Cards on the table, Hartwyn are not land sourcers. Nor are we planning consultants. In fact, a big part of what we do focuses on the idea that no one is the best at everything, which you can learn about in our brochure. What this essentially means is that we will help you to find someone to do those things if you want us to.
What we ARE good at, is taking large projects and breaking them up into smaller and more manageable chunks. You’re welcome! But whatever happens, I get asked a lot about land. Where to find it, why is it so expensive? Why can’t I build exactly what I want on the land I already have?
So, in order to dispel a few myths, skip a few lessons and (probably) break a few hearts, we’ve decided to share everything we know about how to buy land on a low budget. There will probably be some gentle opinions peppered in, but it wouldn’t be one of our blogs otherwise now would it?
The most important thing for success in finding land
It’s not what you think. Ready? OK. Number one bit of advice is:
Forget the house. Seriously, forget it. Don’t get tempted to think about cob, timber, straw or anything like that. Certainly, don’t think about bathroom taps, windows or (the current most popular distraction) renewables and which renewables are the latest and most off-grid, future-proof option.
Yes, utility bills are climbing and we all want to be insulated (badoom-tish) from that but seriously, it’s a LONG way off for you right now, probably. Read on to find out why this is and why it’s best to not crowd your brain at this early stage….
In short, it’s because everything begins and ends with the land. Even the design of the house (more so if you’re going to do it in a sustainable way) is dependent on various aspects of the land – topography, drainage, light, local materials, all kinds of things. Additionally, any building that might already exist on the plot will give you some parameters for what you’re going to get planning for later on. It could literally go anywhere and land is in short enough supply that trust me, beggars can’t be choosers here. If you can get some, use it!
So that’s what NOT to do. This doesn’t help you move forwards of course, only tidy things up a bit in the old brainbox. Again, we get asked about this a lot so it’s probably also a good idea to jot down the few different ways of getting land and how they overlap. It doesn’t actually depend on land as much as we think it does. Actually, it’s all about the planning permission that land does or does not have or might or might not get in the future*
Read on to find out the strategies I’ve seen….
Find a plot that already has planning permission
This is the most obvious and will pretty much always be the most expensive option. The planning on a plot of land is worth money itself. In lots of areas of the country, it’s actually worth more than building the house costs – which is crazy when you think about that in non-economic terms. But it’s where we are.
All of this is due to scarcity, the wider property market, and what things are worth downstream once they’re built. The physical building of houses is relatively cheap compared to what they’re worth so the price of the landfills in the value gap. This means people can charge LOTS for land with planning, so they do.
These plots are widely advertised to the end-user and self-builder. The market itself isn’t that different from simply buying houses, in effect. Self-builds are still largely the playground of the affluent as people would much rather live in a house they designed themselves than something off the shelf and are prepared to pay extra for that.
Websites like Plotfinder, Property With Potential, and Addland are worth checking out, while agents, listings and brokers exist for this in the same way as buying a house. Some of them will even do both like Zoopla and Rightmove.
It’s pretty simple and clear-cut. A small risk here however is that you may find that the permission is for something that you don’t want to build, though you will of course know this in advance. If you really want the plot and you love the location though, a decision has to be made.
Details can be quite expensive to change or you simply might not get the changes agreed so there’s always a bit of a chance to take, make sure you do as much research as possible and even possibly get an outline planning application* done if you’re going to be changing a lot before you even buy the plot.
There are other approaches though. You could also….
Find a plot with an existing structure and do a conversion or rebuild
This functions similarly to the above option. Permission already exists on that plot one way or another in what’s known as a precedent***. This building could be a derelict house, a barn or possibly just some foundations. Sometimes that permission will be current and sometimes it will have elapsed if it was obtained and then ground not broken within 2 years.
As well as these possibilities it’s important to remember that some of these buildings will have permission for different uses. Anything that was once lived in is the best option here as it will already have what’s known as ‘residential’ permission. Other categories include agricultural, industrial, storage and a whole host of other categories, sub-categories, definitions, conditions and restrictions.
Should the structure not be residential then you will need some kind of planning permission to change the use and if you’re changing the footprint or design of the building too much, then a whole new application will need to be made, as mentioned above.
Having something there already though means you’re definitely in a better position for getting planning than you would be if you were asking to build on a blank field.
This is the example by which farm courtyards with a house, a barn and a stable end up with three residences on them. Larger properties are split up, sold off and the buildings converted or rebuilt “subject to planning consent”
Find a plot of land that is already parcelled for sale without planning
This is the cheapest option available without delving into strategies used by industry professionals. More on that in a bit. Be careful here though, as sometimes these plots are parcelled up and sold shall we say, optimistically. This post will explain more.
The key thing to remember is whatever path you take, to check that you have at least a chance of getting permission before parting with any cash. If you overpay for an agricultural plot and then eventually don’t get planning on it, it’s really REALLY bad.
You won’t see that money again and there’s little recourse. No-one will buy it from you afterwards with the same hope as all of the applications are public. The land goes back to being seen as only agricultural which (as you can see from our webinar and course) can shave a terrifying amount off the value.
Now, there are of course a lot more nuances to this. There are pathways to start a business on the land and automatically qualify, there are ways to buy certain buildings that automatically qualify for a change of use too. Certain types of barns built before a certain time for example. In any case, assurances can be sought with a pre-planning application.
Something else to be careful of here are covenants. Most of the time, people who have land that might get planning know all of the things you now know. So, they put in what are called covenants. This means effectively, that if you lift the value of that land by achieving planning permission, they legally get a percentage of that uplift in value. This is quite common and will need building into costs.
Those are the strategies usually employed by the end user self-builder. But if you want to think more like a developer or you don’t have a lot of money, there are ways to use time and skill instead. Here’s how….
How to find land when you have a low budget
In order to do this, you’ll need to identify and speculate on a totally unidentified plot. A plot that isn’t earmarked at all, no one else is interested in it and you’re the first to notice it. Thing is, given that pretty much the entire property and construction industries in the UK rest on this uplift in value it’s incredibly competitive, is not easy, and takes time, knowledge and expertise.
There are land sourcing companies out there who can help you with this and at least advise you if you see something somewhere. It’s a learned professional skill like everything else, and if you’re only doing it once it’s worth thinking about working out how to do this yourself or paying someone else.
There are various courses and resources out there and with the right amount of self-directed education and enough leads, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to do it too. This process can play out in three ways: easy, quick, or cheap, and you can only choose two.
Similar to property sourcing, the real gains here and the big industry strategies are all focussed around buying something that’s BMV (Below Market Value) by a certain percentage and capitalising on that in some way. Whether by putting in the legwork to get the planning and selling it on for a profit or developing it fully yourself.
Whichever of these two things you do, once that is complete you can simply borrow against it for some money whether you choose to live there or not. Land can be flipped just like property in this way and you can climb the ladder until you have the land you want or the money (and skill) you need to buy your dream plot.
Whatever you do, the basic idea is around finding something that’s not worth much and getting the piece of paper that says it’s worth a lot more.
Will I be better off doing this?
It’s important to note that self-building is incredibly rewarding and difficult, but not necessarily cheaper. Especially when land costs are involved. There’s some thinking to do about your budget and what your time is worth, therefore. This post will explain a lot about how much it costs to build and also how much it’s worth doing yourself.
Once you have your land, the next very important thing when considering a self-build right out of the gate, however, is to think carefully about budget and how to spread that out throughout your project. Remember earlier when I cautioned against thinking about renewables too soon?
The cold hard fact from the start remains though. Nothing happens without land. So don’t get distracted. Building a house is a huge process that takes years from ideation to completion. So, think about the next thing, get that done, and do the right things right.
If you’re keen to learn more, we have other resources on our website that can help:
- Budget Planner
- Permitted Development / Garden Buildings Guide
- Our free ‘How to Build a House’ Webinar
And enjoy free to access the Self-Build Primer, a 4-part course on planning, building control, finance, and contractors. Save yourself some money and gather some knowledge. Register here. All we ask is that you take the time to give us some information about your project.
If you have a specific project you’d like to discuss then we’d love to hear from you. Whatever stage of the process you’re at, we can help or at least lend a friendly ear.
Happy hunting and above all, good luck!
*Planning permission is the authority to build on a piece of land – but it isn’t always that simple. In order to get planning permission, you have to submit drawings and a lot of information compiled to a professional standard whether by yourself or an industry professional. Once you have the permission you will only be allowed to build the thing that you submit plans for. Only very minor changes are permitted without a full resubmission.
** Outline planning is a low-effort pre-planning application, a bit like taking the planners out for a coffee before they decide whether they’re willing to have dinner with you. You submit basic drawings and intentions to the planning authority to see if there is any chance you’ll get permission without the time and expense of filling out a full planning application straight away. All of this is situation-dependent so feel free to reach out to us and ask if you’re not sure.
***A precedent is a previously planned situation that’s used as an example or guide to make similar situations more tenable. Planning exists to preserve the landscape (in theory) so things that don’t affect it are more likely to get permission. Or more accurately, to not be refused. Precedents include pre-existing buildings but can also encompass similar projects in the local area that have already obtained permission.