Demolish and Rebuild

Demolishing a house to get a plot can be a cost-effective choice, says Mike Dade
by Mike Dade
25th November 2012

Whether you’re looking to build in a built-up area or out in the countryside, planning policies generally allow you to replace one house with another.

With building plots hard to find in some areas and especially so in the countryside, demolishing and rebuilding an existing house is a great way to create opportunities for self-build. However, planning policy can also be restrictive in terms of the scale, location or design of the individual scheme.

You can sweep up both planning permission to demolish (which is needed for houses) and permission for the new house in one application. Don’t contemplate demolishing first, then applying to rebuild: in the countryside, the existing house is the reason you can build a new one – lose the existing house and you’ll potentially lose the right to rebuild. So, what are the best ways to benefit from replacement opportunities and how can you avoid the pitfalls?

Urban rebuild

In built-up areas, councils rarely have planning policies that relate specifically to replacement of existing houses. In practice, the same planning considerations that would apply to building a new house apply to a replacement, namely blending with the character of the area, preserving the amenities of neighbours etc. The exception is in conservation areas where the demolition of any building requires specific consent.

Planning policies continue to favour making the best use of land for housing in built-up areas. The emphasis is on building on so-called ‘previously developed land’. Any existing house and garden falls within the definition of previously developed land and so, in theory, councils should be supportive of schemes that make better use of such sites. So, you might well be able to build a significantly larger house on a plot, or even build two or three where there was one before. The potential difficulty here is that councils might actually insist on two or more units in preference to a single, larger replacement. This is especially true in town centre locations.

A suitable house for replacement might be a run-down property where replacement is the only economic way forward; the odd house in the block, such as a bungalow in a row of two storey houses, or a small house on a large plot. Economics tends to be the driving factor; or you’ve got to buy cheap and add a lot of value to make the exercise worthwhile. A good eye for property prices and market trends is invaluable in spotting the best opportunities.

Rural rebuild

In the countryside, planning policies are specifically designed to prevent building new houses. Exceptions are houses needed to serve agricultural enterprises, conversion of existing buildings, and replacing an existing house with a new one.

Rural policy

Planning policies vary from council to council, but most do have a specific policy in their local plans or new-style local development frameworks that sets out the circumstances in which replacements can be allowed. Policies are inevitably more restrictive in areas like national parks, green belt, and areas of outstanding natural beauty, and remember you won’t be able to demolish and replace a listed building.

The big pitfall to avoid is buying a derelict house that is too far gone to be considered suitable for rebuilding. Where a house is little more than a ruin, and perhaps hasn’t been lived in for decades, planners could decide that the residential use of that property has been abandoned. If in doubt, check with the planners or take professional advice before you buy anything really run down.

Policy restrictions

Typically, policies aim to ensure that a replacement house is no more intrusive in the countryside than the original dwelling. This is achieved by restricting the size of the new house, controlling its position on the plot, and by ensuring the design is suitable for a rural location.

Size restrictions vary: some are quite vague, requiring the new house to be ‘comparable’ in size or ‘not significantly larger’. Others are more specific, referring to percentage increases in floor area or volume. Some refer to height, bulk and mass. The golden rule is not to just check your local council’s policy but to talk to a planning officer to find out how that policy is usually interpreted.

Position on the plot is also approached in different ways. Some councils expect the new house to sit literally on the footprint of the old, others allow some flexibility in position and a few are open to the idea of moving the house to a better position. Approaches to design are similarly varied. You’ll find preferences for remaining in- keeping with local styles, reflecting the style of the original house or preserving the character of the locality.

Maximising opportunities

To maximise the size of your replacement house, the key is to give the planners what they want – a new house that isn’t significantly more obtrusive than the original, or even one that is less obtrusive but actually much larger. There are several ways to achieve this. The first step is to have a close look at the house to be replaced. How does its height, bulk and appearance compare with the house you want to build? If the new house is taller, bulkier or more prominent, there are a handful of clever ways to reduce its impact, such as minimising the pitch of the roof to lower the ridge height.

If the original house hasn’t been extended in the past, then the chances are it could be now, taking advantage of permitted development rights. Given that these can allow quite significant additions to the original house, it is a useful bargaining tool where, for example, the local council doesn’t want a new house to be any larger than the original one.

Outbuildings are often taken into account when calculating overall floorspace on the site. A garage within five metres of the house would generally be counted as part of the house. Otherwise, removal of garages, workshops, sheds and the like can be all offered as part of your package of enhancements to the site.

Repositioning the new house can reduce its visual impact, for example moving it farther from the road, to a position that’s better screened by vegetation, or to a lower-lying part of the garden. There could be a highway safety advantage to repositioning, or an amenity advantage if an existing house relates poorly to a neighbour. Repositioning also opens up the possibility of staying in the original house while you build the new one. Most councils allow this, subject to suitable safeguards to ensure you don’t end up trying to keep both houses.

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