How to Avoid Cowboy Builders

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What You Need to Know

  1. Around 100,000 complaints about cowboy builders are made in the UK each year. However, by using a little common sense you can reduce your chances of falling victim to poor tradesmen.
  2. Look out for signs of poor practice when choosing a builder: refusing to sign a contract, being evasive about prices and asking for payment upfront should all be viewed with some suspicion.
  3. Check to see if a builder is part of the government’s TrustMark scheme before allowing them to work on your property.
  4. Additionally, check to see if a tradesman is a member of the Federation of Master Builders (FMB).
  5. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ask to see their insurance polices and references from three different clients. Respectable tradesmen will appreciate your caution and be happy to help.
  6. Good builders tend to be in high demand, so be happy to wait a while before they can get to work and be wary of anyone who says they’re able to start right away.
  7. The Joint Contracts Tribunal can help you with any legal disputes you may have with cowboy builders.

The Problem of Cowboy Builders

It is the stuff of nightmares and fly-on-the-wall docu-soaps. The firm of builders you hire to work on your house turns out to be a bunch of cowboys, emptying your bank account and leaving your house in a worst state than it was in when they begun.

Over 100,000 complaints about cowboy builders are made every year. There are plenty of them about.

Many of us rely on recommendations and word of mouth when choosing a builder, and more often than not this proves perfectly satisfactory.

But what if this is not an option? Perhaps you've just moved into a new area and don't know anyone. How can you make sure you find a reputable firm that will do the job at a reasonable price?

Check Out a Builders’ Credentials

The first and most obvious step is to check out the builders' credentials. Are they, for instance, a member of the Federation of Master Builders, the industry's benchmark for quality workmanship and business practice? To find a member in your area log on to the FMB's website. Similarly, check to see if a builder or building firm has the government’s TrustMark scheme accreditation, with this logo on their van indicating they have passed an assessment based on their skills and signed up to a code of good practice.

Before calling a builder in, it is always worth getting clear in your own mind exactly what work you want done. A lot of disputes arise when changes are made half way through a job, causing unanticipated problems and costs.

When you have settled on what you want done it is worth getting more than one quote, if possible at least three. That way you should be able to establish roughly what the going rate is for the job and weed out unrealistically high or low estimates.

Remember, good builders tend to be in high demand, so be happy to wait a while before they can get to work and be wary of anyone who says they’re able to start right away.

Things to Look Out For

There is no definitive list of what you should look out for when trying to assess a tradesman’s professionalism. However, there are a few little things that should set your alarm bells ringing. These include:

  • Asking for payment upfront or demanding to be paid in cash.
  • Claiming to work for another, more respectable company or tradesman – a ‘friend of a friend’. Always check-up on these connections.
  • Avoiding signing a contract and refusing to put down in writing and in detail what work they intend to carry out.
  • Unable to provide references or give details about their insurance policies.
  • Failing to stick to initial quotes, both in terms of timeframe or money, from the very start of a project.
  • Alternatively, providing surprisingly low quotes should also arouse suspicion.

Should a tradesman do any, or all, of the above, then it’s certainly worthwhile double-checking their credentials and, if necessary, terminating any contract you might have in place with them.

Taking Control of the Situation

Take your time in making a decision. If a builder pressures you for an answer or isn't prepared to put in the time to discuss your needs it is probably worth finding one who is.

Following this course should lead you to the right people. However, if you want to make absolutely sure that there are no hidden pitfalls you can now enter into a legally binding contract before the work starts.

The Joint Contracts Tribunal has devised a simple to follow Building Contract, essentially a checklist of all the items you and the builders should discuss and agree on before work begins. Visit the JCT website for more information on this.

Further Reading

  • Check out the Builder Register to learn more about good practice within the construction industry.
  • Why go to the trouble of getting in help when you could, with a little know how, do it yourself. UK Net Guides has a whole host of DIY how-to guides. Why not start with our guide to tiling a wall.
Handz on tools ltd Handz on tools ltd

Ensure there is a payment schedule and payments are made in accordance with this schedule once that section of works are complete. This should safe guard you.
We are above average of costs but we have a great service, no complaints and are very busy. Some builders are worth waiting and paying for.

Good luck out there its a big pond with more sharks than fish.

UK Net Guide UK Net Guide

Hi Dan,

Your feedback is welcome, and we can understand why you'd be angry at how much attention rogues get in the media. However, in the article we do actually point out that customers can cause themselves problems by accepting unrealistically low quotes (as you suggest in your comment) , or by having outlandish expectations. We also point out how easy it is to find good tradesmen.

Dan Dan

I'm a tradesman and site's like this do my head in ,making every builder sound like a cowboy. In my personal opinion its the customer to blame for bad tradesmen ,its wanting everything done for as cheap as possible and at the end of the job they just want to moan about any little thing its a CHEAP JOB ! People don't want to pay for a good work end off.


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