/ Home & Energy

Would you lay the foundations of your own dream home?


Ever thought of building your own home? For our guest writer Lady Janey and her husband, it was a lifelong dream that became a reality. So how did they see this huge project through to completion?

We’ve been in Gloucestershire for 10 years, first arriving from the South East during the floods of July 2007 for a lifestyle change. Once we’d dried out, we went on to spend seven years building our own home.

Yes, that’s right, seven years. It isn’t that we were the worst builders ever, it’s just that there’s so much more to building your own home than you may think and a lot of work involved if you do most of it yourself.

My husband had always wanted to build his own house and although to me, it was a completely new concept, he had been silently preparing for years and had researched heavily as to how to go about it. Even so, despite his vision and forethought, neither of us could have envisaged what we would face on our journey to achieving our dream. I certainly went into it blind, naïvely underestimating the enormity of the project.

Firstly, we hadn’t bet on battling with our local council for planning permission, so our first year in Gloucestershire was spent going backwards and forwards trying to reach an agreement. This was by no means an easy feat. We didn’t leave one stone unturned in our bid to achieve our goal.

Even when permission was granted, it was delivered with a crushing blow in the form of the removal of our permitted development rights. This effectively means that if we so much as want to put up a satellite dish in the future, we would need planning permission.

I would definitely advise thorough research into planning regulations in your chosen area and employment of a planning consultant if necessary to advise with the application.

WallplateBuilding blocks

The next stage was to appoint a builder and I’m a bit ashamed to admit that we made the mistake of being influenced by others and appointing a local firm who specialised in standard estate-build houses. As a result, it soon became evident that our project was way beyond their capabilities and when the main structure was complete, after a great deal of upset and stress, we parted company and completed the work ourselves.

My top tip, never feel obliged to go with a particular contractor or trader for any personal reasons. Your gut feeling is often the right one.

Our house is no ordinary build. Friends always joked that we should have applied to Grand Designs, but I’m quite glad we didn’t. In all honesty, the project broke us both. It was a never-ending rollercoaster of emotions – once you were on there, you were on there for the ride, and there was no stopping until it was finished.

We must have made our way through hundreds of traders over the years and I am disappointed to admit that there’s just a handful that we would now recommend. I don’t understand why it was so exasperatingly difficult to get a job done properly without having to do it ourselves. Is it just getting more difficult to find good traders, even if you do your research well?

Finished house

Dream come true

The house build pushed us to our absolute limits but the final product is 100% worth it. We’ve succeeded in building our dream home and it is everything we could ever have hoped for and more.

I don’t think I could ever go through this again but if I did, I would plan everything down to the very last detail before even one brick was laid. There are so many decisions to make in the course of the project that it quite easily becomes overwhelming.

This is a guest post by Lady Janey. All views expressed here are Lady Janey’s own and not necessarily those also shared by Which?

Are you thinking of building your own home? Maybe you already have? How did you find the experience?


A great achievement Lady Janey, glad you got there in the end.

There is definitely a lack of skilled traders in the building world. It is soul-destroying putting your faith in them only for them to let you down. Getting recommendations is no guarantee to a job well done for a reasonable cost.

This country desperately needs to sort out the building trade. Real training, apprenticeships and qualifications are needed to improve quality of work. There needs to be accountability for workmanship backed up by an accessible ombudsman.

So many traders work under the radar, cash-in-hand, benefits cheats, no contracts, no liablity, changing their name every year or so. I have heard them boast of how their accountants manipulate their income so they pay little in taxes but how can this be right when they charge upwards of 3 times their customers earnings?

I have wondered if compulsory registration for every job is the way to go?

We need to get rid of the cowboys as I dread the next time we need work done.

We doubled the size of our bungalow on a very tight budget, finding a local one man builder doing a local job. The shell was up with windows and roof, then he went bust. A friend who was a plasterer took me as his labourer and we plasterboarded and skimmed ceilings, rendered and plastered walls, screeded the floors, and I fitted doors, plumbing, central heating, electrics, and fitted out the bathrooms, kitchen, sorted out deficient roof timbers, decorated……..mostly evenings and weekends. Necessity rather than choice, and hard work – don’t look too far ahead or it will seem too daunting. Then a point comes when you can see the homeward run, and satisfaction in what you’ve done begins. Building the double garage was a doddle, after a minor battle with planning.

Trying to do too much on too little money was our initial downfall, leading us into the unknown territory, with no experience, of the one-man building business; it, for many, is a one-off experience, but with a lot of money involved and dire consequences if it goes wrong. We should have used an established larger local firm and trimmed our plans a bit, but in the end we got what we wanted and learned a lot. Survived, just.

On a recent trip to France we stayed in a B&B. Developed from a large farm house and large barns, all pretty derelict and bought by two school teachers, who spent 3 years building and renovating to an amazing standard – just the two of them, husband and wife. It was hard to believe that such a large job could be completed so well in that time, as well as planting 1800 trees, including a cider orchard, for their sideline. The outcome was clearly tremendous satisfaction in what they had accomplished.

I think that perhaps laying the foundations – build your own house – and converting are worthwhile.

If asked I actually favour converting as it normally means you have a property in an existing area so you can feel reasonably sure what further development may take place. Also I think most humans work better if there are some practical boundaries in place – as in how do you tie the conversion to the property.

Basically a frame in which one gets to the practical matters fairly quickly compared to designing from scratch where a hundred different ideas and styles all seem attractive.

If you are buying a kit house, be it German high-end or Canadian timber, that also helps define the choices.

Should more people do it. I think so as in most European countries building skills are widely spread and it is quite common. The UK having a few major builders is an oddity.

It definitely needs a health warning though as it can be worryingly expensive unless you are good at planning and budget correctly. It is also stressful.

Our current conversion is providing us with lots of fun as we have a builder and can spend our time resourcing the materials and doing the easy bits : ). And as a man I get to buy lots of tools[toys] and my wife accepts the rationale.

[The joys of an SDS_Max compared to SDS-plus!! ]

Valid point about the VAT back . Is that a heat exchange unit at the second- floor? And is that a hot-water system on the roof? Always seemed to me to be the most efficient way to convert solar power.

If you have been through the process a couple of times it becomes easier. And this time both being retired external stress is minimal.

On analysing why it seems easier than previous projects I realised having a large amount of land for debris, sands and gravels, and a dry large barn [200sq mtres] has made it much less stressful.

Whole pallets of cement and plasterboard means better prices and the ability to store items two months ahead of any need – like the bathrooms and kitchen equipment.

Generally speaking in the UK you have to be quite cute with scheduling, storing and what is kept where which takes effort.

As to a finish date. There is a small attached house unlived in for 25 years which is being winterised for low heating costs. Needs a toilet shower room, plastering, final fix electrics, and a air exchange system. Hopefully most of that by the end of November as we have guests.

Painting will have to be in the Spring as I am dead against painting without massive ventilation to dispel the fumes.

The main house has poor electrics, no heating, and is over 200 years old with resident death watch beetle. But that is France for you. Pay half the cost of a bungalow in the Home Counties and you have to do a little work. The better weather does come free. : )

The main house kitchen will have the cabinets built in the big barn over the winter and the electrics will be sorted Nov/Dec so that the ovens , induction hob and a multi-purpose Quooker can be inserted. We are resisting the tendency for double glazing and central heating for the old house as in spring summer autumn it hopefully will be unnecessary.

The whole lot I suspect by middle of 2018 at a gentle pace.

I very much admire your range of green technologies. The desire to get a property winter ready meant some of the possibilities we have had to ignore in the first year because of the time for planning permissions for external visuals, and rather more surprising was that in our area we are much restricted in specialists in the green techs. There is also some trepidation about discussing technical matters when we have only a rudimentary grasp of the language.

I do have, though yet to be fitted, an Ariston hot water immersion with a heat pump on top – as recommended by the consumer group Que Choisir. Their reviews of large microwave multifunction ovens also saved us from an apparent bargain buy. : )

M I E A says:
24 October 2017

We are about to embark my husband’s long held dream project,
A barn conversion. It’s grade 2 listed, brick & flint .. and thatched… and only has planning on the main barn, not for converting the outbuildings that we want to incorporate.. but we don’t like the layout on the plans anyway …plus we need garages and workshop, while the planning consent is just for parking spaces… so more-or-less starting with the planning application from scratch. (we did get pre-app advice, which, in principle, was more positive than not; biggest negative seemed to be buiilding garages, without which it is not viable), GULP!

Feeling a mixture of excitement and trepidation … at the moment mostly the latter. As it is listed we don’t feel that we can risk NOT using specialist tradesmen, plus we are not spring chickens so heavy physical work is probably beyond us! So, we will mostly be giving our ideas to the architect, deciding on flooring, lighting and fixtures etc .. aand hoping the conservation officer (and planners) will be persuaded.

Wish us luck … what can possibly go wrong? … don’t answer that, I’ve watched enough self-build programmes to know. I hope it either all goes more smoothly than anything I have ever seen…..or fails completely before we’ve sunk too much cash or wasted too much time.
I just want to be in that area near my grandchildren and have an annexe for my aged P.

I do wish you both the greatest luck. I am sure you will [eventually!] feel it was all worthwhile.

It is interesting that when you say flint, brick, thatch that subsconsciously the brain builds a picture and locates the part of the country where those were the stock materials so to me I think East Anglia or possibly South Downs. I assume it is Grade II listed if you are converting.

Being situated close to a church we are bound by some strict rules on external matters but can do as we wish inside the buildings. Today I am going to order some aerogel insulation as often happens there are some bits where the look or awkwardness demands that really thick insulation material should not be used.

Predicting this sort of thing is not impossible if one does visuals and plans to the nth degree however in conversions this can fall over quite soon when a building quirk reveals itself. We therefore wing-it and pay a daily rate to the builder rather than getting a fixed price for certain works. You do have to believe in your builder to take this approach and be flexible when problems [opportunities] arise.

WOW! Wishing you all the best of luck – I’m sure it will go well. Please do come back and give us some updates. It’d be great to hear how you get on