Starting Your Self Build Project

How to Start Your Self Build Project

When does a self build project begin? Is it when you start looking for a plot? Or perhaps when you actually buy a plot and visit an architect?

For us, both of those events seem a little way off yet. So what can we do straight away to get started?

Look at Your Finances

Before even contemplating plots or house designs, you surely need to have an understanding of where you stand financially as this will dictate what you can and can’t achieve.

We are renting at the moment, so our finances are relatively straightforward as we don’t have any money tied up in property. We have cash savings plus the income from our full time jobs. Hannah takes a regular salary, whilst I take a salary plus dividends from my design company.

So there are 2 questions – how much do we need for a self build and how much are we able to afford?

Because we’ve never owned a house, the whole world of mortgages is pretty new to us. I have been in touch with 2 providers, to see what sort of ballpark figure we might be able to borrow (Build Store and Ecology). Both said that they typically lend up to 4 times your total income, minus your fixed expenses (loans, credit cards, rent/mortgage payments). I’m assuming this is based on your net income (i.e. after tax), but I didn’t think about this when I asked, so I’ll need to check that.

In addition to the maximum the lender is willing to lend, they will also assess your ability to keep up with repayments. For this they will look at your general monthly expenditure, including things like groceries, utilities, travel, child care etc. They will want to make sure that you have a comfortable margin to make the payments, plus the capacity to cope with potential increases in interest rates.

As for how much we actually need, this is a slightly more open ended question. In the back of Homebuild & Renovating magazine, there are some quoted numbers for cost per square meter for typical homes in various regions of the UK. They also have a great article about costing in general which you can view here.

We are in Oxfordshire, so the cost per square meter, assuming we were to work with a main builder plus sub-contractors, would be £1293 for a 2 storey house of approximately 130m^2 . Based on this the build costs in total would be £168,090

So if we allowed £120,000 for land, plus all the associated fees, and some contingency I think we’re probably talking something in the region of £320,000-£330,000 for the total project budget?

Clearly there’s lots more research to do here, but at least it’s a ballpark figure that we can bear in mind.

Think About Your Design Brief

At some point, we’re probably going to have to sit down with an architect and tell them what we want. Obviously without a plot and budget it’s not possible to draw up exact plans at this stage, but we can at least start to think about the things we want from our house.

The advice on the Royal Institute of British Architect’s website suggests 5 key areas that you your architect will need to know about:

  • You Aims
  • Your Budget
  • Your Design Style
  • Your Reasons for the Project
  • Your Authority (who will be making the decisions)
  • Your Overall Expectations

The design style is the most exciting bit – this is where you get to browse magazines and the internet looking at all the amazing things you can achieve. I have started to answer these questions – you can see my progress here.

Both Hannah and I are putting together our own design style documents at the moment, so that we allow ourselves the freedom to say what we want. At the end of the process we will have to combine them into a single document and with any luck there will be plenty of common ground, but we will see!

Define Your Target Plot Location

We currently live in a lovely little village in north Oxfordshire. It has everything we need, is in a great location for work and travel in general. But, it’s expensive. We could embark on a plot finding mission in our village and the surrounding area, but I suspect that plots will be very rare, and when they are available will be way over our budget, plus we’ll have all the planning application headaches.

That’s not to say we’re ruling the option out, but there is a slightly easier looking option on the table. There is a new development at Graven Hill, Bicester. The idea at Graven Hill is to encourage self build on a grand scale – eventually thousands of homes. Not all will be self build, but many will. The concept will be that plots will be delivered as a ‘golden brick’, with the foundation and services installed, leaving you to arrange the rest of the build.

Indications are that the plot prices will be within our budget, and the timescale seems to suit us with plots becoming available in 2016. We eagerly await more news, but so far this seems like an ideal opportunity for us to embark on a self build project without too much risk and without the planning and infrastructure problems that seem to bog so many people down.

Start Researching

Although we will be relying on professionals to deliver our finished house, I think it’s important to have an understanding of at least the basics. Also, despite everyone’s good intentions, you are the person who cares most about this project and you need to know what questions to ask and what to look out for so that you can spot any errors before they become a problem.

We have 5 main areas of research at the moment – podcasts, magazines, forums, Pinterest and Youtube.


My podcast of choice at the moment is House Planning Help by Ben Adam-Smith. Ben started the podcast with the ambition to create his own eco friendly house by the time he reaches 40 in 2016. It didn’t seem wildly ambitious when he started a couple of years ago, but as we near the end of 2015 I think he’s starting to have some doubts about achieving the deadline! But the podcast is full of priceless information from industry experts, with a few self-builders thrown into the mix, and I think gives a great overview of the existing technology. It’s focus is on low energy houses, but takes a practical and open minded approach, basically giving you the information to then form your own opinion.


There are plenty of glossy magazines out there to give you lots of ideas. There is always the danger of being sucked into the latest fashion when browsing through them, but at the very least they are a great source of inspiration. We have been bookmarking various things that have caught our eye, using post-its to make a note of why we liked a certain feature. I’ve read the following:

They are all pretty similar in what they offer. We recently visited the The National Self Building and Renovation Centre in Swindon, and they must have some sort of link up with Build It and Self Build & Design, as there were 4 months worth of free copies available! Just those freebies are enough to begin with… We’ve gone on to subscribe to Self build & Design, which was just £12 a year. We’ll probably not have time to read them all, but we can scan through and pick out the interesting bits.


I’m sure there are plenty of forums covering self builds, but I’ve settled with for now. It’s fairly low key, just focusing on the forum itself. There seems to be a good group at the heart of the community with plenty of first hand experience, plus a healthy dose of humour and scepticism. I think as ever with a forum, the more you put in, the more you get out, so hopefully I can participate more as we progress. Right now I have more questions than answers so I’m consuming as much of it as I can. They have a great blog section too, where members post details of their own projects which gives a good view of the real world problems that face self builders. It’s as far removed as you can get from the glossy magazines, and helps to keep your feet on the ground I think.

Finally, our other area of focus has been Pinterest. Maybe not the most obvious place to look, but it’s a fantastic way to browse for ideas. We have started to create various boards for each aspect of the house, ranging from the outside appearance, to the various rooms. The boards can be shared, so Hannah and I can both pin and share ideas. The best part is probably the related pins that Pinterest shows you – it can give you so many ideas. But, a word of caution – it can be massively addictive too!


There are plenty of self build vlogs on YouTube, but the one I’m currently hooked on is by Ed, one of the regulars on the Ebuild forum. His YouTube channel is called The Construction Channel, and not only details the progress of his build, but has lots of tutorials and product reviews. All this and he’s not even got into the main build yet – so there’s plenty more to come.

Visit Other Self Build Projects

You can’t beat talking to someone that has actually gone through the process themselves. Thanks to one of the features on Ben’s podcast, we’ve been following a self build in Gloucestershire by Alex Baines and his family, called the Long Barrow. It’s been an interesting process for Alex, having spent quite a few years to get planning permission. Being in the countryside, it’s been a challenge, but Alex’s approach has been to allow the local community to have their say. The resulting design might not have been his first choice, but ultimately it has allowed him to undertake an amazing build, which will result in a truly fantastic home. We have visited the build twice now, first time to view the foundations and more recently to see the first floor level. I’m sure as we progress with our own build, we’ll have lots more questions, and so keeping up to date with Alex’s build will help us.

We will certainly keep our eyes and ears open for other self builders we can follow…

So that just about covers everything we’ve been up to. If you have any tips or suggestions, please feel free to leave a comment below.

Finally, we’ve started to record a vlog on YouTube – it’s not high on quality (yet!) but you gotta start somewhere right??


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