How to Find Land to Build Your Dream Home

As an architects’ practice, we often have people getting in touch saying something like: “We like what you do. How can we find a plot to build something like that for ourselves?” So I thought it may be helpful to share the advice that we give for others to use.

Planning permission

Building a house in open countryside is by presumption a planning NO, unless you qualify under what is called Paragraph 79 (of the 2018 National Planning Policy Framework) for an exemption. These include if you are a farm worker, a forestry worker, if the project would help retain a heritage asset, or if it is truly outstanding or innovative in design terms and would significantly enhance its setting. The last of these exceptions, referred to as the ‘Country House Clause’, is by no means a straightforward policy to target. There are only a handful of permissions granted nationally each year, and unfortunately as a rule of thumb it’s advisable to budget around £100k for the designs and reports needed to have a good go at it.

Moving on to other opportunities these could be summarised as:

  1. Replacement dwellings (building a new house in place of an existing one)
  2. Conversions (e.g. of agricultural buildings)
  3. Buying a plot already with permission

Replacement Dwellings

Each Local Planning Authority (LPA) has its own policy on Replacement Dwellings and it is worth looking at these. In the main though they will tend to say something like “the replacement dwelling should be of similar size, or not much bigger than, the original house.” In practice though there are many examples where permission has been granted for a replacement with considerably more floor area than the original, and what is being considered is visual and landscape impact rather than any specific measure on size. Policies are often written with the aim to maintain smaller more affordable rural housing stock. In practice though, it is often the case that the house being replaced, due to a desirable location, is already priced beyond what is ‘affordable’, and so this part of the policy loses weight.


A popular way to gain a consent for a new home over recent decades.

Generally redundant, but substantial (stone/ brick) agricultural barns are encouraged for conversion in order to create new viable uses in order for LEAs to maintain heritage assets and rural character aspects of their planning policy. In some cases it is possible to convert more modern metal framed barns, though this is restricted within sensitive/ protected landscape designations. Extensions and significant alterations are generally restricted.

Buying A Plot With A Permission

This can be a simple route to your own build. It is worth looking carefully at what has been granted permission: whether there are any legal impediments to the development, if basic things like whether mains services are either in place or could be installed and access for residents and during the build — can heavy machinery get to the site and can building materials be delivered?

What we have generally found is that the planning consent is for a design that is either nearly right and simply requires a few adjustments which don’t need further permissions from the planning officers or it’s not at all suitable or to the taste of the new owners. In these cases, the existing planning consent is useful because the principle has been established, but it’s important to consider whether your alternative proposed scheme will still be permissible.

Where to look?

There are various websites that sell plots of land, which tend to include replacement dwelling and conversion opportunities. Plotfinder is not a bad starting point and the main property search engines like Rightmove, Zoopla and Primelocation also cover land and properties that could be knocked down. Some sites like Movehut and Farmers Weekly specialise in commercial land and developments some of which are suitable for single dwellings.

Local Authorities will have an online list of planning applications — those pending permission, and of sites which have both been granted and declined permission. The unsuccessful applications are worth looking at too as it may be that your scheme could gain permission if it’s more suitable for a site. We have worked with clients who have bought land that has had planning declined more than once but they still bought the plot knowing that it was waiting for the right design rather than writing it off as an unbuildable site.

You can help make more plots come through the planning system. Local Authorities in England also have to maintain a register (Custom and Self Build Register) of people or groups in their area who would like to be involved in a custom or self build or community led housing. You can register with the relevant Local Authorities directly or through the National Custom & Self Build Association (NaCSBA) site and the Local Authorities are obliged by law to provide enough plots with planning to meet the demand on a rolling three year cycle.

If you prefer and have the energy and patience you could try the more traditional approach of simply going on a walk and asking people.

Who can help you look?

There are a number of search agents out there who can help you look on a commission basis. Bear in mind that most of these will have a minimum value threshold that will search to, so generally it is a service restricted to those with a deeper pocket. Otherwise you can try registering with selling agents.

Ask An Architect

We have considerable experience of gaining planning consents for and creating new homes in difficult landscape and heritage contexts across the country. If you would like us to review any specific pieces of land then please do get in touch. We can do this on an hourly charge basis but we also use google earth, maps, photographs and video initially.

And, of course, we know our local area very well so may already have information on the plot you have in mind…

Article written by Tom Howard, Millar + Howard Workshop, April 2019