Building the Dream, Chapter One: Laying The Foundations

Documenting the trials and tribulations of our self build home

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Well hello, darling lovely ones!! How very exciting to be writing my first feature as a regular contributor to A Life Loved. I think I can speak for all of us when I say I am absolutely thrilled beyond words that Annabel has expanded her utterly gorgeous and inspiring ethos, so synonymous with Love My Dress, in the form of what I’m certain will be a completely game-changing, one-of-a-kind lifestyle blog. It is a true honour to be a small part of this new adventure or ‘movement’, if you will. Huge heartfelt congratulations from me, to the entire hardworking team on the launch!

So, for those of you who don’t know me already, I’m Helaina, a Wedding Planner and Stylist from Kent, and since founding Helaina Storey Wedding Design a year ago, I travel to the South of France regularly for weddings at Chateau la Durantie, the sensational venue where I married Mr. Storey (my next door neighbour, AKA ‘Neighbour Dan’) in August 2016. I had been a member of the Love My Dress private Facebook group since day dot, which I found a blessing during my own wedding planning process and was over the moon when the A Life Loved group was formed, initially as an online community for those of us who had crossed over to the other side and wanted to continue our blossoming new friendships, as newly-weds. Since then, this unique and marvelous online space has grown and evolved into something quite phenomenal; a safe, loving, supportive and non-judgmental community of passionate, intelligent and strong women, without whom I genuinely don’t think my life would be the same.

To date, I have had the privilege of contributing to a number of features about our own wedding day(s) and the wedding industry in general for Love My Dress, and also baring all (literally!) in a post written about body confidence and my bridal boudoir session. Eeeek!

Today however, I’m going to be talking bricks and mortar.

– Our dream self-build –

Let’s rewind first of all to pre-wedding, mid-2016. We had been living in our lovely first proper family home, the five of us, for just over 4 years and had been browsing on Rightmove, basically since the day we moved in (obsessed is not the word), with the aim of finding our forever home by the time our five year fixed rate mortgage was up.

We definitely had delusions of grandeur and I’d say we viewed at least 20 properties over that time period which weren’t the slightest bit affordable to us. Anything remotely interesting and on/just over budget, I would demand that we buy immediately (I am extremely spontaneous *read impatient*) and would need to be reined in by a very sensible and pragmatic, then future husband, who refused to put his hand in his pocket for anything less than 100% perfection. What I saw as character and potential, Dan defined as ‘agro’ and ‘a money pit’ (in a very South East London geezer accent).

Eventually, we had an offer accepted on a brand spanking newly converted (and incredibly overpriced) barn, not far from where we lived, but slightly more rural, which really appealed to us and we were made up. However, after some careful thought and as the wedding day was fast approaching, we concluded that we had rushed into things for fear of nothing better existing and withdrew from the purchase as there were just too many compromises to be in that location.

Whilst it was huge (our main requirement – more space) and had real wow-factor, it was very open plan, to the point that we would lack privacy and storage (no loft etc) and we felt the garden wasn’t proportionate to the size of the house. We originally had dreams of owning some land, just to give us complete freedom in the future (another big priority in our search). So, we came to the decision that it could wait until after the wedding to take some pressure off, as we still had almost a year left before moving onto a far less favorable variable mortgage rate. Unfortunately, this meant we also lost the buyer on our place.

Then we were married. We continued the search. The reality was becoming clear that we couldn’t possibly achieve our rather extensive and slightly unrealistic wish list within our budget, buying something ‘off the shelf’, so we started looking again at plots of land with planning permission, something we had dreamt of and loosely explored for years, but gave up on initially due to the rarity of such plots in our area and extortionate prices. Risk-averse Dan wouldn’t entertain buying something without planning permission, which even I could appreciate.

I admittedly starting to feel a little despondent and desperate, so we offered on a plot of agricultural land with nothing more than permitted development rights to residential use, for what can only be described as a ‘dilapidated cow shed’. It was 3 acres (amazing!), in the middle of nowhere (tick!), but a lot of money, although still much less than anything we had seen with full planning that still presented compromise, or was so expensive that we wouldn’t afford the build itself. And we would have to restore the existing structure giving us very little flexibility and probably having to spend fortunes piling the ‘barn’, although it’s existence in the first place was basically pointless.  It seemed ludicrous, really.

With all that in mind and considering the land itself was also fairly poor quality, we realised it would be far more work than we had first anticipated and continued to keep our options open, delaying any financial commitments to the purchase of this one as well.

I was beginning to wonder if we would actually ever achieve anything better than what we already had? It started to feel like it made more sense to extend and stay put and that we were kidding ourselves if we thought this was going to happen for us.

And then, by sheer fluke, on our way home from another unsuccessful viewing on the other side of Kent (our search area was rapidly expanding) we made a phone call that would change everything in a matter of 24 hours.

We had driven past a banner for self-build plots in Sandwich, which was a little further than we would have liked, but worth considering perhaps? So, from the school playground the next morning, I called to enquire, only to be told that they had all been snapped up already. However, there were some near Headcorn, an area which had been on our list from the very beginning and whilst there were only a few smaller plots left, one of the larger ones in the most desirable position, which had been the first to be reserved, had become available again due to someone pulling out. That very morning!

We jumped in the car immediately after work that evening and met the sales guy in the grounds of an old, derelict garden center which was about to be demolished and divided into 14 exclusive self-build plots and sold individually to architects, experienced builders or those looking to build their own dream forever home.

We were surrounded by huge, mature oak trees, quiet country lanes, birds singing, rabbits hopping and sheep in the adjacent field. It was absolutely paradise.

Despite not having copious amounts of land, the plot was still a generous third of an acre and we would benefit from the developer installing all utilities and the roads leading to each plot. We would also avoid having to pay VAT on the land, by taking advantage of the ‘Golden Brick scheme’, which is a very complicated loop hole allowing you to purchase land as a ‘dwelling’ due to the foundations already being dug and first few bricks laid prior to completion of the purchase. Said complicated scheme has ended up saving us around £80,000! It’s a fabulous concept, making the whole thing far more achievable for us average Joes.

We knew within moments that we would finally, wholeheartedly agree. It was a complete no-brainer and without hesitation, we put down a deposit there and then. We accepted another offer on our house shortly afterwards. We would be building the dream!

Next step was to hire an architect, who tweaked the design for us, mainly internally, before submitting non-material amendments to the planning office for approval, so the design and layout was positively perfect for our family’s needs.

We shifted the bedrooms about, made the kitchen/diner more open plan and flowing out onto the garden, ticking our box for the perfect entertaining space. We added a dressing room, double shower ensuite and a free-standing roll top bath to the master bedroom (a few other lifelong must-haves!), adapted the reception rooms to incorporate a living room for grown-ups and a separate one for kids (also absolutely essential in our house of hyper little monkeys) and moved the office and utility spaces around according to our priorities. (So. Much. Laundry…..)

We also changed the living room of the annex into a ‘studio’ which is where I plan to get creative and where I’ll run the business from, showcase my props available to hire and have consultations with all my lovely brides and grooms-to-be!

The 6th bedroom and bathroom up there are just an extra bonus for guests and bedroom 5 in the main house is basically for me to decorate in a blush and forest green pineapple scheme (which I am not permitted to do in the master bedroom, sadly) and to house my overflow of clothes which won’t fit in the dressing room. This is pretty much it’s sole purpose! Apart from offering another bed for guests, of course. No more babies for us…

Oh, and apparently, we also required a structural engineer. ‘What is one of those?’ I hear you ask! Well, as it turns out the architect charges something in the region of £5,000 to just move some lines about on a computer, based on your own guidance and specification (scribbled on the back on an envelope) and submit plans that someone else had already designed from scratch anyway, but he doesn’t design anything structural, required to actually hold the building up, whatsoever. This is a whole different thing, which was certainly news to us.

So now we have a Structural Engineer too. He is much more helpful than the architect, luckily! I think the one and only thing we feel we have been stung on so far, is in fact the architect’s fees. It’s very easy to have the wool pulled over your eyes when you are so naïve to the whole process, particularly at this very early stage, so my best advice for anyone on a similar journey would be to shop around for architects. Make them invest some time in you and get to know them and exactly what they are offering before you commit to one. It’s far from being a clear cut thing and the differences in rates and level of service between them is astronomical.

So, between exchange and completion of the land purchase, we dug the foundations, filled them with concrete (pumping every penny of what we had left in savings into the ground, with no guarantee yet that we would even have the funds secured to build the thing!), installed pipes for drainage etc and laid blockwork up to damp proof course to comply with the Golden Brick Scheme.

The next job, crucially, was obtaining a self-build mortgage. And that, was HELL.

We were lucky enough to have been in a position following the sale of our home and some of our buy to let portfolio, to pay cash for the land itself, giving us a real advantage with lenders, as they had an asset to secure the funds against from the start, drastically decreasing the risk to them. This and my earlier experience as a personal assistant to a mortgage broker were both major factors in our success in securing the mortgage.

The criteria that needs meeting in order to be eligible for most standard residential mortgages these days is a minefield as it is, never mind for a notoriously difficult to obtain self-build mortgage, for which the rates are much higher and the process far more lengthy, complicated – and strict.

The whole thing was a bit of a gamble in that sense, as without the self-build mortgage being officially offered, we could well have ended up being the owners of some pointless land and no money left to do anything with it! After a painstakingly nerve wracking 7 month process from start to finish of budget spreadsheets, bank account and self-assessment tax return inspections (both being self-employed), proof of building regulations approval, site insurance, new build warranties and extensive telephone interview interrogations about childcare cost commitments, I don’t think we had ever felt so relieved in our lives, as when we finally received the binding mortgage offer and the first stage release of funds was released to us.

– our self build budget planner – click to enlarge –

One of my proudest achievements to date is managing to source us that mortgage without any help from a broker, after the first one we tried recommended products well above the interest rate the we managed to secure by ourselves and which didn’t really fit our requirements anyway. I will continue to feel very smug about this for a long time. That first lot of money hitting our bank account was certainly the first time we felt like the whole thing was real and we could say it was all truly happening.

As I write, we have obtained what feels like millions of quote comparisons for every single element of the build and so far, we are just past the block and beam floor stage, barely a few inches out of the ground. I’m sitting frantically on the phone, looking at spreadsheets and negotiating all day, every day, with a debilitating migraine, whilst running two full time businesses between us and raising three kids, moving from rental property to rental property and attending appeal hearings for the kids’ new local school places (of which there aren’t any – but that’s a whole other blog post!), driving for a total of over four hours each day to and from the old one.

We are project managing ourselves (in footwear clearly not appropriate for a building site), with no main contractor involved (or architect now – he’s been sacked!) and are getting each individual trade onboard, as and when required. I’m like a crazy wife on Grand Designs, over here! Can we start the fun bit, decorating and buying sofas yet, please?!?

The real highlight so far has been involving our little ones in creating from scratch, what will be their home for many years to come, probably beyond our own days on this earth. Watching them get stuck in and excited with their mallets, forklifts and diggers (although the smallest one seems a bit less enthusiastic) and asking where their new bedroom will be is mega heartwarming stuff. The biggest lesson to date through the whole initial search process, is that nothing is ever without some form of compromise.

I hope I haven’t bored you all to tears too much – I’ve crammed the events of 18 veerrryy slow months into just over 2500 words and this is definitely an account of the least exciting and absolutely most stressful parts of the entire process. Or at least, I sincerely hope that’s the case. They are by far however, the most important and defining steps.

In my next feature, I hope to have lots of developments to report. Ones which can actually be seen with eyes.

The bricklayer has just arrived on site with his team, so now the fun starts.

We’re going up!

If you would like to pick my brains about any of the above or all the many facets of self building your now home, follow along with our progress or just give some moral support as we slowly but surely become victims of a nervous breakdown, please don’t hesitate to reach out. You’ll find me drinking lots of wine and scratching my head as to how we are already looking £75,000 over budget (not even including everything yet) and have barely started.

In the meantime, I’m off to lose myself in Pinterest and forget about it all.

Until next time,

Helaina x

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  • How wonderful; I am completely envious! Building a home is my absolute dream, and my husband’s especially as he designs and builds oak framed houses for a living!

    I must congratulate you, not only on ‘building the dream’, but also this blog post. So wonderful to read all the details of what’s involved. So often my husband hears of people who think it’s as easy as buying land and building a house…. the reality is that there is a HUGE team of people behind a build, from architects, structural engineers, as well as alllll the planning elements and talented tradesmen. Lovely to read a post about the realities so thank you for sharing.

    Love that you’re in Kent too!! Not far from us either!

    Lovely to ‘meet you’ here on A Life Loved and thanks A for creating yet another place for us to come together and celebrate and support each other’s journeys.

    • Hi Jessica. You’re so right. You see them on Grand Designs tearing their hair out but I actually thought ‘We can do this. We love a challenge.’ But actually nothing compares to something on this scale. SO much to think about that had never even crossed our minds. Getting there slowly though. Wish we had known of your husband a few months ago! We have been struggling with the right person for the oak facade section of the build. But all sorted now. Phew xx

  • You are really living the dream with this, even with the trials and struggles you describe I am deeply envious of such a wonderful opportunity to build your own home. I cannot wait to read your blogs on the experience and really hope that one day I am as lucky (hard working, tenacious and well deserving) as you are. Good luck with your next steps xx

    • That’s very sweet. Thanks Alison. We WILL be living the dream eventually. Right now, the living situation is far from ideal but we know it will be worth all the sacrifices ten fold! The kids are so excited 🙂 xx

  • I found this really interesting and informative, thank you! We have flirted with the thought of self build but not at the right stage of finances yet……
    Do you have any recommendations for useful websites/books to give info about how to go about self building? Good luck and i’m sure it will be beautiful when you are finished

    • Hi Kat!
      There’s actually few resources that go into the level of detail needed in my opinion. Most give very basic/general advice or just try to sell you a self build mortgage so that’s why I thought sharing all the gory details and realities may be helpful to some people! I think with a bit of good sense, commercial awareness and perhaps some knowledge of various trades or at least a good budget to allow for a fab main contractor or project manager, anyone can do it! Searching for the right land to actually get started is the hardest part and there’s no real easy way to do this unfortunately! We got lucky in the end! Plenty of research with regards to planning consents etc is vital.
      Try these:

      H xxx

  • This is brilliant, could I ask is this a custom build? You mentioned services are there and roads. We are looking seriously at such plots that will be near us. I wondered if it was left to you or you had the chance to work with the developers that sold the land. Am assuming this was the architect you sacked? Also wondered if you are over budget because of specification or things cost more than you thought. apologies so many queries but how big in square meters is the house going to be. Am very excited for you.

    • Hi Julie, No it’s not a custom build. The developers who own the land agree to put in the road and utilities and obtain planning permission in advance to make the plots more appealing to purchasers but after that, you’re on your own, just like any traditional self build. The architect they used had designed something very impressive visually, but actually we found the layout and structural elements had not been thought of practically at all! Each individual then went to their own architect (ours is the one we were still very unhappy with in the end) to make amendments and adapt it however they wish, or indeed start all over again and resubmit for planning approval. But I suppose this way, buyers of the land just have peace of mind that planning consent has already been granted and can visualise it having the CGIs and floor plans etc, more so than buying a plot of land without this detail having been gone into already. Just good marketing on the developer’s part really. It also allows the land purchaser to stick to the existing design should they choose without having to worry about the design, although a structural engineer would have been required at the very least, to design the actual construction of the build. This is something we had no idea about at the start. We thought standard architect drawings were quite substantial to just pass to a bricklayer and let him get on! Buying this type of plot obviously also took the headache away of worrying about the utilities etc as we would have if we had gone down the first route we were always considering of a plot in the middle of nowhere. We still have to install surface water drainage and an air sourced heat pump, because as with many more rural areas, there is no gas. But they have hooked up electricity and water and phone line to the site with a connection at the edge of each plot. It’s certainly made the process a little less scary and less expensive I’m sure. But we still get the absolute self build freedom which is what we wanted, as opposed to a custom build using the developers contractors. Worked out really well for us.
      We are probably over budget for all sorts of reason including the spec and forgetting lots of things on our original draft mainly which really add up! Plus EVERYTHING is more expensive than you expect.
      It’s 380 square meters in total (325 living space including a 1 bedroom annex above the garage plus 55 of garage space below). I think they recommend allowing on average (depending on level of spec) a budget of around £1000 per square meter, which would also explain why we are not on budget!! Ha!
      Sorry for such a long winded reply. Hope this helps! Xxx

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