Self-Build Case Study

One of the most satisfying aspects of what we do at Saffron Building Society is to see how our work can help people fulfil their ambitions. You may be wondering precisely how a building society can make such a difference. Each day we come into contact with people with a big plan or a desire to alter the direction of their lives through the purchase of their home. It’s why we take such a personal interest in what we do, as we know what is at stake for our Members.

Below is an account of how we helped a family fulfil something that was of vital importance to their future. Matthew Switzer lives in an Essex village with his wife Sarah and two children aged three and five. He agreed to tell us about his experience of building his own house. We felt it was worth sharing as it is an inspiration for anyone looking to own the home they have always dreamed about.

Originally, their plan was to move to a larger house in the village so that they could provide a garden for their children to play in. However, the price of properties with the space they wanted was out of reach, which presented a dilemma. Should they move away from their home village or review their expectations?

An alternative approach

Matthew and Sarah knew of some land that they believed would be an ideal location to build on. They approached the land owner and described their plan to see if they could purchase a plot. Matthew explains:

“We wanted to see if the land owner would release a plot to us for building. She agreed but wanted the planning application to be for two houses. Matthew and Sarah had friends who were also interested in self-building and so they made a joint application. There was no planning consent at the time so we wanted an agreement which gave us the option to buy only if any consent obtained provided exactly what we were looking for. Before we went ahead we wanted a legally binding agreement. Thankfully, the land owner agreed so we prepared an application and submitted the plans.”

The application was approved. They were overjoyed that the project had been given the green light.

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A new start

Matthew and Sarah then set about trying to plan and finance the project. Their ideal home was a three to four bedroom house with a garden that would give their children space to play. Early in 2017 they began by trying to secure finance.

“We approached a lot of lenders but were horrified by some of the fees and the service. Then one day we were in Saffron Walden and by chance came across one of the Saffron Building Society branches, so went in to see if they could help. We found their approach very different to others we had talked to and their fees were in line with what we could afford.

The service they provided was really important to us. Margaret, a mortgage adviser at the Society has been with us all the way through the project. When we were speaking to other lenders it was always a different person in a call centre so there was no continuity. Given this was the first time we had taken on a project of this kind, it has been invaluable to have someone willing to give us the benefit of their experience every step of the way.”

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Experience and advice

Matthew’s wife Sarah is a secondary school teacher who took a break to look after her children when they were born. She was also responsible for collating the project invoices, required for the VAT reclaim at the end of the build. Matthew explained their experience along the way:

“Self-build mortgages are different from normal ones as you have to plan in stages and draw down the money at specific points. It can be stressful because before funds are released there is a lot of information to provide, such as the costings of the plan, drawings and building regulation approval. Saffron allowed us to draw-down funds as required to suit our project once we had their underwriter’s approval. Some lenders won’t release funds until certain stages are complete. The flexibility made it easier on the cash flow during the construction phase.

The process for payments can take seven days so the details really matter. The timing of the payments is critical, as you can’t afford to have the building stop with no money to pay for the next stage. Margaret has been really helpful in guiding us through this process and explaining everything we need to know. When problems have arisen she has always been there to help, she’s been a life saver.”

Matthew is an air traffic controller and took on the role of project manager of the build to save money. Thankfully his experience in a profession carrying so much responsibility helped him to prepare as much as possible for the task ahead. Even still, there were many details that he could not have anticipated before starting out.

“My job at the airport means I work shifts, and this has been most helpful as I’ve been able to spend a lot of time on site. I’ve been able to speak with the builders and tradesmen to make decisions, and if I hadn’t been there they would have had to make those decision themselves. That’s been critical to getting exactly what we wanted rather than leaving anything to chance. I have been surprised by the number of decisions I’ve had to take each day.”


The project started in April 2017 and the planning took seven months. The groundwork began last November and if everything goes according to plan the Switzer family will be moving into their new home this August. Has it been worth it?

“It’s been tough and there have obviously been some stressful moments. It’s a timber framed house and the frame went up in ten days, earlier this year. We were so excited as our dream became a reality and we could see how close we were to the end. I’d recommend it to anyone, but being prepared and having the right people to work with have been so important.”

self build case study - matthew-switzer

Matthew’s top tips for self-build

  1. Planning – you probably don’t need me to explain how vitally important this is! The project management was really tough and I didn’t realise just how much was involved, nor the importance of the order of the tasks.
  2. Experience – our friends were six weeks ahead of us on the project so it has been helpful to learn from them. You may not be that lucky with your own project but try to speak to people who have been through it.
  3. Finance – while the price of the mortgage is important, what we found vital is having someone you can work closely with. Someone very close to the project who understands what you are trying to do has been a life saver when the pressure is on.
  4. Be available – if you are not paying for a project manager you need to be available on site to make quick decisions, and ensure everything is as you expect it to be.
  5. Tradesmen – once people knew it was a self-build they were very helpful. All have been brilliant and very accommodating, so make sure when you explain the project that you assess whether those involved share your desire to get it right.
  6. Be resilient – over Christmas there were three heavy snow falls which made things difficult. We had no choice but to crack on and keep the timings on schedule.
  7. Relationships - build a relationship with your local timber and building merchant. Not only can they offer advice, but when you suddenly find yourself short on materials or the wrong thing is delivered, they will often pull out all the stops to help you out. This can avoid costly delays.
  8. Accuracy - get a quantity surveyor to look over your plans. Knowing the right amount of materials to order is vital and will help with timing and budgeting.
  9. Internal - make decisions on kitchens and bathrooms early. Although they won't be fitted until towards the end, the location of services is often based on the fittings you plan to purchase.
  10. Involve the whole family - it's very easy to get bogged down with the daily stresses and decisions on site. Most weekends our children came to view the house and see their bedrooms, for example. It helps them to feel part of the project and reminds everyone of the end goal.
  11. Building control - speak with your local building control officer who is there to help rather than catch you out. Our inspector has been invaluable in sharing knowledge.
  12. Costs - be prepared to accept that some things will cost more and some will cost less. It's a balancing act and sometimes you have to rein in the luxuries a little.
  13. Energy efficiency - for us, investing in renewable energy sources and insulating the house to the highest level we could afford was really important. The fabric of the house cannot be changed easily, but changing the bathroom suite or upgrading appliances in the kitchen can all be done in the future if required. Installing solar panels or underfloor heating for example needs to be incorporated during the build not afterwards.

More about Saffron Building Society

Saffron Building Society is owned by its 100,000 members and exists solely for their benefit. We know from experience how important it is to get guidance and support on projects that mean so much to you. If you are planning your own self-build and want to speak to us then please call on 0800 072 1100.

You can access our mortgages through Saffron Mortgage Finders or through your mortgage broker.