Avoiding cowboy builders - top tips

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Finding a reliable tradesman to carry out work on your home can be difficult, especially when trying to keep the costs down.

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We've all watched the TV shows where people have been duped by 'cowboy builders' wondering how people could get caught out, but it's easier than you think.

Whether you're looking for a plumber, carpenter or electrician, it's important you find a trusted, reliable tradesman to carry out the work at your home. If someone is quoting a lot less than other companies, ask yourself why.

While you may want to go for the cheapest option, this could end up costing you in the long run if you need to pay out extra money to get dodgy work fixed.

It's not just cost you need to consider but also their availability.

According to new research from the Federation of Master Builders (FMB), homeowners should expect to wait at least four months for a reputable builder to start their project begins or risk working with a cowboy.

Their research also reveals an alarming number of people don’t ask their builders for essentials such as a contract or references before hiring them.

  • 90% of builders say the majority of people don’t ask for a written contract
  • 80% of builders reported most consumers don’t ask for an agreed payment schedule
  • Fewer than 10% of builders say clients request to see vital insurance policies such as public liability or employer’s liability insurance

Brian Berry, Chief Executive of the FMB, said: “If a builder is free to start work tomorrow, alarm bells should ring. Demand for building work is incredibly high at the moment and it should be no surprise that almost one in two builders need to be contacted at least four months in advance of when a client is looking to start a home improvement project. 

“The workloads of builders have been rising steadily over the past two years and there’s no shortage of work. That’s why we’re urging home owners who are keen to crack on with their build or renovation projects to start getting in touch with prospective builders as soon as possible. 

“Otherwise, they risk disappointment delaying their projects or worse still, working with a dodgy builder. So many building horror stories start with a client approaching a builder who’s free to start work sooner than the more professional builder who is really busy.”

We spoke to the Admiral Home Insurance team for their top tips for finding a reliable tradesman:

  • Tradesmen recommendations - Ask a friend; if you know someone who's had work done, or someone within a trade who could make a recommendation, ask for advice and try to see the work that's been carried out
  • Research reliable tradesmen online - there are a number of websites such as Trustatrader, goodbuilderguide and FMB which allow you to search for registered tradesmen in your area and carry out checks on their qualifications and paperwork
  • Shop around - get a few quotes to compare and find the best price for you
  • Get written quotes - once you're happy with a quote, get the price you've been quoted on letter headed paper. Ask the trader to include start and completion dates and agreed payment terms
  • Ask for a written contract - this will offer you protection if anything goes wrong
  • Don't pay for work upfront - never pay for work that hasn't been carried out and avoid 'cash-in-hand' traders. However, you can expect to pay for large materials upfront - just make sure the tradesman itemises everything in the written quote
  • Stick to the plan - try not to change your mind once work has started; it can be timely and you'll probably end up paying more

Homeowners are leaving themselves vulnerable to problems in terms of how they approach their building work, according to the FMB.

Mr Berry added: "The vast majority of builders say that most clients fail to ask for references and even fewer ask for a written contract on their work. There is a similar trend when it comes to asking for critical things like an agreed payment schedule and key warranties on work, as well as checking whether the builder has any external accreditation or recognition from professional trade association like the FMB.

"These protections really are essential to helping clients weed out the cowboys and mitigate against any issues that could crop up during the build. A quality builder will insist on these things and if they don’t, consumers ought to question why.”

Of course, even if you do everything by the book, there's always a chance that something could go wrong or you may not be happy with the work.

If this does happen, speak to your builder and try to work through the problem. If this doesn't work, put it in writing to their office and finally, you have the option of contacting Trading Standards or Citizens Advice.

When things go wrong

We spoke to our colleagues at Admiral to see if they've ever had poor work done, and unsurprisingly a number of people had fallen foul of rogue traders.

"I bought a house in January from two tradesmen who did the house up as a project. It was lovely, however, it was only when the sale was complete that we found numerous issues including plastering over damp, gas leaks and a boiler that wasn't installed by a gas safe engineer and was done illegally. The boiler completely flooded and water came through our ceiling into the living room. They also built in an extra wall into the garden to create a tier effect but when gardening this summer we found out the wall was only built so they could use it to throw their rubbish in it rather than get a skip! Not a good experience for a first-time buyer and very costly!"

"My mum had a conservatory built by a company and she purchased a lifetime guarantee with it. She had no issues for five years but during the bad weather the whole roof slipped off and started to leak. The company is no longer trading and the warranty is now void because of this. The company used the wrong type of roofing which is considered unsafe. To get it fixed and replaced to the correct safety standards will now cost £9,000!"

"A British Gas engineer came to my house to do the annual British Gas Home Service check. He wanted to test the pressure so turned it up a little and water started leaking through the ceiling. He ended up pulling our living room ceiling down when he was working on it and flooded the living room. My father ended up fixing it."

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