30 Dec 2014

What it takes to buy a city centre building plot

I've been busy. I've bought a derelict warehouse on a backstreet in Cambridge and am making plans to knock it down and build a house there.

It all came about very suddenly. The site was put on the market at the end of October and, as it was said to be "the last brownfield site in Romsey Town", it attracted enormous interest. There are lots of people in Cambridge who would love the chance to build a house in the city and, in this day and age, any potential city building plot attracts a Grand Designs premium. Conventional notions of what it is worth and whether it stacks up financially go out the window in the stampede to buy into a dream.

Offers poured in during the ten days the site remained on the market and the agent decided to take it to sealed bids. What was unusual was that the vendor didn't want to sell to the highest bidder necessarily but wanted the buyer to build a single family home (rather than student flats) and also wanted the house to be an eco-house. This rather threw me. Although I've been involved in various green building projects over the past thirty-five years, I actually bridle at the term eco-house because to my mind it's indefinable. It's like natural food or organic shampoo: it's a cuddly, friendly sort of term but in the great scheme of things it's also utterly meaningless. A house is basically either a good house or a bad house and I don't think sticking a grass roof on a bad house makes it a good house.

But now was not the time to get bogged down in semantics. So I checked it with my partner, who was game for the adventure, then I checked the various savings accounts and utility company index-linked bonds into which I had parked the proceeds of the sale of my last house four years ago, and knowing I had the wherewithal to make a cash bid, I put in an offer, together with a brief CV and a word about my interest in Passivhaus and the like.

But I didn't win the bid. Mine wasn't the highest bid, but the one that won was lower than mine. Someone had obviously lit the vendor's boat rather better than me. Maybe my mixed feelings about eco-homes had shown through. Anyway, I put it behind me, wrote it off to experience and decided to look again for a city building project.

But then six weeks later, the agent rings me and asks if I'm still interested. Apparently the winning bid had hit problems and was unable to complete in the timescale the vendor was wanting, and so I was back in with a chance. But there was a very demanding condition. I had to complete in a week. There was to be no exchange of contracts, just a straightforward completion in one fell swoop.

I'd never heard of such a thing. Surely the property industry was incapable of working to such tight deadlines? The only good news was that the searches and all the preparation work had been completed and I could buy these from the solicitors. But I had to find a new solicitor and that wasn't straightforward — everybody wants to complete before Christmas and the Cambridge property market is very hot this year. After an afternoon on the phone, I tracked someone down who actually relished the challenge of completing in a week. And the deal was on.

The reality is that city centre building plots are so few and far between that you have to take on inadvisable risk in order to secure them. No planning permission in place. Not even time to talk to planners or anything sensible like that. Just buy a derelict warehouse and see what you can make of it. Only cash buyers need apply as no bank would lend on such a project without planning permission in place. And if the vendor says you have one week, then you have one week.

If I took the trouble to actually read the Housebuilder's Bible instead of simply writing it, I might just have cottoned onto the fact that I've been extremely reckless here. But somehow I suspect that it's not actually that big a risk because the community would very much like to see this site redeveloped and I think the political wind is blowing our way. It helps that the previous week, it was announced that small sites would in future be exempt from S106 planning contributions. That was a potential hidden tax that could have had a crippling effect on the budget.

My hope is to build a delightful house which may or may not qualify with the soubriquet eco-house (I don't mind either way) and also to have some fun doing it. Let's see how it all works out.....


  1. What fun! as they say: 'be realistic - expect a miracle'. good luck!

  2. Congratulations, Mark. Can I recommend the "Housebuilders Bible" to guide you in building your delightful house? It's a great read!

  3. This is the sort of thing many people dream of doing. But few have the chance. The problem with this project is that you will have to pay business rates while the warehouse is standing, even if it is empty. And this could cost you thousands of pounds. I wonder if you have made much progress since December. Please give us an update. Thanks.