How to stop your self-build dream house turning into a delayed costly nightmare - Ken Robertson

Ken Robertson is a residential property and private client partner at Balfour+MansonKen Robertson is a residential property and private client partner at Balfour+Manson
Ken Robertson is a residential property and private client partner at Balfour+Manson
The longevity of Channel 4’s Grand Designs shows our fascination with those who have a dream to build themselves a very special place to call home.

The programme, showcasing the dreams (and sometimes nightmares) of self-builders, has been fronted by Kevin McCloud for an incredible 22 series since it first aired in 1999.

Most of those considering self-build won’t pique the interest of the Grand Designs production team, but it’s important to take a few lessons from those who do shoot for the stars.

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One lesson is that the final price of the build is almost always considerably higher than the budget that the self-builders started out with. The second is that unexpected issues will always arise.

Those two factors are writ large for anyone embarking on a self-build project at the moment, with prices of building materials soaring and huge challenges in supply chains, both in terms of products and people.

The price of timber, for example, has risen by up to 40% in the past year, with the cost of other basics like boarding for floors and cabinets, and plasterboard, also going up significantly.

It’s not just the prices but also the delivery times that are increasing. Some builders report that orders for concrete, for example, which previously might have taken a few days, are now running into several weeks.

If you have decided to build your dream home - or a second home - in a remote location, these delivery times are likely to be even more challenged.

And that’s even before we have even mentioned the difficulties in getting builders, plumbers, joiners, electricians and the whole range of tradespeople needed to make a dream home a reality.

Anyone who has had any kind of building work done on their home will realise that any delays can send a project into a tailspin - as work needs to be done in a specific order. So if one part of the project is delayed, the subsequent elements are also likely to be knocked back. With the current shortage of tradespeople - and a post-pandemic surge in work - this is likely to be a tricky area for some considerable time.

With all this in mind - and as a lawyer who has knowledge of self-build projects - my advice is to be ultra-cautious.

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If you are entering into a self-build contract, you should try to nail down a fixed price at the very start - and not leave yourself open to the vagaries of a market where materials (and people) are in huge demand. However, this will be very challenging given market conditions at the moment - so my advice is to work with real professionals and price in the strong likelihood of further inflation. As the 1988 hit by Yazz reminded us, The Only Way Is Up!

You also need to ensure that your architect and quantity surveyor are top quality, and come very highly recommended by others.

Buy your materials as soon as you can, even if you end up storing them if you have to delay the start of the project. However, remember that this raises the issue of planning permission - so be careful that you don’t run out of time.

I know that for some self-builders, the experience has not been terribly satisfying - and with all the additional challenging factors in play now, the risks of an unsatisfactory outcome are multiplied.

So if you’re determined to go ahead, remember these key points: buy early, secure quality advisers and line up your tradespeople well in advance.

But if you have the opportunity to delay slightly, it’s not a bad idea to do so. Hang back to see if prices stabilise and the glut of work subsides and more tradespeople are available.

Above all, be very cautious. However grand (or not-so-grand) your design might be, it’s your home - so don’t dive in at such a challenging time unless your eyes are completely wide open.

Ken Robertson is a residential property and private client partner at Balfour+Manson