News – Building the perfect family home

JANE SLADE meets a young mother who, with her husband, has beaten the recession by building an authentic country cottage and making a £200,000 profit in the process

TO SUGGEST one-year-old Archie was born with putty in his hands and two-year-old Mollie’s first toys were a wrought iron doorknob and box of straw is no exaggeration.

Their parents, Rebecca and Matthew Stenson, did not let the small matter of a full-on recruitment business and six-month-old baby with another on the way stall their dream of buying a plot of land and building a rural idyll.

“You just get on with it, ” says Rebecca, 33.

“We had never built our own home before but just fell in love with two plots we found in the village of Tilbrook in Cambridgeshire and went from there.”

Experts reckon two of life’s most stressful events are moving home and having a baby; the Stensons decided to do both at the same time.

The couple had moved twice during their eight-year marriage and made nice profits on each of their homes. Their first, a three-bedroomed cottage, made them £37,000 after they paid £76,000 for it in 2002. They then moved to an old chapel in Kimbolton in Cambridgeshire that they bought for £210,000 and invested £20,000 converting it into a four-bedroomed, semi-detached family home that they sold four years later for £330,000.

“We weren’t thinking of moving as we were quite happy in the chapel, except it was on a fairly busy road, ” says Rebecca. “Then we saw this plot in Tilbrook, which is a very pretty village with a pub, church and playground with lots of old barn conversions.”

They paid £213,000 for two adjoining plots that totalled ¾ acre, knocked down a small bungalow on the site and built an idyllic one-and-a-half storey, oak-framed gabled cottage.

“It was quite nerve-racking because we were waiting to complete on the sale of the chapel in November 2007 when the news came that Britain was probably going into recession.”

Rebecca is the first to admit that she and Matthew, 34, who works for BP in Milton Keynes, would never have been able to afford the cottage they have built nor probably found anything like it for sale.

“The wonderful thing about building your own home is that you don’t have to make compromises. I wanted an authentic English country cottage but with spacious, light rooms in a village setting with lovely views and not far from a major town and I got the lot!”

The couple were very canny and sought permission for the biggest house possible on the plot, knowing that planners often reduce the size of properties. “Luckily we got permission for a 220 sq m home, big enough for four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a sitting room, office, hall, open-plan kitchen, breakfast room and family room, utility room and laundry room.”

The couple installed under-floor heating and a cost-efficient air source heat pump that keeps bills down to £80 a month.

Rebecca didn’t want anything modern in the cottage so went shopping on eBay for fixtures and fittings and employed local craftsmen to make anything she couldn’t find, saving tens of thousands of pounds. “I wanted hand-forged door fixtures and fittings and found a blacksmith who made my curtain rails, which were half the price of John Lewis’s.

“I looked on the internet and in seconds shops and never paid full price.

We also kept to our budget of £200,000, which we funded by part mortgage and part cash. I saved a lot of money employing a carpenter to make a copy of a Plain English kitchen I had seen and loved but couldn’t afford, ” she adds.

“I also found a roll-top bath for £80, pine wash stand for £20 and porcelain sinks on eBay and with the saving bought a solid oak work surface for the kitchen.

I DECORATED the cottage in neutral shades and furnished it with shabby-chic furniture. I wanted the house to look old so I found someone to ‘distress’ my oak floor for half the price it would have cost for an antique one. I also found remnants of designer fabrics on eBay, which I used to make cushion covers and blinds. I saved a fortune in some areas and spent a fortune in others. I bought some grain sacks to cover the sofa and apple crates that I made into the children’s toy boxes, which I then covered with old fabric remnants.

“I love design and have files of pages torn out of interiors magazines. In fact we found Border Oak [specialist builders and designers of oak-framed houses] because I had kept a picture of a porch I really liked that they had built. We couldn’t afford them to take over the whole project so just had them design and build the oak frame, which was wonderful. We did the rest ourselves.”

The whole project took two years to complete and even now Rebecca is paving the garden, having been delayed by the cold weather, but the house works perfectly for them. “I even love the laundry room, ” Rebecca says. After an investment of £413,000 (including the plots) she reckons her home is worth close to £600,000.

“We don’t plan to move for a while; we have created a comfortable cottage that we love and have enough space for us to grow into.”

BuildStore, which runs land database PlotSearch (, has revealed the average individual plot price in the UK is 20 per cent lower than in January 2009, some going for less than £50,000. The PlotSearch database currently has more than 7,000 plots, renovation and conversion opportunities listed for sale across the UK.