Self Build Lessons: What is it Really Like to Build a House?

Mike Hardwick shares his personal experiences of self building a home, both good and bad
by Mike Hardwick
22nd June 2018

If I’ve learnt anything over the years, it’s that the best lessons are drawn from personal experience – so this month I thought I’d share the highs and lows of my own self build project with you; including what went right, which bits didn’t, and the elements I would change if I were to do it all over again.

I have assisted a fairly hefty number of self builders over the years, but I’ve only ever tackled one scheme for myself. I’m often asked why I’ve not done it again and my answer is the same each time.

Along with my wife, Alison, our motivation was to build the perfect family home and stay there, having lived in more than 10 different Services’ family houses in my time with the RAF. We moved in to a new place every two years and while they were all perfectly functional, none of them were ever a home, and there’s only so much magnolia paint you can take. But our self build was a keeper.

Attic trusses from Taylor Lane offer the potential to easily convert loft space in the future
A woodburning stove is a more energy efficient option than an open fireplace

The positives

Given the amount of work that went into designing and constructing it, we’re happy that there are plenty of great things about the home we built. Here are the top 10 things we love:

  1.  There’s no compromise. Everything’s here because we wanted it to be, so the layout, aesthetics and functionality fit our lifestyle. It’s another reason for not moving – we’d have to start from scratch to get anything like the same satisfaction because our house is unique to us.
  2.  It’s a nice area. Self building allowed us to live in a place we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to afford to move to. Building our home wasn’t cheap, but it allowed us to buy into a very nice rural village. The savings we made, roughly 25% on market prices at the time, allowed us to build a high-quality home for much less than its finished value.
  3. We built a more efficient house. Although Building Regulations have moved on since we did our project, we were able to specify a home that far exceeded the energy efficiency standards in force at the time.
  4. Solid intermediate floors. Because we built in masonry, we were able to specify beam-and-block intermediate floors instead of timber joists. So there are no squeaky floorboards and almost no stud walls upstairs. This means the entire house is quiet, warm and solid.
  5. Water-based underfloor heating. If you’ve never experienced it, you are missing out. Warm tootsies while making the tea on a cold December morning is a real luxury. We can put the downstairs furniture where we want, too, because there are no radiators to block.
  6. The woodburning stove. This is one of our favourite things. Easy to light, simple to clean, heats a massive room despite its modest size and the pictures are better than on TV. Fire it up and it turns the house into a home.
  7. Upgrading to attic trusses. We designed the loft space so that, if needed, we could add another double bedroom and ensuite bathroom. To facilitate this, we specified heavy-duty attic trusses rather than simple Fink trusses. For an additional £800, we have saved around £25,000 on the cost of any future loft conversion.
  8. I know how everything works. Having watched the house come together, I’ve seen where every pipe, wire and baton is located. I know how to fix stuff if it goes wrong, plus where to drill holes and where not to.
  9. We have a decent garden. The big developers make their money selling houses, not gardens, so they try to cram as many units as they can on a site at the expense of outdoor space. You’ll get something they like to call a garden, but it won’t be as big as ours, front or back!
  10.   We’ve been on telly. If you want to see your other half leap into action and clean the entire house, top to bottom at 9.30pm, tell them at 9.29pm that the BBC are coming to film your house the next morning. It really happened, and Alison wasn’t even cross with me: in fact she couldn’t wait to tell her girlfriends when to watch.

The negatives

Here’s the bottom 10 – the bits that weren’t so good, we’ve since changed or that I might have done differently had I known the implications:

  1. Planning is a pain. Obtaining permission was, far and away, the most stressful part of the process. It took 18 months, with loads of objections from neighbours, and at times we thought we might never get consent. Building the house was a complete doddle in comparison.
  2. It took every penny we had. Self building usually costs more than you have in the budget and always takes a little longer than you think it will. We literally spent everything we had to make our dream home happen. We were mortgaged to the hilt, had to send a begging letter to our lender for a bit more and even had to sell my prized vintage motorcycle to
    pay for the driveway – a sacrifice nobody should have to make and one I don’t think I’ll ever get over.
  3. The staircase is too small. Because of the beam-and-block floor, we had a fixed aperture for the stairs to fit into and it was designed too small for the flight we wanted. Instead of a half landing, we have winder stair treads, which are not the easiest to navigate, especially after
    a good night out in the local pub!
  4. There aren’t enough power sockets. I am still berated for not putting power sockets in places where Alison later thinks one should have been fitted. I should have been more generous with them.
  5. Plastic gutters. After several years, the gutters and downpipes, especially on the south-facing side, have bleached and look a tad shabby. Aluminium or steel would have been a sensible and cost-effective upgrade.
  6. Open fireplace. While we put a woodburner in the kitchen/family room, in the lounge we specified an inglenook open fireplace. It looks lovely with its ancient oak beam, York stone hearth and a log store either side, especially at Christmas. But in use, it simply converts logs into light at an alarming rate. I should have fitted another woodburner for better airtightness and efficiency.
  7. Painting and decorating. The money running out coincided with the need to do the finishes, so we decided to do it ourselves. By that point, we were exhausted and settled for a tin of one-coat gloss, a couple of big tubs of contract emulsion and a pack of rollers.I’ve since realised the painting and decorating sets the whole tone of the quality of your home. With hindsight, I should have paid a professional. It took years to finally get around to redoing it all.
  8. Central vacuum system. I put one in, but I wouldn’t do it again. Wrestling a 9m anaconda of a hose around the house caused chaos for anything or anyone in its wake. What’s more, while it worked fine on the hard floors, it wasn’t great on carpets. It’s now been consigned to the garage and is used for cleaning the cars.
  9. Future proofing. While I claim smartie points for putting in the attic trusses, I should have thought one step further ahead and also put in the supply tails for heating, electricity and water, but I didn’t. Simple to do at the time, disruptive and costly after the event.
  10.   Trusting the professionals. I automatically assumed everyone in authority knew what he or she was doing. How wrong I was. The Building Regulations changed just as we were about to move in, introducing Part M to cover inclusive access.My inspector insisted that I had to install a ramp to the front door and a level pathway to the road and it cost me £1,500 to comply.Only much later did I realise that the only Building Regulations that applied to my project were the ones in force at the time of application, regardless of subsequent changes. I’m still fuming and the inspector owes me £1,500!

The verdict

So would we do it again? Too right we would, but the thing is, we don’t need to because we don’t want to move from our lovely home. Yes, it cost us everything we had, but we soon got back on an even keel and we now have the luxury of being mortgage-free because of that saving we made over market value – there was so much less to pay off.

There is something quite primeval about building your own home – outside of the big life events like marriage and children, I can think of nothing else I have done that matches the emotional and financial benefit of self building.

It is still the road less travelled, but it’s getting much easier to do, especially now that we have government support in the form of Right To Build legislation, and the pros definitely outweigh the cons.

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