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Factors to consider if you want to find a suitable site to build your own house

Buying a piece of land and then designing and building your own home is a pipe dream for many.

But what if you want to turn it into reality? Where do you begin and what are the key things to consider? 

We’re not talking about money here and your budget, but rather focusing instead on the process of finding a suitable site and planning permission.

We speak to James Firth, of estate agents Strutt & Parker, for his views on choosing a site and the best chances of securing planning consent.

The biggest mistake is rushing into a project without considering all the steps in the planning process, according to James Firth, of estate agents Strutt & Parker

1: Choosing the site

There are some areas that are better than others to consider if you’re planning to build your own home.

Mr Firth explains, for example, that brownfield sites or land that is adjacent to existing development has a better chance of getting planning permission to build on.

‘If you do not own the site, development sites can be taken forward on a subject-to-planning basis whereby completion only occurs once planning permission has been obtained,’ he said.

2: Check the local plan and development zoning

It is important to check whether the desired land is suitable for building on or is it protected. If it is green belt land, it will have more restrictions.

Mr Firth said: ‘The Government’s planning reform measures will introduce additional zoning of land, including land for growth, renewal or protection.

‘If the land is identified for growth or renewal, it is likely that an existing development will be there already, and will make it easier to move forward with a planning application.

If the land is zoned for protection, it will be more difficult. However, the Government Planning Reform hasn’t yet come into play, and there is no fixed date for its roll out, but it is something to bear in mind.’

He added that the Government is also encouraging self-builds and requires local authorities to identify how the need for self-build properties will be met in their area.

3: Draw up plans and engage early with local planning officers

Engaging with the neighbours and local community will help reduce the risks of your planning project.

‘This is the point at which you should engage with a planning expert. 

‘If you’re looking to purchase land upon which to build, do some pre-application work to get some feedback from the local authority,’ Mr Firth explained.

4: Consider the sustainability

National Planning Policy has recently been amended to give additional emphasis to climate change and sustainability considerations, Mr Firth points out.

‘So considering how these can be incorporated into your build will carry significant weight in the planning process,’ he said.

Minor scale applications could be decided by the council and the planning authority within eight weeks

Minor scale applications could be decided by the council and the planning authority within eight weeks

5: Consider biodiversity

In a similar vein, Mr Firth explained that proposals are required to minimise impacts on and provide net gains for biodiversity.

‘The Environment Act will also be bringing forward additional requirements,’ he said. 

‘Consider the type of property you’re building and whether you can incorporate some favourable sustainable features, such as planting trees or wildlife improvement to help secure planning.

6: Getting planning permission

Smaller scale projects are likely to be decided by a planning officer as a delegated decision, whereas some more controversial or larger scale proposals will go through to a planning committee for the council to vote on, according to Mr Firth.

He said: ‘There is the option of an appeal to the planning inspectorate if it doesn’t go in your favour. 

‘But above all, it’s about focusing on the overall benefits of the proposal – from the design or environmental credentials – these are all taken into account in what’s called ‘the planning balance’.

‘Minor scale applications could be decided by the council and the planning authority within eight weeks. 

‘However, it can take longer than this. If the time line is exceeded, there’s something called a non-determination appeal to the planning inspectorate but this process can take considerably more time.’

Other factors to consider

Why are people drawn to building their own home from scratch?

Self-builds give people the opportunity to design a home that fits not only their needs but their aspirations. 

There is scope to do some exciting things with advances in technology and incorporating interesting materials. 

But, while many people love shows like Grand Designs and the thought of creating a home may be appealing, remember budgets can stretch, family life can be thrown into chaos and you should expect the unexpected.   

What types of land do people look for?

Sites that are either well located near existing development or have had some form of previous development are typically easier to obtain planning permission on, but that’s not to say it can’t be granted for other sites if there’s strong justification.

It’s all about location – lots of people would quite like to live in a very rural location but securing planning in a remote location is more difficult. 

It’s a balance between what the buyer wants and what planning can be achieved. 

Finding this balance is what planners and architects work together to achieve, in line with their client’s aspirations.

What are the common mistakes people make?

The biggest mistake is rushing into a project without considering all the steps in the planning process. 

By doing some early engagement with experts, you can save a lot of time, effort and costs further down the line. 

My advice is to invest time upfront to save later in the process.

At what stage should people think about planning?

It should be considered at the outset from initial site-selection. You don’t want to be left with a site that you can’t get permission for.

How might planning have changed off the back of the pandemic?

The pandemic has impacted the desire for people wanting more space, have a garden and more amenable internal area – this is a wider trend and has created competition for suitable sites. 

Remember that the impacts of the pandemic on the property sector more widely are still a factor when it comes to self-builds, whether that’s finding available experts and architects or the availability of building materials.