We’re following the story of Anne and her husband as they work to build a home for their family of six boys, and also build a home for their parents on the same site. Crucially, they’re building what was impossible to find in their local area, and they’ve used the Right to Build to help them achieve it.
Part 1: Deciding to self build – the turning point
“You won’t get another fantastic opportunity like this at this price… It will be gone in days,” went the estate agent’s pitch. The fantastic opportunity was a tiny ex-local authority 2-up-2-down terraced house with a loft extension, right in the middle of an estate surrounded by squalor – unkempt gardens, rubbish in the driveways and furniture in the backyards. And it was only half a million pounds. I felt slightly sick at heart as the knot inside me tightened – I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe that this was the answer to our housing need.
We’d spent months looking for a new home. Our landlord of 10 years wanted his house back and in our search we decided to explore all options. Ideally we wanted to buy in the same area, so that we could stay close to our respective parents, not only to benefit from their help whilst the children were young but also to be useful to them as they grew older, and to remain in the community we had grown attached to and engaged in over two decades of marriage.
But buying in London suburbs is not easy, and with inflated house prices and a large family the options are extremely limited. What little that was suitable and in our price range was snapped up quickly.
A few weeks before I’d found a sweet ex-authority cottage in a nice setting that we could just about afford and I was determined to make an offer. But it was tiny, with two bedrooms and the potential to extend upwards. The downstairs floorspace was also small, but to me it didn’t matter as I thought we could make it work.
However, my husband Peter is an architect and he didn’t agree. His view was that the house couldn’t really cope with extending and although it would be ‘permitted’, that is allowable from a planning point of view, we would be the first in the block to do it and it would be out of place.
In reality, even when extended it would have been too tight for a family of six boys. I looked at Help to Buy but the homes within our price range were unsuitable apartments characterised as ‘luxury’, which in reality meant a few shiny taps and shiny floors, tiny box rooms and an enormous downstairs toilet big enough to sleep two children.
We looked in parallel at renting, but rents were high and seriously inflated compared to our last home. However, houses for rent were obviously in short supply as they quickly disappeared off the market, despite huge upfront costs.
But there were other barriers, and for us it was our children or rather the fact that we six of them, and all boys. Each time I mentioned how many we had (and I never mentioned it until I had to, but one can hardly hide it) the conversation changed. I was asked if I was on benefits, and even if I was 100% sure I wasn’t. Appointments to view houses were cancelled and, at one point, a holding deposit was given back to me because the landlady decided the kitchen was too small. I felt humiliated and never wanted to be in this position again.
A change in approach
Our prospects were bleak, but while standing in the tiny house looking at the dismal surroundings I had a change of heart and a spurt of determination. Peter had encouraged me to look at building our own house, and I’d talked to a few friends and looked at a few auction sites but had never really taken it seriously as a realistic option. But I decided to think again.
We lived in London, so where would we find the land? How could we afford to build? Most of our friends had said it was impossible. The obstacles and efforts had simply seemed too enormous. But now I was determined to give it a good try and at least if we did end up in the tiny house on the estate we would know that we had tried everything.
I wrote to an old friend who was a small builder/developer and asked for his advice. On the first day of the New Year he wrote back, saying, “Very exciting to be looking at building your own home. It’s not easy finding a plot to be fair, but the Government seems to be more on your side than ever.” And he sent a link to the government press release ‘Boost for aspiring self-builders’. This was an encouraging and rather exciting moment.
The government was trying to help ordinary families build homes in the boroughs they wanted to live in. Councils were required to launch Self Build Registers for people to express an interest, and the Housing and Planning Act 2016 required local authorities to ensure that they had granted ‘permission’ for enough sufficient shovel-ready plots to match the local demand on their register.
What did this mean in practice? Could the council really provide us with a plot? I somehow doubted it but I was determined to find out, so I signed our local Enfield self build register and set up a meeting with our local MP to find out just what the legislation intended.