What makes a successful self-builder?

A couple who have run a successful self build home project

Research reveals that self-builders are not run of the mill folk. They tend to be rather unique; however, there are a number of traits that truly successful self-builders share. Here’s what you need to succeed.


A curiosity that motivates investigation and study

There’s no avoiding the fact that Self Build homes need to be hungry for knowledge. If you can’t really be bothered reading about insulation options or different types of roof construction, then perhaps self-building isn’t for you. I’ll caveat that by saying if you’re one half of a couple (and most self-builders are currently doing it with a partner) and the other person has the thirst for self-build knowledge, then that’s ok!

An inquiring mind when it comes to all things self-build will stand you in good stead, largely as there are literally thousands of decisions you will have to make during your build. Many of them will be interdependent on other important factors. Fail to understand the detail behind your decisions and there could be knock-on implications further down the line.

With several dedicated self-building and renovating shows across the UK from Inverness to Somerset, and a permanent visitor centre designed for self-builders in Swindon, there are plenty of opportunities to start to understand your SIPS panels from your ICF blocks. Alongside the internet, special interest magazines, social media, and on-demand TV, it’s never been easier to develop your self-build knowledge base.


A willingness to get down in the weeds with documentation

Being knowledgeable doesn’t stop at understanding the concepts and products available for timber frame houses. Successful self-builders are the ones who have a solid grasp of exactly what they are buying. That means reading the paperwork suppliers present you with. There’s a fair chance the documentation could spread over several pages. It’s also likely to include terms and conditions of sale and lots of fine print. To be fair to suppliers, this isn’t presented to bamboozle you. Although it may sometimes feel like it!

Many of the products (and services) you will be purchasing to build your Self Build home will be technical. They may come with varying levels of specification. What one company supplies as part of their package may differ from the next company’s. While the paperwork you are given to read and sign may look as dull as ditchwater, if you don’t read it carefully you may miss exactly what’s included in your purchase, which can result in unanticipated issues and costs later down the line.

Tips for reading complicated order confirmation documents (before signing) include

  • Don’t try to squeeze it in between other tasks. Set time aside to work through the document from start to finish
  • Take notes as you read through it. Rewrite anything that’s unclear in your own words so that you can check your understanding with the supplier later
  • Note anything that appears to be missing, or that doesn’t make sense, again so that you can sense check this with the supplier
  • If elements of the document feel impenetrable, find someone to read it alongside you and discuss the sections that are confusing as you go along
  • Ask to talk through your questions in person with the supplier. Face to face discussions are generally thought to be more productive and efficient; you’ll be able to go into more detail and there’s less likelihood of misunderstandings.

While it may sound obvious, never just sign the paperwork and trust everything will be OK.


Good at making decisions early and stick to them

As I touched on earlier, making decisions comes with the territory for self-builders. From the big decisions, like what structural system to use down to which door handles to choose, you will be swamped with options that require your considered opinion and ultimately a final decision. Even when you’ve settled on a product you may still face colour options, finishes, and a variety of fixings to select from. Decision fatigue is not uncommon.

But decision making is not always easy. Sometimes as humans we’re torn between what our heart yearns for and what our head tells us is practical and affordable. Even more challenging is the ability to consider the impact of your decisions on other products and services, and your build schedule in general. In other words, there is an element of having to try to predict the future and mitigate risk with each choice you make.

When you’re building your dream home, your priority will be to ensure every specification meets your requirements perfectly. But if this leads to the temptation to keep changing things, it will have a knock-on effect on your budget. The further into your build programme you make a change, the higher the likely cost impact. A great self-builder makes decisions early and then sticks to them.


Able to build a good team

In business, the most successful leaders surround themselves with people who are better than them in their respective fields. There’s a good reason they do this. Statistically, it improves their own chances of success. This philosophy also works for self-builders. A smooth project relies on a great team of sub-contractors who are experts in their trade. Finding a key team of reliable and trusted individuals can be a challenge but there are a few things you can do to increase your odds of success

  • Speak to other self-builders and ask for recommendations
  • Do a background check to establish how long a company has been trading. You can review a company’s trading history online via the Companies House website if it’s a limited company
  • Ask whether the supplier is a member of a professional body or has any accreditations. The quality of trade associations and their conditions of membership varies widely, but some investigation will shed light on a company’s professional standing within their respective industry
  • Obtain three competitive written quotations for each service you intend to contract. In addition to the all-important budget figure, this will also deliver insight into each company’s responsiveness. Are they easily contactable? Do they supply you with a quotation within the time promised? Do they respond quickly, keep you updated, and provide clear information that is easy to understand?
  • Meet suppliers and contractors face to face. This will give you a feel for the type of company they are and enable you to answer the question “Is this a company or person I can work closely with?”


Focused on getting your ducks in a row

Excellent project management is key to a successful self-build. For the avoidance of doubt, this means being able to organise multiple activities with interdependent milestones concurrently. It means not being thrown by shifting sands. Being able to juggle without dropping any balls. And ultimately being able to communicate effectively while juggling on shifting sands. In short, you must be highly organised and efficient. If that’s just not you then when it comes to selecting your build route, your best bet comes back to building a great team around you and hiring a project manager. If you do decide to self-manage then you’ll benefit from putting work in early on developing a well-defined project plan.

One of the financial upsides of self-building is that you can apply for a VAT refund on building materials and services. It’s important you acquaint yourself with what you can and can’t claim for, ensure you collect and collate the necessary evidence you’ll require to support your claim and be ready and prepared to submit your claim within 3 months of completion. You can read more here https://www.gov.uk/vat-building-new-home


On top of your budget

The final budget on project completion is a determining factor when it comes to separating the good and not-so-good self-builders. There is an inevitability you will need to flex a little as the unexpected happens. That’s why building in a contingency is a necessity. Those with more latitude may opt for a 20% cushion but if cash is tight then perhaps 10% is as much as you can afford.

The last thing you want to happen is for your costs to start to spiral out of control. An unfinished project or a completed build with added debt you can’t afford is not a happy scenario. Building a good team, making decisions early and sticking to them, and knowing exactly what it is you are purchasing can help keep your budget on track.

One thing is notable, successful self-builders don’t let others assume their budget or guide them towards a number that’s outside their comfort zone. They control the budget tightly and keep challenging members of their team on costs, whether it’s their architect, a main contractor, a project manager, builder, timber frame kit manufacturer, kitchen designer, or renewables company. They are clear on what they want to spend and ensure their team commit to staying within budget.


The MVP (most valuable player) on the team

In our experience, there’s one thing successful projects have in common; the self-builder is the MVP. MVP self-builders always surround themselves with good people, but ultimately, they can lead the team, directing suppliers and contractors and making the important decisions. Of course, they are happy to take advice and rely on their team for guidance, but they recognise that they sit at the top of the decision-making hierarchy. It’s their project, their self-build, their home, after all. Self-builders who lose sight of this and aren’t able to lead the team, may not achieve the end results they are striving for.

Are you ready to be the most valuable player on your self-build team?