Self Building in London and Other Cities: Finding an Urban Plot

How to research and find the ideal plot for self building in London or other Cities around the UK.


Britain’s city dwellers are quite often just as desperate for their own slice of land as the rest of the population, but self building in London and other cities around the country can be daunting at least. In the UK around one in ten homes is self built, and although this sounds impressive we still lag behind most of Europe where a third of homes are built by the owner.

Finding an urban plot is one of the main difficulties when self building in London, but new government policies make it easier for self builders with the will to build to find their ideal plot. Every council is ordered to asses the local demand for the ability to self build and must allocate land accordingly.

Self building in London

Where to Look. Looking for a plot can often mean getting right back to basics. Think cycling around the areas you’re interested in, checking out Google Earth to get a knowledge of all the nooks and crannies in your location, but most importantly just taking a few days to meticulously check out the area on foot. Take a notepad, a camera, and document areas you think could have potential. Having short-listed several sites, take to the internet. See the local planning department’s web link to find out whether anyone has already beaten you to the planning application. If the plot is still available, then find out more information via Land Registry for a small fee. If you don’t have time to look, you can pay a finder’s fee to a local architect to do the job for you.

Knock down and build. Don’t think that the only way of self building in London is to find an empty plot. Plenty of the city’s housing stock is ripe for demolition. It is quite a popular option to take an ugly old building, tear it down, and replace it with the best-looking house on the street. This is easiest in areas where there is a precedence for ‘knock down and build’.

Garages. These days garages just aren’t used as much as they once were, whether that’s due to changing attitudes or the simple fact that our bigger, modern cars don’t fit into the tiny spaces anymore. Many people would be happy to sell off a garage plot to add a little extra cash to the retirement fund, and they wouldn’t be missing much by getting shot of the small storage space.

Garden grab. This more controversial method of finding a plot for self building in London or other cities simply involves owning an existing house, cutting its garden off, and putting a new house there before selling the old one minus the garden. If you have the right cash flow, you could buy an existing property, build in the garden, and sell the old house on.

Alternatively, you can approach other homeowners with large gardens to see whether they would be willing to sell off a portion of their plot for you to build on. Think medium sized houses with big gardens, tennis courts, or outbuildings. You might want to be a little sensitive in asking about this way, but writing or knocking on the door is always a good method of introduction. First impressions count, and you will want to get the homeowner on your side from the beginning.

Online ads. Everybody looks for everything online today, and to avoid paying agents’ fees many people are self-advertising plots and properties on the internet knowing that somebody will be looking. Selling direct means more money goes to the homeowner, and you can deal with them directly.

Advertise. Advertisements work both ways, and it would be helpful to put your own ads out to show your interest in self building in London or other areas to those who may already have considered selling some land in the city. Put ads in local papers, on websites such as Gumtree, and get talking. Word of mouth still goes a long way.

Avoid the pitfalls when buying urban land. There are plenty of opportunities to fall when buying land, and buyers must beware. One of the biggest issues is buying land ahead of really thinking about it, and ending up not being able to secure planning permission to build upon it. People can spend tens of thousand of pounds on plots only to find that the chances of securing planning upon them are close to zero.

Another big issue when building in already built-up city areas is that the open spaces you do find are often crowded around with other houses. This is problematic for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the site may not be very easily accessible. Secondly, the immediate neighbours could have a thing or two to say about a building site being opened up at the end of their garden. It is up to you to bring your prospective new neighbours around to the idea of having a new home built right where they will hear it all going on. You will want to enthuse them with talk of the architectural quality of the build, the improvement it will bring to the area, and of course that you will make great, friendly neighbours.

Image: Christine Matthews

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