Building a new life in the countryside

It was January 2008 when we decided to make the move out of London. We loved our life in Barnes, had a great network of friends around us and were in walking distance of fabulous pubs, restaurants and shops, but nonetheless, the draw of the country was just too strong. I’d always felt that I’d end up back in the country, having spent a happy, outdoorsy childhood in rural Berkshire, and desperately wanted this for my own children. We felt that now was the right time so we could be in-situ in time for school applications in a couple of years time.

Although neither of us had any ties to Surrey, and it was a complete leap into the unknown, we decided that, with a young family and my husband working long hours, being within an easy commute of the City was crucial and Surrey offered the countryside within easy reach of London. We literally looked along the train line until we got to a part of Surrey that we felt offered a rural lifestyle without being too cut off. That’s how we ended up looking around the Godalming area. So, with dreams of buying a beautiful Georgian property with a large sweeping drive, we began our hunt.

We soon realised that with our budget our dream house was in fact, just that – a dream. We therefore decided to rent and take stock of the situation. We settled in a lovely village close to the station and a stone’s throw from Guildford and the A3. It gave us a taste of village life and helped to reaffirm our decision to move out to the country. From that point on, we never looked back: my husband joined the village cricket team and I soon met other mums with small children so it didn’t take long for us to become involved in the community. The problem was that renting was never part of our long-term plan and, now settled in such a fantastic village, we had high expectations for our ‘forever’ home.

Hours of searching and endless visits to unsuitable homes proved fruitless as, with little ones in tow, I traipsed from estate agent to estate agent. After six months of futile searching we had to change tack so, having realised that we wanted to be in either the village we were currently living in or another village close by, we decided that we’d look at whatever came onto the market: old, new, ugly, beautiful, under budget or over budget, and see if we could make it work for us somehow.

A few weeks later a rather sad looking 1950s chalet bungalow appeared on the market situated right in the heart of one of the villages we wanted to live in, within sight of the school and the pub, and on a great south facing plot. We pitched up one sunny Saturday morning, with very low expectations, but both just knew as soon as we stood in the lovely garden, that this was where we wanted to be. Immediately we began to investigate what we could do to the house to make it into our home. It was far too small, totally dated and in a poor state of repair so would need major renovation and significant extension. We managed to get a quote from a local builder and realised that we would need to pay significantly below the asking price to afford to do the building work. We put an offer on the table that was immediately rejected by the vendor. Disappointed, we walked away from the house and resumed our search. A few months later, however, and we got a call from the estate agent saying that the vendor had found something that they desperately wanted to buy and, if we were still interested, they had reconsidered our offer.

A few months later and – with no planning permission in place – we moved into the bungalow. We had been in touch with a local architect during the house sale process and now had a plan drawn up which would allow us to create a four-bedroom home with ample living accommodation. The next big obstacle was to obtain planning permission with the bungalow being situated in a conservation area of a village situated within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the Green Belt!

After a few false starts and some major changes to our plans, the local planners finally agreed our plan on the basis that we had to build a new home on the plot rather than extend the existing dwelling. With no choice but to agree to their demands, we unintentionally found ourselves in the position of being ‘self-builders’. With planning permission granted we set about working out how we were going to get this project off the ground. We obtained quotes from various main building contractors that but these were totally out of our reach financially. With the help of our architect we then started investigating the option of taking on the project ourselves. This would mean cutting out the middle-man (the main contractor) and sourcing all the various tradespeople, such as groundworkers, bricklayers, plumbers and electricians, ourselves. Without the middle-man involved we worked out we could save up to 20% on the build cost – making it within the realms of financial possibility. Choosing this option meant a lot of hard work, patience and sheer determination but, with lots of help and advice from various professionals, a year after we witnessed our bungalow (and life savings) being knocked to the ground, and a year after we moved back in with my parents, we were back in our brand new house. Having had the house valued since we moved back in we’ve realised that we would never have been able to afford to buy this kind of house had we bought it off the shelf and ready to go. We love life in the village – the children are at the local schools, we have a fabulous community, great friends in the village, and some of the most beautiful countryside on our doorstep which is just the best playground for both us, the children and our dog. So with a lot of luck, a bit of risk taking and sheer hard work – we’ve finally settled in the house we plan to stay in for a very long time.