Avoiding Cowboy Builders

Cowboy builders are the scourge of the construction industry. Although they make up only a tiny minority of those working in the building trade, they are out there, and it pays to know how to spot and avoid them. Major building alterations usually represent a large investment, and the dream of a new extension or loft conversion can quickly turn into a nightmare if you fail to choose a quality contractor to carry out the work.

We have all heard horror stories about rogue traders who wreak financial and emotional misery on unsuspecting homeowners by failing to deliver on their promises. This guide is designed to help you minimize the risk of hiring dishonest and/or incompetent tradesmen to undertake building work on your property.

Never rely on the innate honesty of others. Cowboys are likely to appear confident and friendly, making it hard to doubt their competence and sincerity. Don't be afraid to stand up for your rights and demand evidence of their ability to carry out work to the desired standard. After all, it's your money we're talking about! Reputable tradesmen will be happy to comply with your requests, recognizing your rights and concerns as the employer.

Warning Signs

Treat tradesmen with suspicion if they:

1) Insist on cash only, offer you money off for cash-in-hand, suggest that you can avoid paying VAT for cash and/or are very insistent on getting the cash straight-away.

2) Seem reluctant to give a business name or address or can only be reached by mobile phone.

3) Over-emphasize any faults.

4) Criticize rival builders in the area.

5) Offer you a surprisingly low quote.

6) Confuse you with jargon and technical explanations or insist that the details are not your problem, laughing when you suggest showing them plans.

7) Tell you that a written contract is not necessary or fail to provide any paperwork.

8) Are evasive when asked to provide references.

9) Say that they are unable to give costings because things may change.

10) Tell you they can start work immediately. A good builder is usually a busy builder!

If at any time you feel intimidated by a visiting tradesman, do not be afraid to ask them to leave and call the police.

Things to Remember

Follow these guidelines for choosing and working with a builder to help protect yourself from cowboys. Knowledge is your most powerful weapon in the fight against rogue traders. Arm yourself with reliable advice and make sure you know your rights.

DO: Ask trusted friends and family members to recommend builders who have provided a good service when carrying out similar work on their own properties.

DO: Get estimates from at least three different builders. Be clear about what you want done and request written specifications and quotations. If there is a large variation in the size of the quotes, try to find out why.

DO: Endeavour to use members of recognized trade associations such as the Federation of Master Builders, Quality Mark Builders or the National Federation of Builders. Although membership is no guarantee of quality workmanship, it is a good indication of competence and reliability. Associations carry out checks on tradesmen before they grant membership status, and members are required to adhere to codes of conduct. Check membership details carefully, however, as rogue builders will often falsely claim membership of trade associations.

DO: Ask each builder for 2/3 recent references and follow them up, inspecting the work if possible. Speak to previous clients about the conduct of the tradesmen as well the quality of the work done. Bear in mind that it is possible for references to be family / friends of the builder in question.

DO: Enquire about guarantees, particularly if the job is a big one. Ask for work to be covered by an insurance-backed warranty.

DO: Take your time over choosing the right builder for you. Don't feel rushed into making a decision. Make your choice according to:

1) Quality of Workmanship

2) Cost and Time-Frames and

3) The Conduct of the Builder, weighing each factor individually and relative to the other two.

DO: Use a written contract. For small domestic building works there are a number of simple and inexpensive homeowner building contracts available, such as the Plain English contract from the FMB. A written agreement should specify:

1) The work to be carried out. (If the job is a complex one, commission a comprehensive set of building plans to further cement this contract.)

2) When the work is due to start and finish.

- ‘local agreements’ including use of bathroom facilities, disposal of waste etc.

3) The cost of the work and how/when it is to be paid. It is wise to include a ‘retention’ – a part of the price that is to be paid (say) one ore two months after completion of the work, allowing you enough time to discover any small faults that only come to light once the builders have left the site. Be sure to agree any staged and final payments before work starts.

DO: Maintain an open dialogue with your builder throughout the course of the project. Work with them to ensure that they are doing what you want. If problems arise or you are unhappy about any aspect of the job they are doing, be sure to talk to your builder straight-away. Use the trade association's mediation and arbitration service if necessary. Bear in mind that a certain amount of inconvenience is inevitable, and factors such as weather, illness etc are out of the builders' control.

DO: Keep a written record of the progress of the work, making a note of any instructions you give the builder and any payments made.

DO NOT: Deal exclusively in cash. If this is absolutely unavoidable, be sure to obtain a receipt for each payment.

DO NOT: Pay for your work in full before it has been carried out. Once you have handed over your money it will be extremely difficult to obtain any redress if things go wrong. Only make the final payment when you are satisfied with the work and have checked that it complies with regulations.

DO NOT: Change your mind halfway through the project, or add to the job once work has started. This will lead to delays and extra costs. If changes are really necessary, ensure that you detail the alterations and agree time-scales and extra charges with your builder.