the plot

Luck, persistence, flexibility, patience.

The search for a plot began in September 2011.  I told Dimitri that I would try as hard as I could to find a suitable plot for one calendar year.  If by Sept 2012 I had found nothing, or we had not come close, then he was going to have to go back to searching for a house/renovation project like everyone else!

How we looked for a plot

I was already a Rightmove junkie having searched for property in the area for the last year so I simply set up a new search alert; "Tell me about all land for sale in this area, please."  I figured that I needed to know exactly what was out there no matter what the price tag.  Only then would I be able to know if this was ever going to be a realistic prospect.  I was aware that plots were difficult to come by so I decided to look at properties going at auction.  I hoped that we might be able to get a good buy this way, as prices would potentially be less and some properties ripe for demolition.

I registered, for a fee, with PlotSearch
I also registered, for free, with The Landbank partnership
I signed up for newsletters from Auctioneers in the larger area.
Strakers - Wiltshire
Cooper and Tanner - Somerset and Wiltshire
Hollis Morgan - Bristol and West Country
Maggs + Allen - Bristol
Besley Hill - Bristol and West Country
David James - land and auctions in North Bristol, Glos, North Somerset, Wiltshire
Fox Grant - land and auctions in West Country
Perry Bishop - Gloucestershire

I also started to search for land held by Utility Companies/MOD which was being sold off.

Dimitri started to get to grips with Planning Departments by reading the weekly list of planning decisions in the areas we were interested in.  We learnt lots this way - what sort of planning conditions were usual or might be applied, what the constraints might be.  How to identify when a contemporary home design would not be considered. The hope was that we might find a plot with permission that we thought was suitable and approach the owner with an interest in purchasing it.  That didn't happen.

We were given subscriptions to Home Building and Renovating and Grand Designs magazines.

Setting a plot budget

We went to the The National Self Build & Renovation Centre in Swindon to attend a free Self Build Eco workshop.  Dimitri and I took it in turns to go to the seminars whilst the other kept the offspring entertained in the building materials and products exhibition centre (you don't want to know how many times we opened and closed a Juliet balcony dormer window).  We got advice about how to find a plot, how much it would cost to build and got taught the thirds ratio ; 1/3 on plot, 1/3 on build, 1/3 profit. If only!!! We also had seminars in eco construction methods and eco technology.  It was a good day and we left feeling a lot more confident about things.

We decided to set ourselves a target of about £150-180K for a plot. We were looking for a plot somewhere within 3 different counties: Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire.  Not challenging then! The idea was that we should be within commuting distance to Bristol.   

Identifying the most likely locations of plots  

Having spent a couple of months looking at prices I tried to identify where it was mostly likely that we would find plot at the right price.  Gloucestershire in general is EXPENSIVE. Somerset and Wiltshire are cheaper. However Stroud in Gloucestershire looked promising so I spent a morning registering with every single estate agency located in town.  Most looked at me as if I was asking them for a three-legged dog! I also asked them to keep me informed about rubbish houses on good plots, esp. bungalows, which could knocked down to create a building plot.  I also registered with agents in Wotton under Edge.  I was not filled with confidence, this didn't fit the criteria on their automatic mailing systems.

This was the county we knew least.  This area was well covered by property auctions so we went to look at anything that looked like it was within budget. We spent time looking around Somerset to see what/where we liked.  Chew Valley area looked good, but an affordable plot looked unlikely.  We looked at a plot in Glastonbury but discounted it (we were unsure about whether we fancied having pagans running around the streets in the dead of night).  I looked at an interesting plot in a village nr Glastonbury but it was on the Somerset levels surrounded by drainage channels and it just didn't seem like a clever buy.  There was also an interesting plot in Pilton, home of Glastonbury festival, but we just felt that area seemed too far away.  We looked around Cheddar and that had potential.  The most likely area was going to be around Frome.

We had spent a great deal of house hunting time in the West Wiltshire area so we knew areas fairly well.  My beloved Godmother is a resident of this county and still hasn't forgiven me for living in Gloucestershire.
I was keen on Box, Neston, Colerne, Marshfield etc.  I'd always liked Bradford on Avon, but Dimitri just couldn't warm to it. Chippenham sounds good on paper - excellent schools, good property stock, good train and transport links but we just couldn't warm to the place.  Trowbridge - No, No, No!

But to be honest, nowhere was ruled out when you are looking for plots.  It's not like traditional house-hunting where you choose and area and then buy the best that you can find.  Plots are so few and far between that if you are determined to build then you have just have to go wherever they are.  This was the theme of a mini meltdown halfway through the process as I felt that finding a suitable location in which my family could thrive had come secondary to finding a building plot - but of course the two are related.

Our near misses

We were very busy in Sept and Oct 2011 just going to see all the plots that existed.  And we soon learnt that often the reason they are still on the books is that the vendor has outrageous ideas about how much that land is worth!  For self builders there is an additional issue that a developer will fit 2 or 3 houses on a plot that you would just put one property on, so they can afford to spend more on the land.  We got better at knowing how big the plot might be, and what we thought we wanted - location, aspect, size, accessibility during building, relationship with neighbouring buildings, local services and amenities.  

In October 2011 the details of a house which had to be demolished due to subsidence was sent to me. The agents were asking for offers in writing 5 weeks later.  We took a look at the plot and were potentially interested. I asked the agents to supply the engineers report which hadn't been included in the original details.  This detailed that the land was moving and that this had caused the subsidence.  I telephoned the engineer and he was happy to elaborate, in short the land would continue to slip slowly until it reached the bottom of the valley! He helpfully passed on the details of the structural engineer involved and after a very illuminating conversation we decided not to go any further.  This job would require very expensive groundworks which would burst our budget.  I was pleasantly surprised at how if you ask the relevant professionals they are happy to talk to you.

In November 2011 I was informed by an estate agent about a plot just outside Nailsworth (Gloucestershire) with lapsed planning permission.  I loved it, and potentially it was a great price, about £60K, because it had no planning permission.  I had a local planning consultant take a look at it and he informed me that due to current planning rules there was no way that this plot would be granted permission in the near future.  Gutted! Crazy, as it was surrounded by other houses.  A great piece of speculative investment for those that can wait because at some point they will have to change these rules in order to build more houses.

In Dec 2011 we saw a plot we liked in Somerset and made an offer. The Vendor was in no hurry and he was not prepared to take less than the guide price.  It came down to us and a developer.  He sold to the developer in the end as he knew they would build the house he had had designed and they would finish sooner.  We were gutted.

Nothing then until we saw our plot in June 2012.  I had very nearly given up. There were a few points of interest though, there were a couple of plots which had been sold earlier in the year which returned to market.  When I made enquiries I was simply told that the sale had fallen through.  Had people overspent on the land so that the finances of the project became untenable?  Had people struggled to get finance in these times of recession?  Had planning issues made the development too challenging?  Or was it simply that people's personal situations had changed and they could no longer proceed with the project.  I was inclined to think the first, but with no evidence really to base this on other than that I personally thought that the land had been over-valued.

Our plot

We got our first alert through Rightmove.  I had a good relationship with the agent as I had met him on his first day at the agency.  He had been recruited to develop the Land & New Homes department and I walked into the office that morning to ask about land!  He was also the agent who had informed me about the Nailsworth plot.  So he knew I was serious and had been looking for a while. 
There was some confusion initially as I had dismissed it - I was sure that it had been withdrawn and/or one of those plots which was back on the market, therefore there must be some problem with it! It was Dimitri who persisted and we decided to go and have a look.  
We really liked it.  It had amazing views, good road access, we would get a proper sized garden (rather than just a postage stamp).  The house would sit within the gardens rather than adjacent to another property.  The local architecture was extremely varied so a contemporary design would be possible.  We also liked the location.  It's on the edge of a village with a school, pub and shop and not far from Stroud with all of it's amenities.  And it was within our budget, was this too good to be true?

The plot already had planning permission for a traditional house design.  I called the Planning Officer involved and she was able to tell me that a contemporary design would be considered in that location.  So we made an initial offer which was declined.  We were off on holiday the next day for two fantastic weeks in Crete - typical.  We decided to leave it to the Gods, we would see what the situation was when we returned.  We got back and after some negotiation had an offer accepted!

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