12 Checks Before You Buy A Plot
Put yourself in the picture before you part with your money – and help put together a case for planners.
1. Is the plot in a conservation area or Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty?
It’s not unheard of to self-build in these circumstances but it isn’t easy or always possible. Strict rules are likely to dictate the size, shape and look of the house. Normal permitted development rights don’t apply so you won’t be able to extend later on or build outbuildings. These rules also apply to plots and renovation projects that could impact a nearby listed building. In this situation, you will need a Heritage Statement – justifying the proposed works and their impact on the listed building – which will be reviewed by the local conservation officer during the planning process.
2. What’s on the title deeds?
A restricted covenant may state the land can’t be built upon or restricts where you can build. Check you have the right to access the plot. And if there’s a private right of way, check who’s liable for the upkeep. A solicitor can work through these issues.
3. How will you access the plot?
Some kind of logical route to and from the road should be clear from the outset. Safe access and clear sight lines are necessary before you begin for trades and deliveries coming to site. This might mean cutting back a hedge or tree, which could belong to a neighbour and need their permission. Planning will also expect enough space for turning and parking on the plot after the house is built.
4. Where are the services?
It’s likely the further you are from the highway, the more expensive it will be to connect to the services. Identify the location of the water, gas, electricity and telephone and check you can connect without crossing neighbouring land – a call to the utilities will confirm what you’re dealing with. Services themselves can get in the way if there’s a manhole or telegraph pole on your site. Again, check with the utility company that the obstacle can be moved and be prepared to front the cost.
5. Where are the neighbours?
Neighbours have a right to object to overlooking and loss of privacy, light and views. A plot that has potential to create these problems isn’t a write-off, but a sympathetic design and open communication is wise.
6. Are there too many trees?
Trees close to the area where you want to actually build may need removing if there’s potential to undermine the foundations. A tree survey identifies the trees and assesses them against the British Standard. This should be submitted with your planning application. Later the council may require you to carry out an Arboricultural Impact Assessment. This looks at how removing or retaining certain trees will impact on the surroundings and the new house. Factor in extra costs for the surveys and possibly higher specification foundations. Some trees of special value are protected under a Tree Preservation Order (TPO), and all trees in a conservation area are protected. They can’t be touched without planning consent – the council can advise which trees have TPOs.
7. Is there a flood risk?
The plot doesn’t need to be right next to water for risk of flooding. Low lying sites near a river or the sea can still be at risk. Check the plot’s postcode on the Environment Agency’s Flood Map website.
8. Are the ground conditions good enough?
Loose, waterlogged land, and sites previously used for industrial work or tipping, are plots to approach with caution. Building Control can advise on soil conditions in your area and if the site is flagged for contamination. A soil survey – where trial holes are dug and analysed – highlights problem areas such as instability, poor drainage and contamination. A soil risk assessment goes further with advice on how to remedy contaminated soil and later, evidence the work has been done. The results may indicate more costly foundations but you’ll have a clearer picture on what you’re buying into before you begin.
9. How stable is the structure?
If your project is to convert or renovate an old building, rather than build on land, then a survey is essential to highlight the major problems. A structural survey is carried out by a structural engineer. This assesses the structural integrity of the building and advice on how to fix the problems. A building survey is carried out by a building surveyor and is a full inspection of the property. The outcome may be that demolishing, or part-demolition, is better than repair. In any case, a healthy contingency is advisable as problems might reveal themselves once work has begun.
10. Is planning permission in place?
A plot with planning permission is undeniably reassuring, however check when the permission expires. Currently planning is valid for three years. If you want to make changes to the approved plans, allow enough time to submit your revised application before the expiry date. Sometimes permissions are renewed after the deadline but it isn’t guaranteed. Mortgage lenders may also want a long lead time before expiry.
11. What are the planning conditions?
Check there aren’t hidden costs or conditions you can’t agree to. For example, restrictions in size and height of the new property. Or the requirement to use a specific – and expensive – external building material. In old properties, outbuildings, and even replacing a house, a bat survey isn’t uncommon. This could lead to fitting bat boxes if bats are found roosting. Some councils require ‘development contributions’ to go towards local infrastructure and facilities. Fees vary and may need to be paid upfront.
12. Should you proceed without planning?
The million-dollar question! A plot without planning isn’t a lost cause but needs careful scrutiny. Check the planning history through the council’s website. A history of refusals raises a red flag but a planning consultant can advise if it’s worth trying again. If you think you can reason and justify all of planning’s requirements then you have a good chance – success stories tend to be through self-builders who’ve replaced an existing property.