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Brianna Parkins: Building your own home can save money but is not for the faint-hearted

Compliance and cost issues can easily emerge if you are not familiar with construction, architect warns

While the latest statistics show house price inflation is slowing down, prices are still rising. In fact, people are paying about a national average of 7.8 per cent more in December 2022 compared to the year before for the same property.

With interest rate hikes, eye-watering rents and soaring energy bills added to the mix, many are keen to explore any way available to get the keys to their dream home as many traditional ones seem unattainable now thanks to monthly repayment hikes and dwindling savings.

Social media has recently provided us with the phrase “cozzie livs” as a cute shorthand for a devastating cost of living crisis. It has also furnished us with examples of people who managed to build their own custom “forever homes” while seemingly able to keep costs down by building it themselves, and on cheap or even gifted land.

A whole content genre has spawned in watching people build their homes from the ground up with accounts posting their journey from planning approval to tap fixture selection for all to see.


Katie Higgins, an emergency department nurse, amassed 22,500 followers on her account @home.on.golden.avenue as she and her husband, James, built their home in Mayo, with people eager to have a nose around her custom shower seat and clever kitchen storage solutions.

Another account @westofirelandselfbuild is currently sitting at 32,000 followers and a search for “self build” in Instagram yields similar accounts in almost every county across Ireland.

In a world of “cozzie livs” and encouraging Instagram inspo, family fields with road frontage might look more attractive than ever as the site of a new house. But with building costs also at the mercy of inflation, never mind the hard-hitting realities of managing a self-build, are there some things to think about before drawing up plans for that long awaited walk-in wardrobe?

For sure. The first thing to note is that the increased costs first seen during the pandemic haven’t gone away, according to the Royal Institute of Architects Ireland (RIAI), which has noticed an uptick in the building expenses since it produced its 2019 consumer guide.

Sinead McLoughlin, a member of the RIAI and an architect with RMA Architects, says that based on her firm’s recent experience “a basic build budget could be in the region of €2,800 to €3,200, excluding VAT, per square metre for a new-build house.” This represents quite a jump from the 2019 price guide of €2,500 and €2,800 per square metre.

“While costs have not returned to pre-pandemic levels, most material costs do seem to have settled now with the exception of a few items,” McLoughlin says. “But we are still seeing the impact of skilled labour shortages.”

While it’s almost impossible to provide a “catch all” guide to how much a house will cost to build thanks to a variation in sizes and finishes, it’s safe to say the per square metre cost is just the start when factoring in the total bill. Aspiring self-builders need to consider, among other things, utility connection fees for things like electricity, gas, water and broadband, with McLoughlin warning those enjoying country life to take particular note.

“If located in a rural setting, particular percolation requirements may need to be taken into account,” she says. “We advise a budgetary allowance of €5,000 – €10,000 depending on the location of the project.”

Vivian Cummins, of Dooley and Cummins Architects and Engineers (DCAE), says prospective clients were often surprised by council contribution schemes.

“They tend not to know about development levies payable to the local council and they can be substantial depending on the local authority,” he says. “It used to be one of those things you could put on a longer finger but most financial institutions look at that being paid before you can draw down on the mortgage.”

These could range from €2,000 to €20,000 according to DCAE, depending on the floor plan and location of the build, and people would need to have the sum upfront without relying on a mortgage to pay it.

Room in the budget also has to be found for engineers, architects, surveyors, solicitors, land registration, stamp duty, site purchase or (potentially) gift tax if the site is obtained free or below market value, BER assessments, planning fees and specialist assessments (for flood plains etc).

And that’s if everything goes to plan, which it often doesn’t.

Cummins recommends allowing an extra 15 per cent on top of the total budget as a buffer against things going wrong while McLoughlin advises a contingency of 10 per cent.

Both recommended using professional architects and other building services rather than attempting a house build completely alone.

“Employing an RIAI-registered architect can save you money on a project, as they will advise on potential grant schemes relevant to your project, the cost benefits of various sustainable solutions, and will research viable alternatives and solutions to suit particular project budgets,” says McLoughlin.

Cummins is blunt with his advice regarding self-builds which is simply “don’t” in many cases.

“We don’t recommend a self-build to people unless it’s someone involved in the building trade. It’s not for the faint-hearted. We don’t recommend it to someone working an average nine to five, Monday to Friday,” he says.

Aside from a potential blowout of costs on a project taking longer to complete by those attempting to work on it when they have a day off, Cummins says self-builds can lead to being taken advantage of.

“If you are not working with a main contractor who has established relationships and you’ve never built before and you’re unlikely to do it again, you might get subcontractors committing less. They may want to change things or put in cheaper, inferior products,” he explains.

The problems often aren’t realised until it’s too late and noncompliance issues tend to come to light only when people go to sell their house, which is the least convenient time.

“Everything may look hunky dory on a forever home but circumstances can change and now they’ve all sorts of problems that do not comply with building regulations at the worst possible time, which is when you might have to sell quickly.”

As an alternative to self-build, Cummins suggests people consider renovating a pre-existing empty shop front in the main street of a town.

“You can get derelict grants for up to €50,000 from the Government. It’s a win-win for bringing people back into towns,” he says.

Katie Higgins and her husband were unperturbed by their lack of professional building experience when they set out on their self-build. They both worked full time in healthcare during the pandemic while taking about two years to complete their home, somehow managing to plan a wedding at the same time.

Higgins says the rising costs during the build came as the biggest shock, with the couple under pressure to order things quickly to try to beat the hikes. Her husband did everything he could himself to save on the build but Higgins stresses that they relied on help from family, neighbours and their friends “at every step on the build”.

“I would advise anyone starting off to keep track of all payments inside the build and outside. It involves a lot of commitment and patience,” she says.

Higgins isn’t shy about admitting the house came from the couple putting “our life and soul into it” via overtime, extra shifts and cutting out dinners and foreign holidays. There isn’t much the couple would have done differently, Higgins says, aside from holding off on the garage to put that money towards finishing the utility room and walk-in wardrobe instead.

“Don’t put yourself under pressure to do your whole house,” she advises.

Lastly, while social media might show the best sides of self-build, Higgins says to be realistic about your capabilities.

“Health is your wealth at the end of the day and your house will always be there to do bit by bit as you can afford it.”