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

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How to find the ideal plot for your self-build

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

By Staff writer | 11 January 2022

Since more people than ever want to build their own homes, finding good self-build plots can take some time. But if you are patient and prepared to consider a range of plot options, such as a sloping site, you will increase your chance of success.

Once you have a realistic idea of your project budget, the search 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.

A clifftop self build TV home in Galloway, Scotland featuring in Grand designs 2019 on Channel 4, hosted by Kevin McCloud

This clifftop home built on the site of a former military listening station, sits on a one-acre plot in Dumfries and Galloway. Photo: Douglas Gibb

Land use

A high percentage of land can’t be developed on due to protection 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. Self-build plots tend to be on brownfield sites – land that has been developed in the past.

If you spot a piece of land that appears to have potential and want to find out more about it, the local authority’s land-use development plan maps will indicate the ground’s classification, ie: what it can be used for.

You can check its ownership via the Land Registry. 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. 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.

Plots at the right price

If you find a plot and are haggling, bear in mind that the price will be dependent on many factors including its classification, location, size and the potential end value of what can be built on it. Unfortunately for self-builders, individual plots or bigger development sites are the most expensive.

Agricultural land sells for less, but sometimes 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.

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 you build on it?

Avoid buying a plot without planning permission in place. You don’t want to end up with a strip 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 benefits 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 of time, and you will need to submit an application for DPP before starting work. If you want to buy a plot or property subject to planning consent, check the dates first.

Don’t dismiss self-build plots because you don’t like the permitted 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 the land.

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.

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