28 Mar 2017

What’s in a name? Next steps for custom build to go mainstream

What’s in a name? Next steps for custom build to go mainstream

What’s in a name? Well for custom build, quite a lot if you want the buying public to buy into the build route. After all, how can we expect consumers to engage if the industry can’t reach consensus – or does it even matter?

Custom build was only really coined in 2011, in the government’s Housing Strategy for England. At the time most of those active in the custom build market would have classed themselves as operating somewhere within the self build arena. So it might have come as a surprise to many to find themselves in a new niche sector.

The term originated as a way of defining the market, splitting traditional self-builds, where you do all the work (or commission it) yourself, from custom build where you work with a specialist site developer, which takes some of the stress, and risk, out of the process.

Custom homes scale

Custom build exists on a spectrum, including developers offering golden brick and those offering a range of house types to choose from. Meanwhile, others offer a choice of levels of finish, from shell to turn-key, with options to tailor layouts or choose finishes, both internally and sometimes externally, from a palette of materials.

Google the term custom build and you’re likely to find custom homes in the USA, which – again – are not what we call custom builds, or worse, guitars, bikes or computers.

For the UK purchaser, the custom build market is confused by numerous models, limited mortgage engagement, and little public information about the route. This is compounded by little or no marketing of local authority registers – the first port of call for anyone actually considering building.

So, if people don’t know about it, how do we get them to engage?

Communicating custom build

Recently Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Sajid Javid visited Almere in the Netherlands and Graven Hill in Bicester. The local Oxford Times reported the UK visit, with MPs and ministers quoted with the usual platitudes along the lines of: what a lovely place to live and the houses will all have their own views.

The piece failed to explain to the uninitiated what custom and self build is in this context, and more importantly how it could be relevant to local people looking for a new home.

If we can’t rely on local media to communicate the message, then it has to be the sector’s responsibility to get the message out there, explaining the pros – and cons – of the route.

The terminology is key to help people understand. We know that government backs custom and self build, but on closer examination it’s clear that its paper writers and ministers don’t exactly know what it is. So we all need to get better at this.

As an industry, we understand that custom build can refer to several things. Levels of engagement by purchasers varies site-by-site, although many offer the opportunity, at a minimum, of some form of self finish, if the buyer so desire.

The message is that custom build offers an easier route to a tailored home than a traditional self build. On a very simple level, custom build is self build made easy.

Any developer or agent looking to market a site should be explaining the advantages to self builders. A custom site removes the headaches of sourcing a plot, arranging services and obtaining outline planning permission.

But, unlike traditional self build, custom build buyers usually have to be prepared to live next to other like-minded purchasers – on sites from as few as two homes to over a 1,000. But this in itself builds community, as people move in with shared experiences and achievements.

Those that understand self build are ready converts. The real challenge comes in persuading the public, who are considering a Barratt or Taylor Wimpey home, that custom build should be considered as an option.

Buying into the dream

So does terminology matter? Yes it does. Traditionally, finance, land and planning red tape were seen as the biggest barriers to custom build, but these barriers are slowly morphing, largely thanks to government endorsement and changing attitudes.

Public engagement is now the most serious threat to sector expansion and the term needs to go main stream. We should be marketing custom home sites along uniform lines so that the public, at the very least, will be able to identify them as a custom build.

Ultimately, the spectrum of models needs to be pigeon-holed into a few umbrella choices. With time, this would empower the consumer to quickly identify what sort of model is being used, and what choices, and implications, this brings with it.

Ideally, consumers need to be able to Google the model to gain an understanding. This will be the point where the perception of UK custom build has truly changed and become recognisable.

Currently, most sites – and progressive councils – opt for a ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy that relies on local residents looking for an opportunity.

But we need to up our game so that people have a choice of regional sites on which to custom build, rather than the choice of buying a custom build on the only site in their area.

After all, you might be able to choose your layout and design with a custom build, but the current limited supply of sites means you can rarely choose where in your county you can build.

Disrupting the dominant housing supply in this country is a slow process, and the sector has had significant wins so far, in a relatively short window of time. But these points need addressing if custom build is to scale up and enter into the public consciousness.

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