The complete plot finding guide. Includes advice on land agencies, planning departments, estate agents, land banking and more.
First things first - in order to find a building plot you are up against some fierce competition — other self-builders, certainly, but also full-time ‘land finders’, small builders, and all the vested interests of the development industry.
None of these suggestions are a guaranteed route to a site, although some are easier to follow than others. For the best chance of success, try as many of them as you can manage.
1. Keep an open mind
The main reason that people fail to purchase a plot is not that they fail to find any potential sites. It is because they will not compromise, and will accept nothing less than their dream plot, which in many cases simply does not exist. Before you start looking, think carefully about what you really need but also what you could do without. If you cannot compromise on anything, then be prepared for a long wait.
If you have some very rigid requirements about where you want to live, the constraints imposed by the the available sites may dictate what type of house you will build. On the other hand, if you have a firm idea of the character of the house you want to build, then you should be more flexible regarding the location. For example, if you want to live in a classic English village, the chances of getting planning approval for an innovative, modern design are, sadly, slim. If you can compromise and match your desired build style to your dream location, you improve your chances of achieving your main goal, by widening the choice of plots.
Sometimes even the people selling a property may not realise that they have a potential building plot on their hands, even the professionals. If an existing property is in a very poor state, or structurally damaged, it may not be out of the question to demolish it and replace it with a new house. If you find a relatively small house on a large plot, this might also qualify for the same treatment. Sometimes a plot with a solitary bungalow on it can be replaced by several two storey houses.
2. Study Maps
Using Google Maps and even Streetview is a huge boost to the armoury of the would-be self-builder looking for plots. You'll be able to identify gaps in the streetscene, small bungalows on large bits of land, and potential backland plots, all of which are ripe for redevelopment.
3. Know your area
At the start of your search, you need to familiarise yourself with the area, and gather as much information on it as possible. Even if you are looking in your own neighbourhood, you may be surprised by what you find out with a little research.
To be effective, you need to focus in on selected towns, villages or suburbs. If you pick too large an area at the start, your resources will be spread too thinly.
4. Use land listing agencies
There is not yet a service that collects planning data in a format suitable for people who are hunting for a single plot to build their own home, but there are some specialist agencies – such as Homebuilding & Renovating's plotfinder.net – that collect information from private individuals selling land and estate agents and make it available to subscribers to the service. These can save you a lot of legwork, and offer a good range of sites in different areas.
They are a useful starting point, and at the very least will help you to identify those agents who are active in selling land in your target areas. They will also give you an idea of how much land is coming on to the market, and at what sort of price.
5. Visit planning departments
If anyone wishes to get planning approval to build on a piece of land, they must submit an application, which then becomes a matter of public record. What this means is that you can walk into any planning department and ask to see the Planning Register, in which all the applications and decisions (where they have been reached) are recorded. Many councils now publish them on their websites.
What you are looking for is recent applications, preferably outline (i.e. no detailed drawings), for single houses. If an approval has not come through, so much the better. A plot will not usually be advertised for sale until the planning approval has been granted, because this enhances the value, and, if someone spots it early enough, they can make an approach before many others are even aware that it is going to be for sale.
If you find a likely application, make a note of the applicant’s details and approach them directly; they are usually, though not always, the owners of the plot. If the application is for outline approval there is a good chance that they are planning to sell, because there is no point in getting a detailed set of plans drawn up which may be changed by a purchaser. But sometimes they may have obtained detailed approval, with a full design, probably because the planners have insisted on it. Either way, there is no reason why you should not make a polite approach, either by letter or telephone.
6. Pester estate agents and go to auctions
Despite being the most obvious professionals to go to when looking for land, not all estate agents will be able to help you. The commission to be earned on land is not as attractive as that for houses, and many agents – especially the large chains – have no interest in selling land. Local agents, or those which run auctions, are the most likely to have something of interest on their list, and there are usually at least one or two in a given area who will be willing to help.
Unfortunately, a few less-scrupulous agents would rather sell the land to someone with whom they have an ongoing relationship, like a local builder, because, apart from oiling the wheels of their business network, they are also likely to be the agent who gets the commission on the sale of the newly built house. So don’t just leave your details with them and expect them to call you as soon as they hear of some land that may be of interest. Phone them regularly, and, if possible, visit them as well.
If you are going to sell your house and then rent while you search for a plot, try to chose one of those agents who do sell land. The aim is to try to get into that magic drawer in every agent’s office: the one with the list of ‘hot’ clients, who will get first crack at any good properties the agent is offered.
7. Ignore the current plans
Your dream plot may currently have planning permission for a house you would never consider building. When turning pieces of spare land into building plots, the developer will usually submit plans for the least controversial option in order to get the outline planning approval. These are often bungalows or small houses. The reality is that you may well be able to upgrade this planning approval to the kind of house you want.
8. Tell friends and family
Most people already have a valuable source of help for finding a site, just waiting to be used: their relatives and acquaintances. Make sure that everyone you know in your family, business and social life knows that you are looking for some land. A classic kind of plot for a one-off house is found in the garden of an existing property, so check out as many gardens as you can for this potential.
9. Look out for custom build schemes in your area
Hundreds of plots are beginning to come to market through the custom build route, whereby enabling developers and councils release land for large-scale self-build. These may be a handful of plots on the edge of a new development, or a new community of self-built homes planned by a council. Check out plotfinder.net for details as they emerge, as well as this site and the Government's main self-build information site.
10. Befriend builders
Builders are not your natural allies when it comes to finding land, more your competitors. But there are some circumstances in which they may want to help you. Sometimes a small builder will not want the risk of developing a site, perhaps because of cash-flow problems, and may be prepared to sell you something from their ‘land bank’.
They will, however, usually add a condition that you have to use them to build the new house. This is a serious drawback, because if you agree to it before you have detailed plans and specifications you will find that the construction cost is very high, and every extra above the standard requirements may be charged at the highest possible rate.
11. Beware landbanking
There are a few people prepared to exploit desperate, unworldly plot hunters and relieve them of their money, for maximum profit and minimum outlay. These companies offer what are apparently prime potential plots, for a bargain price. The catch is that there is no planning approval. It is suggested that, in the fullness of time, the land may eventually get planning approval, and you will then own a prime building plot. The truth is usually that although the land may get approval one day, it probably never will, and you have wasted your money. If you are considering taking up one of these offers get independent advice first, regardless of how attractive it seems. Unfortunately, several of these companies will actually refuse to deal with you if you try and take independent advice as to the viability of these sites — which should be all the warning you need.
There is a huge army of seasoned experts out looking for ‘the real thing’, backed by big money from developers who will risk significant capital to acquire the rights to future development land long before it becomes available — sometimes decades in advance. The hard truth is that these bona fide organisations are not going to sell this land to you, but will build their own housing development, because the profit is far bigger. If anyone offers you a bargain plot, unless they are a generous relative, think again.
12. Use professional land finders
Large developers use professional land finders, who can sometimes be found in the Yellow Pages. But there is an economy of scale for big sites, because they can take the same time to find as a small one like the one you are looking for. So don’t expect much help from this quarter, unless you agree to pay a significant percentage of the land price in commission. Even if you agree to this, they may find a lot of good sites which are suitable for building a house on and making a profit, but which may not suit your particular requirements.
13. Use self-build companies and architects
There are a few companies, some connected to kit suppliers (Border Oak, for one) or builders, who buy up larger sites, split them into individual properties, and sell them on to self-builders. Check whether you are tied into using a particular firm if you buy a plot. If this is the only way you can get a site in the right area, make sure that you get independent expert advice before signing on the dotted line.
14. Study the local plan
Local authority planning departments, in association with national government and county councils, prepare maps and plans of their area that identify which locations are suitable for new development, and the rules that will be used to govern infill sites. This information is published in the form of the Local Plan. It is a useful document, giving the background to planning policy, and can be browsed at the reception of the planning department. At any given time, a revision of the Local Plan is usually in progress and, if it is going to replace the existing one fairly soon, it can give useful information on sites that may be released for development in the future.
15. Read and use the local paper
Ensure that you get the local paper (often the weekly free sheet is as effective as the daily) on the day it comes out — otherwise other, keener self-builders may well have beaten you to the best opportunities. Use the paper proactively — take out an advertisement for ‘Building Plot Wanted’ and play up your credentials as private individuals looking for a nice quiet place to live. People would often rather sell a plot to someone they can choose as a neighbour rather than a builder.
16. Estate Departments
There are all sorts of institutions, organisations and companies that own land and sell some off periodically — they include the railway management body, universities, traditional landowners like the Duchy of Cornwall, the coal authority, and district and county councils. It is a long process contacting all of them, but if you can keep abreast of the local and regional news, you may discover one of them is offering parcels of land.
17. What to look for
When you are out scouting an area, you can train yourself to spot opportunities. Once you start thinking like this, stopping and walking through a village while you are on holiday will never be the same again — potential building plots loom up on every road. These are some of the clues that you should look for:
Large gaps between and behind houses. It is usually easier to get planning approval for development in between, or next to, existing houses. If there is space beside a house, and especially if it has easy access to the road, it is a potential plot. If there is a big back garden, and access for vehicles to get to it down the side of the house, it may be possible to build at the bottom of it.
Narrow gaps that are not overlooked. Sometimes sites that are apparently too narrow can be used to squeeze in a small house, provided that the access or windows of the houses either side are not affected.
Look for houses of a similar size and quality to the one you wish to build. The way that houses are valued means that it is less economic to develop a house that is massively disproportionate to those surrounding it. You can end up over-developing, that is spending far more money on a house than you could ever sell it for; or under-developing, that is building too small a house and failing to realise the full potential of the site.
Vehicle access. Whatever land you find, unless it is near a city or town centre, will have to have parking space, so there must be a way of reaching it by car.
Disused land and brownfield sites. These are very easy to miss. It takes a lot of imagination to see a petrol-filling station, a telephone exchange, a disused industrial unit, or a scrap yard as the site for a beautiful home, but they all could be, subject to planning approval.
Site assembly. If you see a number of gardens that are too small for a house, but together could be big enough, take a leaf from the professional developer’s book and consider assembling your own site. It needs tact, patience, and a bit of business acumen, but it has been done — particularly when the homeowners realise that a small bit of their garden can earn them some money.
18. How to scout for a site
If you want to find a potential site that no one has thought of selling yet, there are several rules to follow:
- Select a few key areas, for instance two or three villages or areas of a town. Limit your search to these key areas, in order to ensure that you cover them thoroughly.
- Buy a map that shows houses, for instance OS Pathfinders show houses at 1:25,000. You will be able to use this map to record where potential plots are.
- Walk around your chosen areas since, if you drive, you may miss the less-obvious sites.
- Methodically take details of sites. Note the address, location and size. Take photographs if possible, and draw sketch plans. These details will help you to remember which site is which, after you have visited several one after the other.
- Deliver standard letters to houses adjacent to potential building land, asking the owner to contact you if they are interested in selling. Always be polite and never be ‘pushy’ — people are often suspicious of anyone who makes this kind of approach.
- Talk to locals. Visit the local pubs and shops, and ask if anyone knows of any land for sale. If anybody seems helpful, leave a contact address or telephone number.
Some real examples of how ‘having friends and influencing people’ can get you a site:
- The doctor who bought a garden belonging to a frail elderly patient, so she could keep her medical advisor close to hand.
- The family who looked for a plot for years, then demolished the bungalow they were living in and built a large house.
- Three work colleagues who were looking separately, found out about each other and ended up buying a triple plot together.
- A couple who built their house along the long driveway to their parents’ house.
- The man who would only sell part of his garden, a prime plot for a house, to his best friend from school.
- The couple who got planning policy changed so they could build in their garden, thanks to a petition signed by everyone in their village.
- An architect who gave up on his search, went to the local pub, and was promptly told about an ideal plot.
MY PLOTFINDING STORY: Jason Orme, Editor
My wife Sarah and I had decided to self-build a couple of years ago but our circumstances meant that we didn’t really start searching for a plot until the early months of 2004. It’s only in hindsight that I realised how unlikely our early attempts were to succeed. We registered initially with a few local agents whom we knew dealt with land – mainly at auctions – and their response to our queries indicated that we wouldn’t stand much chance. In short, the few pieces of land that they came across were in massive demand with builders and other self-builders, and, anyway, far in excess of what we could afford. Clinging onto the hope that fortune might smile on us in our dream locations, we reassessed and began to take the process more seriously, in one case getting very interested in a brownfield site that consisted of garages. We attended the auction having semi-decided to bid if the price was right — but the bidding far exceeded our target again. Rather satisfyingly, the site went back on the market at the price we were originally going to bid. We decided to look further afield and drew a circle on a map within decent commuting times of the places we worked, and began to expand our horizons a little. A lead on the Plotfinder database took us out one Saturday morning to a reasonably cheap site which, as it turned out, was too far out in the sticks for our tastes, but on the way back, feeling dejected as ever, we decided to stop for lunch in a beautiful market town by the River Severn. Driving into town we passed a small development of three plots, two of which were for sale. We went straight to the agents and agreed a price within a week. It wasn't a dream site for us, but it was a great location and an enormous step towards our dream home.
MY PLOTFINDING STORY: Michael Holmes, Editor in Chief
Emma and I always intended to move to a home with a larger garden at some point, but our last home, on a plot of 0.2 acres in a pretty Oxfordshire village, was ideal for us whilst our two eldest children, Freddie and George, were toddlers. When the boys were eight and six and had been joined by a little sister, Lily, the whole clan needed more outdoor space to kick a football around and wield a cricket bat without concern for the pot plants, borders and windows! With the boys both at school, we were keen to find something nearby, ideally in the same village, and were delighted to spot a planning notice in our road for the renewal of outline consent, for a single dwelling on a nice established garden plot. My enquiries in the village tracked down the owners whom I approached with an offer, should they ever decide to sell. They refused, but a year later, we noticed the plot for sale in the Oxford Times and wasted no time in making an offer of well above the asking price. With huge demand for individual plots, however, the sale quickly progressed to sealed bids. Making a best and final offer is always a difficult business — you want to make sure you are the successful bidder, but do not want to overpay. Our offer was for 50% above the original asking price, a sum that left me with more than a few sleepless nights, but which eventually proved successful. Even after the tension of the sealed bid process – which is considerable – there was another unexpected twist to come. Whilst we were waiting to exchange contracts, we received a letter from the vendors’ solicitors informing us that the owners of the property next door to the plot had a legally binding option agreement to purchase the site at the price we had offered, with a month to make their minds up. This meant yet more weeks of high anxiety, during which time we were reluctant to do anything about progressing the design, in case everything fell through. Fortunately, it turned out that the neighbours had already decided to sell up and move away, and weren’t prepared to pay the price we had offered. From first spotting the site, to completing the purchase, took two years, but at long last we were the proud owners of a fantastic one-and-a-half acre site on which we built our family home.