Self-builds have surged in popularity in recent years. A complete labour of love, the payoff of seeing your dream home come together cannot be underestimated… but it’s not something people take on lightly.
Often a long and arduous process, there are several different factors to take into consideration before heading down the path of building your own home.
Ciara and Ted McGrath from Newry, Co Down built their first home back in 2007 as newlyweds with “absolutely no concept of the needs of family life”. A couple of years (and four children) later, the opportunity arose for the couple to build again locally. “The lockdown-induced craziness made us decide to go for it,” Ciara told me, admitting that the experience from self-build number one proved invaluable.
Below, Ciara shares secrets on everything from budgeting to timing to what she wishes they knew starting out.
What was the land/building/space like when you first got your hands on it?
It was an open field used for grazing my father’s animals. The land backs onto my grandmother’s house where I spent many happy times playing as a child. My parents are delighted to have a new home on the family farmland for generations to come.
When did you start the project?
Site clearance commenced in April 2021 and we moved in at the end of September 2022.
Has it stayed on timeline/budget?
We encountered various short delays with trades but nothing significant, however, we felt it was worth getting the dusty work out of the way so we had the bespoke joinery and panelling work done before we moved in. This pushed out our move-in date for a few months but it was worth it looking back. Like every self-build, we went over budget, however, we did some of the work ourselves to save as much money as possible. Also to beat material price increases, we ordered our insulation, doors and sanitary ware very early on in the build. We also agreed on a kitchen price while the foundations were being dug. I dread to think of the additional costs we would have incurred had we not been one step ahead of the price hikes. We are both chartered accountants so four eyes were on the budget at all times!
Did you stick with the original plan, or did it evolve as you progressed?
We made some changes during the blockwork, most notably creating a much-needed plant room by studding off space underneath the stairs. We also adjusted the budget mid-build and managed to squeeze in the mock in-frame pantry of my dreams! It’s a luxury but one which I appreciate every single day. Our plan for our renewable heating system also evolved during the build and we opted to install 16 solar panels to assist in powering our Ground Source Heat Pump.
What hurdles have you encountered along the way?
As a contractor-led build to builders finish, we were fortunate that our fantastic contractor dealt with any issues that arose during the course of the build. We were responsible for all the finishing work but were lucky to have great joiners and no major issues arose. Keeping the lines of communication open between us, the contractor and the trades were key to helping our build run smoothly. A build is all about compromises (and some disappointments!). It is impossible sometimes to have everything the way you want it, so being accepting of changes and budgetary restrictions is essential.
What aspect of it have you enjoyed the most?
I loved the challenge of this process as it was, in fact, our second self-build. We built our first home in 2007 as newlyweds with absolutely no concept of the needs of family life. Now with four children aged 8 to 15, we are much more attuned to how a family home needs to function. A bedroom each with a dedicated well-lit study space were the priorities for each of the kid’s rooms. Whereas for me, it was always about the kitchen, utility and pantry.
What do you now know about renovation/rebuilds that you wish you knew when you started?
With this being our second self-build, I benefitted hugely from prior experience. I was very hands-on with the project management side of the build and was the lead contact for all trades. I wish I had known that the 18-month process would totally consume my thoughts both during the day and night. Even when things were quiet on site, I was constantly planning the next phase and who I needed to follow up with. I don’t miss the very long to-do lists!
What questions do you wish you asked your builder/architect?
I really should have asked our architect where he thought our huge ground source heat pump and tank were actually going to go without a dedicated plant room. This is a requisite many architects seem to overlook.
What advice do you have for homeowners who are about to take on a self-build?
Firstly, do not underestimate your gut feeling when it comes to design decisions. Be assertive with your architect as quite often they impose their design aesthetic on you. It is crucial to refine your kitchen and bathroom layouts before blocks are laid. Wall and window placement have a huge bearing on the flow of these spaces. Have at least a 10% contingency fund set aside as the last few months of a build are when you spend the most. It is also worth waiting for the right tradespeople to come. It’s always important to remember that these people are busy for a reason. Lastly, you won’t regret setting up an Instagram self-build account. The self-build community in the UK and Ireland are so supportive and there is so much inspiration to be gained from other accounts. Our house would not be what it is without the ideas I got from other accounts.
How much did the project cost in total?
I am afraid to look at the total in the spreadsheet! It definitely cost a lot more than originally budgeted for, however, I am glad now I have the joinery finishes done as the thoughts of tradesmen and the dust they leave behind fills me with dread.
How did you save money along the way?
From the outset, I priced every item of expenditure. In fact, I sourced sanitary ware and tiles from maybe eight different suppliers as not all suppliers gave the best prices on all items. So, it was really worth the time spent shopping around and comparing quotes. I am happy I shaved thousands off the build cost by savvy shopping. You can’t underestimate the savings that can be made if you put the time into your research. It also helps not to be under immense pressure to make decisions as sometimes these kinds of decisions end up being very costly.
Did you seek finance? Was it difficult to acquire?
Self-build mortgages are notoriously difficult to secure in Northern Ireland so we ended up remortgaging our first build, taking out a loan for finishes as well as using up every last penny of savings.
Anything else you want to add/tell me about the project?
I would describe the property as a neo-Georgian farmhouse with classic contemporary interiors. Georgian features include a symmetrical façade with a stringcourse, sash windows, external window moulds, splayed and panelled window reveals, an arch window on the stairwell and Georgian-style wall mouldings. I took inspiration from my grandmother’s house which had splayed window reveals and sash windows.
I very much enjoyed the interior design aspect of the build and I loved pulling all the different design elements for every space in our home from the panelling, paint colours, furniture and lighting choices etc. I am particularly proud of designing the utility and downstairs toilet space and being able to recycle door packaging into panelling in three rooms.
I garnered all my inspiration from following other Instagram self-build accounts in Ireland and the UK over the last two years and it is really rewarding now to help other self-builders with queries they have on our build and design process.
It takes bravery to follow your design dreams, particularly when those dreams require thinking outside the box. Dyson is, and has always been, a champion of design innovation and creative bravery. In this series IMAGE x DYSON salute Ireland’s brave self-builders who are making their design dreams come true.
Visit image.ie for more in this inspiring IMAGE x Dyson Self-Build Ireland series, plus clever home hacks, cleaning wizardry and more.