Find a plot: The Grand Designs guide to finding a self-build plot of land

How to find the right self-build plot

Securing a good site is vital for a successful project, so make sure you explore all avenues

By Staff writer | 10 September 2022

Since more people than ever want to build their own homes, good self-build plots can take some time to track down. But if you are patient and are prepared to consider a range of options, you will increase your chances of success.

Once you have a realistic idea of your project budget, the search for a plot can begin. Bringing an architect on board when you find something promising can be helpful as they’ll assess the land for its suitability to be built on and uncover any potential pitfalls.

Colin and Marta's Grand Designs airship house in Scotland

Building a home on an airfield they already owned required lengthy debate with the local authority before Colin MacKinnon and Marta Briongo were given permission. Photo: David Barbour

Plot-searching tools

Use a variety of search tools to improve your chances of finding self-build plots. Websites such as Grand Designs magazine Land Finder by Addland, Plotfinder and Buildstore Plotsearch advertise thousands of land listings. It’s also worth checking out property portals such as Zoopla and Rightmove.

You can also register your interest with the councils in the areas where you’d like to build. Under Right to Build, local authorities must maintain a record of demand for plots to match the number of people who have shown an interest in building a home.

Express an interest in what you’re looking for and sign up with local estate agents, as they’ll be the first to know about any local sites for sale. And speak to local architects and surveyors as they’re likely to find out about new plots early. They may know of a site that’s not right for them, but perfect for you.

Suitable self-build plots for single houses are often sold at auction, either as renovation projects or demolition and rebuilds. Ask local estate agents to alert you when auctions are upcoming.

Try writing an enquiry letter including your contact details and post to all the houses in, or close to, your ideal area. Someone might be keen to sell their property, or a portion of their garden, or know of someone else looking to sell.

Finally, scour the streets for potential sites, and contact the planning department to see if an application has been submitted or contact the owners through the Land Registry.

This pair of corrugated steel-clad homes were built on a postindustrial plot spotted on an auction site

This pair of corrugated steel-clad homes were built on a post-industrial plot spotted on an auction site. Photo: Fiona Walker Arnott

Can I build on it?

A percentage of land can’t be developed due to protections imposed by the government. Constructing a new house in an area that hasn’t been built on before, such as designated greenfield land, can be difficult. Many self-build plots tend to be on brownfield sites – sites that have been developed in the past.

If you spot a piece of land that has potential and want to find out more about it, the local authority’s land-use development plan maps will indicate the plot’s classification, which will give you an idea of what it can be used for. The next step is to check its ownership via the Land Registry.

Also, the local planning authority keeps records of all planning applications made regarding the plot. Any past applications will also show its ownership at the time, as the forms ask who the owner is and that they are notified – even when an application is by someone else.

This should provide the title register and a plan of the plot, which will set out who owns it and should show details of anyone else who has a right to the land.

House in Assynt, Scotland

This site in Assynt, Scotland, had existing planning permission, but the architect re-designed it to make the most of the views and returned to planning. Photo: David Barbour Photography

Buyer beware

If you find a self-build plot and want to negotiate the price, bear in mind that the land’s value will be dependent on many factors including its classification for use, location, size and the potential end value of what could be built on it.

Unfortunately, individual self-build plots are often the most expensive per sqm. Agricultural land sells for less, and sometimes these plots are misleadingly advertised as available with planning permission.

A site that appears to be a bargain may be inexpensive for a reason, so be cautious because it could leave you out of pocket in the end. When Jon and Gill Flewers bought a self-build plot in Malvern, for example, they discovered too late that drainage and water services stopped 65m short of the property, and had to spend more than £40,000 to get it connected up.

An overhead view of a converted mill in a Cumbrian valley

This ruined mill site in Cumbria had no planning permission for a home when Ruth Grimshaw and Rob Glass bought it. The couple spent two years working with the local authority to gain consent. Photo: Andy Haslam

Getting build consent

Avoid buying a plot without planning permission in place. You don’t want to end up with a piece of land with no development potential. If you’re determined that a site is the one for you, make an offer subject to achieving satisfactory consents. If the landowner is serious about selling, they will realise the benefit of waiting until permission is granted.

There are two types of planning consent: outline planning permission (OPP) and detailed planning permission (DPP). OPP means that the local council has agreed the basic principle of a proposed development. It’s an outline of the scheme – for example, to erect a two-storey, three-bedroom home with attached garage. It’s subject to the condition that full planning details will be submitted in advance of building work commencing. OPP is only valid for a certain period, and you will need to apply for DPP before starting work.

If you want to buy a plot or property subject to planning consent, check the dates first. Be wary of plots that have planning permission close to expiry – six months can be too short – as planning departments can take up to 12 weeks in considering applications. If preparatory work or investigations are needed, this could substantially delay the process.

Don’t dismiss a plot because you don’t like the permitted project design. You can submit a new application, even if DPP exists for a different design, without invalidating the existing permission that the site had when you bought it.

Building near trees: This horseshoe-shaped self-build in rural Suffolk is arranged around an oak tree

This horseshoe-shaped self-build in rural Suffolk is arranged around an oak tree. Photo: Jefferson Smith


Online plot-finder resources

SCROLL FOR MORE LIKE THIS