How To Avoid Cowboy Builders (and keep the good ones)
Summary: Finding good builders and avoiding the cowboys
Thanks to diydoctor.org.uk for this article.
How can I avoid cowboy builders and tradesmen? We have been asked that question so many times by people who have been ripped off by the unscrupulous cowboys operating all over the country. There is no simple answer other than to take full responsibility for you own home. This page, as with every single page on this website, is written by qualified tradesmen. We know what we are talking about and over the last 30 years we have seen horror stories which could easily have been avoided by the client taking responsibility for their home.
Do not disregard any of this advice because the job you want done is only small. Even removing a radiator can cause enormous problems and if everything that can go wrong, does go wrong, your heating can be down for days. Why take chances with anything in your home?
Imagine you had an expanding business and were in a position to offer someone a job. This recruit would be paid by you to do the job you employed them to do. You would need to trust them to do the job in a way which had your best interests at heart. You would need to give them a contract stipulating exactly what was expected of them, and the amount of money they would get on a pre assigned day.
You can click here to apply for a free copy of the DIY Doctor Desired Outcome Building Contract which is a contract especially drawn up by ex-builders to protect the homeowner.
You would need to know that they were occupying the time you were paying them for in a productive way. You would expect them to carry out your instructions to the best of their ability. If they had a specific area of expertise you would expect them to advise you regarding decisions in this area with courtesy and understanding that although this is your business, you cannot be expected to know everything. You would have asked for, and followed up references before employing them. If they were unable to provide references, you would have asked why. You would have asked to see them prior to their appointment and interviewed them. Most likely you would have done this with several applicants before you chose the one who met all of your criteria.
The real answer to the question how can I avoid cowboy builders, is to spend as much time and energy on employing a builder as you would any other employee in a business. The procedure is exactly the same but in a lot of cases, the stakes are a lot higher. The average house price across the country is £150,000. That is a huge amount of money to leave someone you do not know in charge of. You need to know, in no uncertain terms, that the largest investment you are ever likely to make is in the hands of someone you can trust.
Every builder will tell you the best way to be awarded a contract is by “word of mouth”. This also applies to the customer. The best way to get a tradesman is by word of mouth ! DIY Doctor can help you a great deal in locating the right tradesman for you. Click through to our Find a Tradesman page and complete the form and we will assist you in finding a reliable and insured tradesman local to your area.
Here are some more very quick steps to identify the cowboy builder:
- Good builders do not knock on peoples doors and say they are working in the area and have a lorry load of tarmac left over or they have noticed that there is a ferret nesting in your chimney stack. Thank them politely and ask them for a business card and contact details so you could perhaps call them when the house owner returns from holiday.
- If a builder says he can start tomorrow the chances are he has no other work to do. Good tradespeople are always busy.
- A cowboy will probably only have a mobile phone. No land line means he is not traceable. Good builders may work from home but they will not be frightened to give you their number and address.
- People who say “Trust Me” the lot can very rarely be trusted.
- Cowboy builders may suggest that giving them cash will reduce the bill. It will, but it also means there is no proof that they ever did the job. Always insist on a written receipt on a piece of headed paper.
- Cowboy builders do have an infuriating habit of treating you like a child. They use a lot of unnecessary jargon and when you ask for an explanation you get a look tantamount to “Don’t worry your pretty head about it”. Make sure your builder explains everything to you in clear terms that you fully understand.
- If you have an emergency job you will not have time for any of the practices below but make sure you understand the companies call out terms before you let them into your house.
Here are some more “grown up” steps you can take:
- Ask every person you have ever known; family, friends, colleagues, if they have had building work done in their houses and if so who they used and how did they get on. Was the relationship difficult? Was the timekeeping good? Was the quality of work good? Was the supervision of employees good? Did they show respect? Did they feel intimidated in any way? Was any guarantee given on the work? It is so much better to use a builder who is known to you, even via a third party, than to grab someone out of a local paper or off the Internet
- Have an absolutely clear plan and definition of what you want from the building work. If you have architects drawings, ask the architect to explain to you exactly what is involved. Do not say things to a builder like ” Oh, the stairs can go anywhere over there”. You are the boss, you are paying the money, be absolutely sure what you want. Discuss colours with your partner before starting. By all means ask the builders advice and there may be times when you want to say to the builder “OK, I’ll leave it up to you”. Remember if you do this and it turns out badly you have no recourse whatever. He can be the best builder in the world but his tastes may be totally different to yours so make the decisions. Its your house.
A quick story before we move on: As a building company we were asked to wallpaper a customers lounge. We took the customer 5 wallpaper books from our favourite suppliers and asked her to have a look for the paper she liked. We then asked her to cut a 50mm square out of the top corner of her chosen page and sign the back of it so there would be absolutely no mistake in the ordering process. She was impressed with this system, chose her wallpaper and we ordered it. When it arrived we showed her the rolls of paper and the order form together with her signed sample. We all agreed we had the right paper and we hung it. We turned up the following morning to tidy up and get paid but she said she could not pay us because the wall paper looked entirely different on the wall to how it had done in the book ! To cut a long story short, however ridiculous it may seem, we had to take her to court to get our money. We won of course but there is a lesson there for home owners. Perhaps she should have held a roll up on the wall to see what it looked like in a larger area rather than just a page in a book but whatever you do, be sure of your decisions. Changing your mind is an expensive business.
- Architects are not exempt from Cowboy infiltration. Just because they are a professional body they do not all come with guarantees. Make sure your architect is a member of a trade body such as the Architects Registration Board which is a statutory body for architects in the UK and maintains a register of all practicing architects. Another good place to get help is the Royal Institute of British Architects. When choosing an architect, do not be intimidated. All of the same rules apply as they do to choosing a builder, plumber, bricklayer, carpenter, electrician and so on.
- Choose at least three builders, architects, tradespeople etc to get quotes from. Ask each one to lay out the quotes clearly and precisely and to detail every single thing that is included in the quote and every single thing that is not include. The quote should be a fixed quote and you must state in writing to the builders etc that if there are any amendments to the quotation because of work added by you or extra work which could not have been foreseen at the time of quotation, a detailed price for this additional work must be submitted before work is carried out. One of the ways cowboy builders get more money out of unsuspecting customers is to quote a cheap price and then magically find many “extras”.
- When you ask each builder for a quote ask them all for two references and telephone numbers and addresses for those references. State clearly in writing that these references must not be family members. Do not just ring the referees, ask them if it is OK to go along and see the work. If it is not ask the builder for another referee. Do not, under any circumstances, employ a builder, or any other tradesman, unless you have spoken to two independent people he has worked for in the recent (12 months) past. Ask the referees all the questions you have asked in the first point at the top of the page.
- The quotation should also include the builders estimated start date and estimated length of contract preferred method of payment. Payment method may well be outlined in the contract we are about to suggest in the next point, but if it is not in the contract you choose you must know what the builder expects from you. It is very often the case, especially with the smaller builder, that he will expect a payment in advance (usually one third of the contract value) to buy your materials with. This is fine, after all why should he use his savings to buy your material? BUT >>>>The money must be signed for and its provision must be stipulated as part of the contract. When you inform the builders who are quoting that they will be expected to sign a contract, if any of them seem dubious about this it is a fair indication that they would rather not, so be careful.
- Get a contract ! The Internet contains many many sites where a building contract can either be downloaded or posted to you. The most popular and well known of these contracts is the JCT or Joint Contracts Tribunal. This was established over 70 years ago and its sole existence is to provide standard forms of contract and guidance notes for use in the construction Industry. JCT contracts are not available for purchase on line however and are more expensive (and extensive) than many other contracts. Make sure you get one that suits you. Also remember that the contract will protect the interests of the tradesman also. If the contract states he must be paid on Fridays, he must be paid on Fridays. There are such creatures as customers from Hell as well as Builders from Hell and the larger builders will insist that a contract is signed before they begin work .These contract must be read very thoroughly however as they are always slanted in the direction of the builder.Some contracts will include for you to hold some of the money back (usually 5%) after the job is completed. This is called retention and allows for you to have a thorough inspection of the property after the builder has gone to see if everything is done exactly the way they contracted to do it. We always suggest to customers that we invoice them for the final amount on the day we finish but do not expect to be paid for two weeks. This gives them the opportunity to check everything we have done and, unless they inform us of something they think is wrong, we would expect the payment after the two weeks. This we think, is fair and, as everything should be, it is out in the open and everyone is playing the game to the same rules.
- Tell the builder that there will be a written journal of the work kept by you. Part of the contract is for regular updates on how the work is going and how the builder feels about it. There will be days when you come home from work and it seems as if nothing has been done, which we have seen customers get very angry about. The reality is that the builder may have spent all day trying to make a connection into a main drain which is constantly being used or he may have spent the entire day fitting copper pipes under a floor he has just re-laid. Do not make judgments until you know the facts and do not be frightened to ask. The daily journal is a great way of solving this problem as every day you can say to the builder “What do I write in my Journal today “John”?
- Do not always go for the cheapest price and if none of them make any sense you are not obliged to use any of them and you may wish to start again. Read the quotes from start to finish. Is the outline of the work the same? Is one more detailed than the others? Are you sure, after discussions with your architect, that the quotes include everything you want done? A major thing to remember here is that if, for example, you are having an extension built and you want the decoration included in the price; how long has the builder allowed for the plaster to dry? Will he have to return? are there other jobs which require a check up after a few days, a week, a month ? Get all of these details from your builder. When you have finished…………Have you really finished ? Ask your builders what guarantees they are putting on their labour. Also ask your builder about the materials guarantees. All building materials are guaranteed to do the job they are supposed to do. This is called a manufacturers guarantee and you, or at least the builder, has a statutory right to it. A simple fact here is that it is the builder that supplied you with the materials, not the manufacturer. If something goes wrong and the builder says to you that it is the manufacturers fault and you must sort it out with them you must say NO: The builder is your supplier. If there is a problem with anything it must be the builder who spends his time and his money putting it right. He chose those products on your behalf, it is his responsibility. This must be included clearly in the contract. If a builder uses materials he has in his yard which are left over from another job they may not even be covered any longer by a manufacturers guarantee so make sure this is clear.We once heard of a guy who had mis-measured a double glazed replacement window. He had to re-order the window and he put the old one in his lock up. When he finally found a job in which he could place the old window the manufacturer had gone out of business and the customer could not get a replacement handle which his kids had broken off. If you choose materials, they are your responsibility. Ask the builder for a workmanship guarantee also and there should be no reason why a tradesman’s workmanship should not be guaranteed for 10 years.
- Ask your builder if he is VAT registered. This will add the current rate of VAT to your bill. That’s the downside. The upside is that by being VAT registered it probably means he has turned over enough money to reach the VAT threshold every year and this means he probably has a lot more experience than the guy who is not VAT registered. This is only a rule of thumb but worth looking into.
- Talk to the builder about the things you would expect as a matter of common courtesy. How clean they will leave the property every night. If they expect to use your toilets and how clean they will keep them. Are you going to let them make their own tea and coffee in your kitchen or are they expected to bring flasks etc as most of them do. Having building work done indoors is a stressful time. If everyone knows every boundary to start with it can be easier. If its a big job and going to last for more than a couple of days, you may want to talk to the builder about including a hired chemical toilet in the price. This can easily be lifted into the garden and will stop any problems in the home.
- You builder must be able to provide you with Public Liability Insurance. Public liability Insurance covers any award of damages given to a member of the public because of an injury or damage to property caused by the contractor. You can find out more about Public Liability Insurance here
- Make sure the builder knows that he is responsible for the behavior and conduct of every member of his team even the subcontractors if he has chosen them. Many builders will not personally have all the skills required to complete a job. In this case they will hire, on a short term basis, a qualified sub contractor to do the specialist work. This may be a plumber or electrician in a lot of cases. Make sure the builder knows, and it is in the contract, that subcontractors are his responsibility. They must also carry the appropriate insurances and, if involved in Gas or electrical work, must also carry the appropriate certification. See our projects on gas safety and Part P of the building regulations.
- Ask your builders if they are members of any Trade Associations. Good Builders have generally joined one trade association or another but no way does this mean that if they are not members they are bad builders. Ask them which trade they specialise in and who they use for the other trades. Be wary of the guy who says he does everything. He probably does but it is not possible to do everything really well. WE do not concern ourselves with qualifications any more and I’m afraid proper apprenticeships are a thing of the past. These days, it seems a school leaver can go to college for a couple of months and come out with some sort of construction qualification or another but this means very little. The way to find out if someone can do their job is not from a certificate or CV it is from the people they have worked for. We have a guy who has been laying bricks and plastering for 3 years. Self taught, no qualifications and 19 years old but one of the best in both trades we have seen in our 30 years. If we had not taken the time to go to his neighbours house and look at the amazing garden he had created we would have dismissed him at interview.
All of the things listed above are very important in order to get the right people doing your job for you but they require effort. It is your house, it is your responsibility to keep it in the best possible marketable, safe condition you can. Do not grab any builder or tradesman from a directory, put them into your house and blame the directory when it goes wrong. It is your responsibility, no one else’s, to make sure you have made every possible effort to get the right person. If you have taken all the steps above but you still do not have the right person and it all goes wrong; you will at least have everything in place to be able to take legal action to make a recovery of any losses. You have a contract, you have a journal, you have a list of extras, you have your terms and conditions and you have a full understanding of what was expected by both parties. If one of the parties reneges, there are consequences.
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