Saving money when landscaping new-build houses

We work a great deal with clients, architects and developers creating new-build houses, and have learned many lessons about how these processes can work well (and sometimes less well!). There are some clear benefits in terms of overall co-ordination to be had if you plan the whole plot at one time, but you may not be aware that there are some big cost savings to be had as well. This is something that the larger developers are only too aware of, but it applies to domestic clients as well.

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So firstly, if you are building a new home in the UK, (even if it is not a ‘super-mansion!’) it is likely that you will need to undertake some form of landscaping. This could involve creating a new garden from scratch, redesigning an existing one to suit the design of the new property, or simply repairing the damage that the building process will inevitably create. In order to do this, unless you are doing the work yourselves, you will incur costs, and these can add up to very large sums of money. Perhaps new access, driveways and patios – even if you have no particular interest in creating a new garden as such – these may well be possible to zero rate for VAT, but only if you plan and execute the work in a particular way.

VAT is a big one, and I will summarise my understanding of the rules below, but there a number of other good reasons:

1)    Overall co-ordination

Architects are wonderful folk with broad skills, but they are not specialist landscape designers, and are not usually being paid to focus on this. In our experience, they will not always have the best (cost effective or aesthetic) solutions to how to landscape the lovely house they have designed. Common areas of woe are the retaining structures that may be needed for you to still get round the house, how to green-up areas constructed over a basement slab or light wells, choice of materials for an indoor-outdoor vibe, and co-ordinating electrical, water and other services between the inside and the outside.

Other common areas of overlap are where to put manhole covers so we can still hide them, and where to site plant and machinery needed outside (heat pumps, basement vents, irrigation tanks or pool kit) so that they can be hidden effectively.

2)    Making good decisions while you can still make changes and still have access

Getting cabling/pipework under a driveway or patio is planning 101, but have you thought about getting access to the rear garden after the house is built? If you cant get a large machine in then your landscaping could cost a great deal more than it needs to (particularly if you are on a slope and will want significant earth moving or retaining). Do you want to get some large trees in for screening? You are limited in the sizes that can go in if you can’t get a large telehandler through – but could do this when the house is demolished. Almost all landscaping work is easier (and therefore cheaper) with machinery, so getting the plans in place and a co-ordinated construction plan in place is definitely worth doing.

3)    Getting rid of the builders and the mess as fast as possible

For most clients, by the time the house construction has been dragging on for months more than they hoped, they are ready to kill something, and all they want to do is move in and enjoy their new home. The idea of having more builders, mess, and noise for what could be months after this is almost unbearable (and can cause a lot of bad tempers!). Whilst on tight sites it may be that the landscaping cannot be carried out at the same time as the main construction, there is usually at least an opportunity to overlap the two. This is really hard to arrange if the designs are still being completed and the landscaping team hasn’t been booked!

Assume you won’t get a good landscaping team in for a minimum of 3-4 months from when you have agreed a price and paid a deposit, some materials are on 12 week lead times, and the design process itself can take some months to work through and cost. Thus if you are already mid-build it would make sense to get on with this!

4)    There will be some parts of the landscaping it will be cost effective for the house builders to do

Until you have a detailed landscaping plan it is hard to work out who should do what. Most clients want the builders to focus on the house not the garden, but you may well find that since they have people, welfare and machinery on site there can be considerable savings from asking them to price certain aspects. Usually the main clearance, groundworks and retaining structures as well as drainage fall into this category.

If the landscape design includes significant excavations such as for a pool or other levelling, you may be able to save money by using the spoil for features elsewhere in the garden, or waste building rubble for backfilling structures like raised patios. Being able to move materials once and once only will save handling costs, as well as reducing import/export of materials and waste charges.

5)    Good decisions are made when there is time for planning

When there is no agreed design in place, my heart sinks when I get a call along the lines of “the builder is here with the digger and wants to know where the patio is going ….” Or “they are here with a digger to clear the rear of the plot and want to know which plants and trees to keep”. Whilst we of course try to help, you are then trying to design on the spot, and that doesn’t get the best results.

Similarly, the costs associated with landscaping are often eye-watering, and you will want to plan and budget accordingly. ‘Value-engineering’ ie changing the design to hit the budget, is a standard part of a design process that will allow you to make changes while the plans and models are still digital rather than getting halfway through the work and realising it is all costing more than you wanted and you now can’t do some of the parts you really need. Getting alternative quotes for things or looking for different solutions to problems can all be done at the planning stage rather than in a stressful manner with a builders breathing down your neck!

6)    VAT

Obviously we are not tax experts, and you should always take proper advice on this, but as a general guide, landscaping that relates directly to the new build or is part of the planning permission can be zero rated.

This is likely to include creating access such as paths, driveways, patios, roads and parking areas, making security features such as walls and gates, and basic soft landscaping – this means putting down top soil and laying grass – but only if this is required by the terms of the planning consent. The further from the property and less related to its construction, the less likely it is to qualify for the exemption.

The work must be undertaken at the same time as the house build to qualify. Enabling works prior to construction are probably included, but once the building is finished you are unlikely to qualify unless the work is part of the planning consent.

As we understand it, this means that even if you are not required to get planning consent for all of your landscaping ideas, you may wish to have a full landscaping plan submitted as part of your new build plans so that as much of the landscaping as possible is directly subject to the planning consent. Your call to action here is that it is almost certainly much more cost effective to get your landscape designed at the same time as your house rather than leaving it until later. Not only is this better anyway (for the reasons above) but it gives you the best chance of zero rating everything that you are entitled to.

There are some things that are always excluded – design fees (unless part of an overall design and build contract) and construction of external tennis courts and swimming pools for example.

The best advice is on the HMRC website, but it is not exhaustive by any means, and our advice is that on all large projects your QS or tax advisor should prepare a schedule on a line by line basis of all the works to be undertaken and their VAT status.

So if you are planning a new build or are some way down the line already, it would definitely pay to talk to a landscape designer as soon as possible. You may find there are some big savings to be made!

CGLA are an award winning team of Garden Designers, Landscape Architects, Landscapers and Garden Maintenance Operatives working in Buckinghamshire, London and the South East, as well as on prestigious design projects across the UK and abroad. We are currently working in Oman, Jersey and France, and welcome enquires for design, landscaping or garden maintenance. Contact us here