How to Find Building Plots in the UK

Common and not-so-common approaches

Typically, the first recourse in finding a building plot (apart from consulting local estate agents) is to try the following well known nationwide plot-finding resources:



But what if, having tried those services, you still fail to see anything suitable for your needs?

Then it's time to try some less common routes to plot-finding success; but before doing that, the state of building land availability should be considered, so that your expectations for the ease (or rather, the difficulty) of the process can be primed accordingly.

You can, of course, skip ahead if you don't want to read that section.

You can also download all the main content on this page (which is based on an appendix in my Kindle eBook, How to Find and Buy Your Dream Plot in 2018) as a PDF file which can be printed out if required.


PRIMER: A LAND SHORTAGE CRISIS?

It is becoming increasingly difficult in most if not all regions of the UK to find attractive building land for sale.

There are several theorised reasons for this:

  • Planning policy (with regard to rural development), which in turn has its origins in government policy, which again in turn has its origins in EU and UN policies on urbanising and centralising populations within the context of sustainable development. For balance, the government points out that around 9 out of 10 planning applications for new dwellings are granted, albeit that applies principally to urban areas.

  • There is a general housing crisis nationwide, with demand exceeding supply in many areas, which appears to be a situation set to deteriorate. (Sources for the data in the graph are the Office for National Statistics and the government's Live Tables on New Build Dwellings).

UK Population Growth vs New Homes Built

  • Land-banking by long-term investors holding developable ground until it suits them to release it to market. Developers tend to receive most of the blame for this, unsurprisingly. Nevertheless, it makes no business sense for anyone owning such land to sell it off cheaply (except where a quick sale is needed to cover urgent debts). Besides, developers insist - quite reasonably - that it is more lucrative to build homes on their land than to flip the land for profit, a point that steers the root of the problem back to the reluctance of councils to construct new homes; and the blame for that probably lies with higher political causes.

SOURCING LAND FOR SALE OFF-MARKET

Rather paradoxically, some sellers don't want to openly advertise that their land is for sale.

One of the primary reasons for this is to hide the fact from family or friends, the aim being simple discretion or to avoid demands or expectations of generous donations from the windfall upon completion of the sale.

So how do they expect to sell their building plot if estate agents are forbidden from marketing it or erecting signs on-site?

By word-of-mouth between the appointed agent(s) and clients of said agents known to be looking for land.

I was offered such plots myself in my plot-finder days through my business relationships with agents.

Obviously, therefore, you need to establish relationships with agents in your target area.

RAPPORT WITH ESTATE AGENTS

I would suggest that simply making your desire for a plot clear is not enough; some kind of rapport with the agent (ideally with the boss rather than underlings) improves your chances of success.

Be mindful, however, of the possibility of an estate agent deliberately stifling sales on off-market plots (and my apologies to any estate agents reading who find that suggestion offensive).

Whereas the opportunity for you, the plot-buyer, to capitalise on such sales is good because the competition pool from others prospective buyers is greatly reduced, some agents take a different view.

After all, agents want to maximise their own commission on sales, so if they can tell a vendor that there are no takers off-market, the vendor might cave in and agree to sell on the open market where competition from buyers is much greater, thus pushing the sale price - and the agent's fee - upwards.

A rather obvious countermeasure seems to suggest itself: a generous finder's fee for the agent, which may or may not work; you would have to take a view on the likely viability of that yourself on a risk-versus-reward basis.

A NEFARIOUS REASON WHY SOME VENDORS TRY TO SELL OFF-MARKET

Another danger of off-market buying is where the vendor's decision to sell off-market might be to hide it from creditors.

However, in such cases your conveyancing solicitor should be able to determine the vendor's debt situation during the early legal due diligence phase and flag any issues accordingly.

FARMING AUCTIONEERS

Farming auctioneers (many of whom double as rural estate agents) are also good contacts to build rapport with if you are seeking land in the countryside, as they tend to know every farmer "in the county" with land to sell and often arrange private transactions out of public view.

APPROACHING DEVELOPERS

If you want an urban site instead, the best alternative to estate agents for off-market plot acquisition is to approach land-banking developers.

This route is fraught with several potential point of failure, but there is a chance a developer will be willing to sell a plot on a site that has not yet been fully developed or experienced any development at all.

And what might some of those points of failure be?

  • Absence of utilities and roads infrastructure, which may not be resolved until a number of adjacent dwellings on the plot are completed.
  • Uncertainty over the timing of surrounding or adjoining development works.
  • Rigid constraints on the size, height and external finishes of the house you can build on the plot.


Occasionally, local councils will - presumably through dismal foresight / carelessness - have "landlocked" land that cannot be accessed except through developed land.

I have had such land offered to me, although access from an existing development poses the risk of a costly ransom strip issue (where the developer or some other party owns the land that the access to the isolated ground would require).

COMMUNITY / DEVELOPMENT TRUSTS

In England there are many Community Land Trusts, whereas in the rest of the UK they are known as Development Trusts.

These have been set up by local communities - rural and urban - as a means of providing residential building land that is affordable (defined by local, not national, income levels).

And the good news for a plot-hunter?

They sometimes have single dwelling sites suitable for self-build projects.

COMMUNITY / DEVELOPMENT TRUSTS ONLINE
Community Land Trust Network
Development Trusts Association Scotland
Development Trusts Association Wales
Development Trusts NI




BUILDINGS AT RISK REGISTERS (BARRs)

For England and Wales, SAVE Britain's Heritage highlights such properties that are for sale and which may be suitable for replacement dwelling purposes.

Scotland has its Buildings at Risk Register showing many uninhabited properties in a dilapidated state that might be suitable for demolition and new build projects.

Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, a similar service is provided by the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society.

PLANNING OFFICES / PLANNING ONLINE

No, it's not a joke.

Local authorities publish details of sites with planning applications, complete with the contact details of the applicant.

Of course, in many if not most instances, that applicant will have no intention of selling the land and will instead be planning on developing it for their own use.

However, let's not forget that not every applicant will be the landowner; anyone can seek planning permission on a piece of ground, whether or not they own it.

However, there will be occasions in which the applicant will be both owner and, happily, intent on selling it.

Pro Tip: Although there are no sure indicators about a planning applicant's selling intention, if you can find an owner-applicant who has made an outline application (as opposed to a full, detailed application), there is a higher chance that their true aim is to make their land marketable to self-builders once it receives its outline permission.


RIGHT TO BUILD: A WAITING GAME FOR THOSE WITH PATIENCE

Right to Build is a strategy is not likely to prove a quick fix for most, but it appears to be a prudent fallback for anyone adopting a multi-fronted approach to finding a plot - in England only, that is, although it may become an option in the rest of the UK on down the line.

Essentially it entails registering your interest in acquiring a building plot within a local council area.

When enough people in your area have done the same, your local authority will have to - at some point - begin making developable land available to everyone on the register.

If that sounds to you a little... uncertain, then maybe you'll enjoy this part even more: some councils will only consider people with a demonstrable connection to the area as eligible for the scheme.

You can read more about it on Build It's detailed article on the subject and the government's own Consultation Response to the subject.

GARDEN PLOTS

In most of the UK it is often possible to acquire a portion of someone's garden in an urban setting and obtain planning permission to build on it.

There has been some hostility to this approach, particularly where developers have stuffed several news homes (or intend to) into a hived-off garden, leading in some areas to calls for anti “garden grab” measures.

REPLACEMENT DWELLINGS

Arguably the easiest route of all to finding a building plot is procuring an site with old, run-down house on it with a view to demolishing it.

From a planning perspective, only something of a similar scale will normally be permitted as the replacement dwelling - you can read more about this in Chapter 2.1 (Types of Plots) of my Kindle eBook, How To Find & Buy Your Dream Plot in 2018.

MUST-AVOID TACTICS

For completeness and by way of warning, a few really bad ideas need to be flagged as well.

I once saw land being marketed on the basis that it had "high hopes of planning", a description that disgusted me as much for its tacky euphonics as it did for its lipstick-on-a-pig-ness, highlighting the depths some estate agents or vendors can plumb in overpricing a risky or rotten asset.

Selling party shenanigans aside, you also have to watch out for your own gullibility.

"What, me?"

Yes, you.

When you want something to be true, sometimes your mind can play tricks on you and make you believe it really is true.

You see an empty field with a stunning view and you begin to imagine how nice it would be to live there.

Then you fancy that planning will be attainable once any little hurdles, you know, like planning policy, are overcome.

Or someone hears you are looking for a building plot and offers you green belt land on the edge of town on the promise that they have inside information that planning policy will soon change to expand the urban area to include the parcel offered to you...

Just. Say. No.

At the bare minimum (risk-wise), a plot should have outline planning permission or (in Northern Ireland) be in "white-zoned" land, or (rest of UK) within an urban area or should have an old dwelling on it suitable for demolition, subject to other criteria about agricultural occupancy, etc.

That is not to say that a building plot with full planning permission is guaranteed to be developable; some undetected or unforeseen fault might yet be uncovered on down the line, but in terms of risk management, it's a much safer bet than some of those other dangerous options listed above.



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You can download this detailed plot-assessment checklist from the homepage.