Can’t find your ideal home? Then build it!

When you’ve dreamed of your ideal home abroad – double-height reception room, home gym, indoor-outdoor living space, beachfront access and southerly aspect… – it can be difficult to find a property that fulfils all your wishes. And why compromise? That’s why some buyers looking to acquire a home overseas choose to build it from scratch. So, if you’re looking into constructing your perfect home, here is a guide to how the process unfolds.

Choosing a site

The first step is to find your perfect location. It’s worth giving this time and careful consideration, not only about how you will use it now, but long into the future. An isolated location might be perfect for you at the moment, but more difficult in later years. The ideal location for many will be out of view of nearby properties, but still within a walk or short drive to your nearest community.

Give location careful consideration, not only about how you will use it now, but long into the future

Consider the physical properties of the site itself. Foundations, for example, will be much simpler to put in place on stable granite or shale than clay. You may need expert help on this – don’t take the word of your agent! – and you will find that RICS (the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors) has representatives around the world.

Trees also need to be taken into account. Species like poplars and willows can take up a lot of water from permeable soils like clay. By drying out the soil, it causes it to shrink, potentially leading to subsidence.

Equally, could a particular gradient cause difficulties when building? Even shallow gradients require extra planning. On a hill, for instance, surface water coming down will need channelling away from your home. On the other hand, perfect for that infinity pool!

Find out if it’s particularly exposed to the wind, or, conversely, sheltered from the sun. If you are in or close to a conservation area or a protected building, you might find restrictions on development.

Self-build or contractor?

You have two main options when embarking on this process.

Firstly, you can use a contractor to complete all the work. They’ll project-manage everything, source required tradespeople and specialists as needed, so you don’t need to micromanage. This is ideal if you are time-poor or you have a complex project you need a specialist to manage.

Secondly, you could choose to go down the route of ‘self-build’. This way, you will have the utmost control over the project. You’ll personally choose your architect, builders, tradespeople and so on. If the need for compromises arises, you’ll be able to make immediate decisions that still fit precisely what you’re looking for.

Obtaining legal permissions

Ensure that you have the correct legal permissions in place to construct. This will vary between countries, but, generally speaking, you will need some form of a usage or development permit, such as a certificat d’urbanisme in France or a licença de utilização in Portugal. It’s advisable to make purchase of your plot conditional upon obtaining this.

An architect will be crucial in bringing your vision to life, as well as the more prosaic requirement of putting together the drawings for planning authorities

For formal planning permission, any large project will require you to appoint an architect at this stage. Their expertise will be crucial in bringing your vision to life as well as the more prosaic requirement of putting together the drawings for planning authorities. Word-of-mouth recommendations can be a great boon in finding a trustworthy professional, but check that they hold the relevant qualifications for their country. Ask to see previous projects and to talk with their clients. Yes, that can be an awkward conversation to have, but less embarrassing than paying for remedial work at a later date.

Material considerations

When working on the design of your house, consider its long-term maintenance. Durability and resistance to wear and tear are particularly important for holiday homes, where you want them to stay in good condition while you’re not there. If you’re building on a coastal plot, think of the toll of the sea air, for instance. Specially coated materials can help protect from the damage of salt. Any metals used should be corrosion-resistant. If there’s a wood construction, field-treat cuts or drill holes to protect against moisture.

Starting construction

When you start construction, draw up a schedule. It may well be that unexpected delays will crop up, but having clear expectations in place provides something to work towards. This can be particularly useful in keeping up the pace if you are not personally in the country. Break construction into smaller blocks, like site preparation, substructures, building envelope and so on.

When building a permanent home, some people choose a personal completion date, such as Christmas or a birthday. This can, however, create undue stress so it may be better to choose a date with some leeway.


When completion day finally arrives, there are usually still formalities to be observed. In many countries, you’ll need a written report completed by all involved parties, like the procès-verbal in France. It can be useful to have an independent building surveyor or architect to make a full inspection of the property. They will verify that everything has been completed according to plan and standards. It also provides a benchmark should differences of opinion arise at a later stage.

Once that’s done, and you have your keys, then you’re ready to start moving in. And, with that, your dream home is yours – and your new life overseas waits.