How to Find a Building Plot: The Complete Guide

Follow our guide to the basics of tracking down the right plot for your self build project
Articles by Build It magazine
by Build It magazine
14th September 2020

Around 13,000 people successfully self build every year, so clearly the building 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.

How to find a building plot

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.

Learn more: Expert Plot Finding Articles 

But 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.

Choose an area to buy property

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.

Explore your preferred area

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.

Talk to locals

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.

Ask the local council

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.

Key plot finding routes

1 The internet

The web is one of the best sources of viable building 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.

2 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.

3 Property auctions

Plots suitable for single houses are regularly sold at auction (often as demolition and rebuilds). Well-known online auction houses include Allsop and Savills.

4 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.

5 The Right to Build

The Right to Build is a game-changing piece of legislation that means councils in England have a duty to grant planning permission on enough serviced building plots to meet the demand indicated on their Right to Build registers.

6 Serviced plots

In recent years, thousands of sites suitable for one-off homes have become available across the UK via the new custom build route.

This is where a specialist developer, council or landowner enables the creation of individual homes – usually by providing building plots with services (eg electricity, water and drainage) and planning consent in place.

This takes a lot of the time and risk out of the process for self-builders, as you know you’re dealing with a viable site.

Graven Hill is a new development for self builders and sells serviced plots in Bicester.


Graven Hill Arial

An aerial image of the Graven Hill site

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 the National Custom & Self Build Association’s efforts to secure the Right to Build is helping to ensure 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 does a building plot cost?

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.

Surveyor looking at land

The perfect plot may not exist and you’ll likely have to make compromises

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 self build plot?

1 Brownfield land

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. New legislation also requires councils to keep Brownfield Registers and use these to identify potential plots.

2 Greenfield land

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.

3 Garden plots

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!

4 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.

5 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.

Plots 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.

Buying a plot without planning permission

You should never buy land that’s being marketed without planning permission. So, resist the temptation to buy a cheap plot of land on the basis that ‘it will get planning one day’.

What you can do is make an offer subject to achieving satisfactory planning permission (and any other required consents) for a design you’re happy with. But if you sense that you won’t get them, walk away.

How to Assess a Building Plot

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 outline planning permisison, and can turn a relatively inexpensive field into a plot worth possibly several hundreds of thousands of pounds.


  1. Lauren says:

    The advice is to never buy a plot without planning permission, but also to knock on doors/write to people as “you just might find someone who hadn’t realised they were sitting on a potential source of revenue.”
    Surely in that case it would be a plot without permission? How do you find out if a plot is likely to be granted permission?

  2. Chris says:

    Hi Lauren,

    I’ve made a couple of tweaks to the article to hopefully clarify this for you… but basically the principle is that a plot that’s being marketed without planning permission should immediately ring some alarm bells.

    Given that the value of a plot rockets up when it has planning consent, it’s extremely unlikely that someone would try to sell that plot without the benefit of some kind of planning in place.

    So, if you see a cheap-looking plot for sale without planning, chances are all you’d be buying is a place to store your deck chair. It’s extremely rare that a suspiciously cheap plot actually has true development potential (in some cases the vendor may have already tried to gain planning and failed).

    On the other hand, some people might have big gardens or other types of empty/disused land, and may not realise that they’re sitting on a potential plot. So they’re not actively trying to sell it, and it’s you who is identifying the potential.

    There are similar risks in that you don’t know for sure that you can get planning until you apply… and that’s why you might consider making an offer that’s conditional on you achieving consent for a design you want.

    Hope this helps!

    Chris (Editor, Build It)

Leave a Reply

You may be interested in

Our sponsors