Ciara and Seán Owens did something that was both radical and yet traditional when they planned their home almost 10 years ago. They decided to go without a mortgage and build their home in stages, when they could afford it.
Six years after they bought the site, they moved into their home in Co Fermanagh, having secured a small mortgage to finish the inside of the house and build a garage.
“Doing a self-build is not for everyone, but it suited us,” Ciara says. The secret weapon in their self-build was Seán, a carpenter, and an all-rounder when it comes to building a house.
“He’s really a man who can do pretty much anything,” she says. “He did every single job he possibly could along the way in our build. So obviously that was a massive saving for us.”
They bought the site near her family home in 2014. Planning permission had already been approved for a four-bedroom house, based on plans drawn up in 2009. She says the plans were “for a very straightforward design but a design that suited us completely. We never wanted to build a home that was outside our means. I thankfully love the style of our house. We tweaked the plans ever so slightly, but no major changes.”
Six months later, they started the building work and continued in stages as money became available. By 2017, the house had a roof. That was when they moved to Canada. “It’s something that we wanted to do before we settled down, so we spent two and a half years in Vancouver and it was amazing and we travelled a lot,” she says.
They also managed to save money, so when they arrived home to get married, they were ready to tackle the inside of the house. Ciara was working as a fleet controller and Seán took on work in Dublin, where the wages were significantly higher. But they still needed a loan to finish the work.
“We were very young when we started [mid-20s] and at the time we really did think that we would be able to do everything without a mortgage,” she says. “Obviously we were a bit mad, looking back now, because it just wasn’t feasible. Ten years from now we’d still be trying to get it done.”
They found it difficult to get a mortgage because the project was so advanced, but after living at home with parents to save money, their self-build mortgage was approved in March 2020.
“From the outside, it looked like everything was done. It was plastered, but inside it was just bare block.”
They were keen to give as much business as possible to local companies, so their kitchen came from Dunlop Kitchens, the windows from Douglas Windows and the bathrooms from E&R Bennett, all a short car ride away. “Every tradesperson was local. Everything that we put into this house came from within a 15-mile radius or so.”
She says it might be cheaper to buy from large multinational businesses but you don’t get the same aftercare support that comes from buying from a business up the road.
After a flurry of work, they moved into the house just before Christmas 2020, when Ciara was eight months pregnant. “It was an amazing time, finally reaching the end after such a long build, but obviously also stressful,” she says. “I was heavily pregnant so there wasn’t much I could help with, except cleaning, but our families were great and everyone chipped in.”
Today, they are well settled into their home and are now a family of four – their youngest is a busy little one-year-old. Ciara says the self-build experience was hard work and stressful, “but it was worth all of that in the end”. Is there a risk that, because it took so long, it will soon be time for an upgrade? “Oh no,” she laughs and says she was determined to future-proof the house, choosing furnishings and fittings she hopes will be timeless.
Her favourite room is the kitchen with in-frame cupboards, quartz worktops, a Belfast sink and herringbone floor tiles. “I’ve always envisioned having a kitchen where you can entertain friends with an island where you can cook and talk to people. At Christmas we can have both my family and Sean’s family here and that’s lovely.”
And the work continues. “At the moment the livingroom is just a concrete floor with nothing in there except building supplies,” Ciara says. “There are a few rooms that still haven’t been touched because the money ran out.”
It’s impossible to say how much money they saved by doing a self-build, but she says it was “a small fortune”.
“I would definitely recommend a self-build rather than contractor-led, but you do need to be very organised and on top of your trades. It will save you a lot of money in the long run that can go elsewhere in the build.”
But she says she wouldn’t like to be doing it during a cost-of-living crisis. “It must be incredibly difficult as there’s not the same disposable income now as there previously was. We did put a lot of our money into it. It didn’t mean we stopped living, but finishing our house was always at the back of our minds. There were a lot of sacrifices but we still were able to travel and enjoy our lives.”
So, what’s next? “There’s still so much to do. A self-build home is never really finished. Right now we are concentrating on the outside work. It is a big site and will take a lot of work to be finished. We can’t wait to get the street tarred one day. You wouldn’t see it on Instagram, but there is a lot to be done.”
That brings us to her Instagram account, @ourweeselfbuild, which has almost 24,000 followers. She started the page for fun to show friends what they were doing and was amazed when people she didn’t know began following her. “I had no idea anyone would be interested. I think maybe it’s because it’s a slightly more obtainable house than some of the houses you see on Instagram.”
Unlike some social media experiences, hers has been very positive. “It’s a nice community, everyone is very supportive and thankfully I haven’t had any negativity around it. I love giving people advice when I can and hopefully inspire someone along the way.”
With the bulk of the work done, is it time for a new challenge? They already found one when they bought Betsy, a 20-year-old caravan earlier this year.
“We do love a project so we did a little bit to put our own stamp on it. We put in a new floor and jazzed it up,” she says.
“I suppose we’re just that couple that has to be doing something.”
“It’s hard to get excited about brick walls, but I loved the interior design aspect and seeing everything we’d chosen coming together.”
“I probably regret not changing the plans to have a playroom. We didn’t have children at the time and we never realised how much stuff they have. Also, not including more storage. If you are building, think storage. You can never have enough, trust me.”