Having some building work done is notoriously stressful and disruptive for your home and your daily routine. Often large sums are involved and lots can go wrong – botched home improvement work is estimated to cost home-owners over £1.7 billion every year. There are over 110,000 complaints about building work notified to the Department of Trade & Industry each year and of course that doesn’t take into account the ones resolved in other ways.
So how do we find a good and reliable Builder?
The best way is by recommendation. Ask if the builder started and finished on time, kept the site tidy, cleared up at the end, struck to the agreed price and overall did a good job of work. Remember, however, some problems take years to become evident. By then the builder may have ‘vanished’. I remember well a small builder working in an affluent part of South West London some years ago who carried out a number of well executed projects, had a large order book for which deposits were paid, and then swiftly left the country.
You can find builders in your area who are registered with the Federation of Master Builders from their website. However, while standards for joining the Federation are high, it does not inspect the work of members. Beware – some unscrupulous cowboy builders put the Federation’s logo on their letterhead even though they are not members. Request to see their certificate of membership.
You can also look for a builder under the Quality Mark scheme (0845 300 8040), a government-backed register with details of more than 500 firms. Finally you might try Which Local, which has been set up by the Consumers Association to allow satisfied customers to recommend companies which have done good work for them.
Getting a price
The Old Adage “Don’t rush in” is most apt when finding someone. It’s always tempt-ing to excitedly rush into a project. But at the least obtain three quotations. The Building Cost Information Service will give you an idea of how much a job should cost. Don’t necessarily go for the cheapest quote; take into account the answers to your questions.
Planning Permission needed or Permitted development
Find out if you need planning permission or if building regulations apply to your job. If it qualifies as “building work”’, which includes everything from building an extension down to installing a new window or boiler, you are obliged to have it inspected and certified by your local council (which will require a fee).
Planning permission covers larger projects and for this you need to apply to your local council planning department, providing plans. The department responsible at your local council will either use their in-house Building Control, or you will be directed to an independent practitioner, and they will tell you all you need to know. You will need the certificates when you come to sell your house as the Purchaser’s solicitor will want to see them as part of the conveyancing process.
All of this may seem daunting and a mine field to negotiate, and it can on more complex projects be more prudent to hire an architect or Chartered surveyor to help you plan the job and then oversee it. Typically, fees of 10-13% of the value of the work are charged, but they can save you money by knowing that you have chosen the right builder, that costs are checked and quantified. By thinking of the end product, you can make sure that you can get good quality work.
Regardless of the self-imagining of a project or use of a professional to manage the project, here are the key questions to ask:
Make sure you speak to them in case the builder has invented them.
Ask to see the work and forget about anyone who won’t show you work they have done.
Ask to see some older work as well as a recent job since there will have been more time for faults to become apparent.
It’s better if the builder has done something at least reasonably similar or he could be learning how to do it at your expense.
A builder can demonstrate this by producing records or other paperwork like bank statements or contracts.
It’s a bad sign if they don’t. While an individual tradesman can operate from home, a builder needs space to store equipment and supplies. A home ad-dress is all right as an office address but a builder needs premises some-where.
References from a supplier about a builder’s credit facilities and payment are a good indication of financial stability and management. Also, check how long he has been with his current bank – beware someone who keeps changing his bank as this can indicate financial problems.
Generally look for a builder who is VAT registered. The VAT threshold is currently £64,000 and someone with a turnover below that cannot be doing very much work.
If someone offers to waive VAT if you pay cash, beware. Tax avoidance is not the sign of the honest type you want and it puts you in a weak position in the event of a dispute.
It’s essential. Never accept a verbal assurance that it will cost “about £10,000”. It’s important to distinguish between an estimate and a quotation.
An estimate is only an estimate, it has no binding force.
A quotation is an undertaking to do the job for a stated price.
You can move from an estimate to a quotation when you have established exactly what is to be done. You may want to change a few things to save money after seeing the estimate.
The final detailed quotation should include all the work to be done, date of completion, security and safety, catering and toilet arrangements, disposal of rubbish, water and power supplies, hours of working and so on. But better still, ask for a written contract.
You can download a standard one from the Federation of Master Builders website (www.fmb.org.uk). Once the builder has signed it, you will be much better covered.
Cross-examine your prospective builders on how realistic proposed start dates really are. Don’t push for an early start if this is unrealistic. On larger projects ask for a timetable so you can see if the job is slipping behind.
You will need to relate this to the size of his workforce. A small workforce and a lot of projects could mean he is overstretched. If this means excessive use of casual labour or sub-contractors it could spell trouble – see below.
Your builder is legally obliged to have both public and employers liability insurance and make sure you see the relevant certificates of insurance. He should have at least £2 million cover. He should also have other insurance to cover other problems which may arise – again, ask to see his certificate.
It’s much better if he does although it can be valueless in practice if he goes out of business. The far better solution to ensure you are protected is to con-tact your insurance broker, and purchase a 10-year warranty to cover building work. While this means you will have to bear the cost of insurance yourself, you know you are covered.
Work on a building site is regulated by Health & Safety Legislation which covers things like project and risk management, maintenance of equipment, standards of work, safety procedures and the like. You are yourself liable for certain facets of a job until you can show that you have definitely devolved responsibility from your builder. Ask him how he complies with the legislation – as well as any claims against him.
As a supplementary question, ask if the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 or CDM for short, applies. A project is notifiable for CDM when: The construction is scheduled to last longer than 30 working days, and it will have more than 20 workers working at the same time at any point in the building project.
If he does, forget about him. The builder should be in sufficiently good financial shape to purchase supplies without needing your cash up-front to do it. The only exception would be where some rare kind of very expensive initial purchase has to be made, for instance bespoke glass works.
If the job is big enough – for example, if it lasts four weeks or more – then agree stage payments which should be precisely defined.
Agree what percentage of the total bill you will retain until you can be sure that all the work is satisfactory, which should be 10-20%. If you pay in cash, you will be in a very weak position in the event of any dispute. It is better to pay by bank transfer, cheque or credit card. If you can use the last, then the card provider will be jointly liable for payment which may help you in the event of a dispute. Check that your builder will accept payment by credit card. Many do not – understandably, because of the fees charged by the card.
Using a professional to administer the project will mean that works are valued and the amount of each stage payment is quantified.
Any changes should be put in writing and, if there is a knock-on effect on the costs and finish date, these should be put in writing too as an addition to the quotation or contract. Please do not venture onto a project thinking you can easily change your mind as you go along – most changes of mind will cost you money and cause delay.
Variations on a project are the prime cause for going over budget, so when planning a project have you allowed a contingency? Some cost increase may be unavoidable, such as deep foundations being required and cost of materials escalating. In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire the price for insulation materials went skyward, given the shortage of certified products available.
How to measure progress of the project, easy if you are living in the building being altered or extended.
Stipulate that you want to turn up regularly to inspect work and come when-ever any particularly important element of the work is underway. Drop in un-expectedly from time to time – is the builder happy with that?
At certain times given the nature of works, such as lifting heavy steel joists into place, or when deep foundations are being dug, Health and Safety issues may need to be observed, but generally it shouldn’t be an issue.
Also ask when particular tasks are to be done which involve things like pipes, wiring or damp-proof membranes being covered up and make sure all is well before they disappear. Dropping in unannounced from time to time may not catch anyone out but the knowledge that you might should at least be a deterrent to a bit of cheating. If a builder seems negative about this, don’t employ him. You want someone who is proud of his work, and will also be pleased to have the opportunity to sort out minor alterations or challenges which crop up.
If help will be required from a specialist like a structural engineer, to design roofs, calculate the size of lintels required for openings and removal of walls to form, for instance, open plan accommodation, or a drainage consultant or central heating engineer or Independent Building Control, you must ask your builder if he has access to someone, how he proposes to use them and ex-actly where responsibility lies for their contribution.
This neatly brings us on to what may be considered one of the most important questions when planning your project.
It is much better if your builder has an established team. He may find it difficult to impose his own standards on people he has never seen before, like migrant tradesmen. If he is starting off someone new he should supervise him long enough to confirm his competence before leaving the site. Additionally, if a builder needs to hire sub-contractors – e.g. for plumbing, electrical, central heating – these should be tradespeople whose work he knows well.
Make sure you have your own Public Liability insurance in case something affects neighbours or passers-by. In the first instance call your broker and en-sure your insurance company are informed about the proposed building work. Having builders in may affect the terms of your Buildings and Contents policy.
Speak to your builder as soon as you spot something you don’t like the look of. The longer you leave it, the more difficult it will become to sort things out.
If you can’t resolve matters, you can seek help from the Federation of Master Builders or the Quality Mark scheme which run arbitration services. Otherwise, you will need to engage a Chartered Surveyor, which will send costs shooting up – and could leave you living in a building site for months if matters aren’t promptly resolved.
For further advice please contact our team of Chartered Surveyors and Architects: