or four dedicated delivery vehicles, which isn’t always the case with large chains.”

Whether you opt to work with a national chain or enlist an independent merchant, it’s always a good idea to try to establish whether the company can offer the localised advice that could be essential for a successful project.

“Planning officers in different parts of the country will demand different materials, right down to basics such as insulation,” says Doug Barker, general manager at Selco in Kingsbury. “Our branches therefore carry stock that’s specifically tailored to the requirements of the local authority.”

All the leading builder’s merchants offer trade accounts, some of which can be specifically tailored for self-builders. As a rule of thumb, signing up to one of these will give you a 10% discount off the list price – and that’s before negotiation.

Of course, you don’t have to rely solely on one big company. You might prefer to set up a trade account with a merchant who will supply the basic materials for your build, such as bricks, blocks, concrete and timber. You can then shop around at specialist companies for items such as windows, doors, heating systems, renewable technologies and bespoke products.

Can I source my own building materials?

It’s certainly possible to go it alone, but think carefully before taking this route – you’ll need to devote a significant amount of time to tasks such as researching and scheduling orders. It’s a full-time job, but get it right and you could save a considerable sum by cutting out the middleman.

The solo approach isn’t risk-free. Shaving a few per cent off your initial materials bill won’t be much of a comfort if it turns out you’ve specified the wrong item or your build schedule isn’t watertight. It’s important, therefore, to double-check the lead-time of every material, and to get as much expert help as possible when it comes to choosing suitable products.

If you’ve established a good relationship with your architect, structural engineer or builder, they may become an invaluable resource – particularly when it comes to ensuring that a product meets UK Building Regulations and suits your build system.

Try to balance online research with visits to merchants and showrooms, and always request free samples before buying online. There’s really no substitute for seeing a product in the flesh, as this allows you to get an accurate picture of how they’ll look and feel in your home. That goes for everything from the fabric of your build to the tactile finishing touches, such as lighting, flooring and ironmongery.

What about package builds?

Your approach to sourcing and scheduling materials is likely to be very different if you’re working with a package or turnkey house builder. These companies basically design and supply homes to either watertight or completion.

Guide to Package houses

“Our customers are supplied with a Guide to Building a Potton Home at the start of their project,” says Ieuan Compton, head of marketing at Potton. “This includes details of suppliers with whom we’ve secured exclusive discounts. Self-builders can take advantage of the Potton Trade Card, which covers everything from building materials, kitchens and bathrooms to plant and tool hire.”

Most package companies will appoint a dedicated contracts or project manager to your build, too. “Our experts can provide advice on sourcing materials and help steer you throughout the process,” says Ieuan. “Our guide also includes a 12-week build timetable, showing which materials and trades need to be on site at any one time. You can manage the project yourself or hand the job over to a project manager or builder.”

Building a package home doesn’t mean sticking to a set palette of materials. “Potton customers have complete freedom of choice when it comes to sourcing materials – not only can they modify the standard designs, they can even go completely off piste if they wish!” says Ieuan.

How should I negotiate prices for building materials?

Whether you opt for a single supplier or look for bargains with various companies, good negotiating skills will come in handy.

Discounts are eminently achievable, with a bigger budget usually equating to better buying power. Nevertheless, you’re unlikely to secure the kind of discounts a developer might achieve, simply because a self-builder’s single-house budget pales in comparison.

Never rely on a single quote – always approach three or four firms. Give them a rough idea of your budget (it pays to do some research of your own first to get a reference point), and ask them to offer you their best price for the materials you need.

Quick guide: lead times for key building materials

Ready-mix concrete: 1 week

Blocks: 2 weeks

Bricks: 4 weeks

Timber frame: 6-12 weeks

Truss roof: 2-3 weeks

Standard roof tiles: 2 weeks

Standard windows & doors: 4-5 weeks

Lead times courtesy of BuildStore

Remember – the cheapest quote isn’t necessarily the best. Look closely at factors such as the quality of the materials to be supplied, whether all your requirements are being fulfilled, and whether the company is willing to offer the level of on-the-job support you require.

One way you can increase your buying power is to join a community self-build scheme. The great thing about these projects is that you’ll be creating your own home within a collective of like-minded individuals. If you go to a supplier with an order for six homes worth of bricks, for example, you’re much more likely to be able to secure a bulk discount.

There’s another, similar ploy worth investigating. In parts of the UK, forward-thinking self-builders and renovators are establishing local syndicates to purchase certain items at reduced prices – at the moment, eco technologies such as solar panels seem to be the most popular buys. Search online for groups in your area.

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