The Most Common Project Management Problems and How to Avoid Them

Whether you hire a professional, or oversee the work yourself, Mike Hardwick reveals the most common project management mistakes home builders encounter and how to beat them
by Mike Hardwick
24th January 2018

I often meet self-builders and renovators who expect to be given a ready-made template showing how to project manage their scheme. They look disappointed when I tell them it doesn’t exist. If only it were that simple!

If it were, I’d have put one together and be living quite comfortably off of the proceeds because everyone would want one. The truth is every project is different. Some will progress like clockwork, others might be fraught with problem after problem.

The difference between the two is how the work is managed and whether simple steps to avoid serious issues developing have been taken. I’m looking at the most common project management mistakes, so you can at least be aware of the issues and find out how to prevent them.

Should you manage your build?

Professional project managers will cost around 10% of your build fund. The trouble is, most of us are on tight budgets and 10% is, on average, around £30,000 of your proposed budget – money that can pay for the kitchen and bathrooms. So it’s easy to see why many self-builders take on the role themselves.

While you might save money, it will be at the expense of your time – running this kind of project will take up most of your waking hours and, once you have solved one issue, the next is not far behind. Some thrive in this environment. Others disintegrate so fast you need to dodge the shrapnel.

If you suspect you might be in the latter group and you can afford to hire a professional project manager, then I would advise you do so. It will eventually save you time, money and potentially high stress levels.

Breaking the budget

The first rule of self-building is that it will end up costing a bit more than you’ve set aside in your estimate. It will inevitably take a little longer to complete than you thought it would, too.

Being over-optimistic with the budget is probably the biggest cause of grief on a project, particularly when money is scarce. The key is building to the size and quality that your finances allow, rather than thinking you can have whatever you want and that the money in the kitty will somehow stretch a bit further to suit.

Finding trusted people to carry out the first and second-fix work on this home by Welsh Oak Frame was an easy task for the homeowners– selecting tradesmen all within their close circle of family, friends and neighbours
Designed by Charles Barclay Architects, this self-build was run on a JCT Minor Works contract, so a 2.5% retention was held over until the end of the six month defects period to ensure the builder returned to fix any snags

If funds are tight, save the designer stuff for later and concentrate on the bits you won’t be changing – such as facing materials, roof tiles, staircases, windows and doors. When it comes to kitchens and bathrooms, put in inexpensive but good looking items where you can. You can upgrade at a later date when your bank balance has been replenished.

And always keep a contingency fund: I would recommend 10% of your build costs. You will use it, and will be glad it is there when the inevitable ‘stuff’ crops up along the way that wasn’t in the budget, but has to be paid for.

Buying the wrong plot

A common mistake many people make is finding and buying a plot before they’ve even worked out if they can afford to build their dream house on it. To calculate whether the site is worth the spend, enquire with local estate agents as to the estimated finished valuation of your intended scheme. Next subtract your estimated build cost and any additional costs.

What you have left is the most you can afford to pay for the land without dipping into negative equity. If the plot is too expensive and you can’t haggle the price down to the right level, walk away and move on to the next one.

Taking the lowest price

When selecting your contractor, beware the one-line quote that looks too good to be true. It’s so easy to confuse ‘low price’ and ‘value for money’, but the two rarely share the same space. Competent builders know what a job will really cost, and so are unlikely to be the lowest bidder.

Accepting a cheap quote carries all manner of risk. So always take references and follow up to confirm that a trader is competent and capable of doing the job. Sometimes a cheaper quote works, but that is usually when work is scarce in times of recession. In a rising market, it’s a guaranteed way to hire a cowboy.

Skipping build insurance

You are about to embark on your biggest shopping trip ever. In all probability, everything you have will go into building your own home, so you need to protect your investment. Site insurance and structural warranties may seem an unnecessary expense, and hopefully you will never need to call on them.

However, if you have cause to make a claim, you will be so glad you’re protected. If you are taking out a mortgage, a structural warranty will be obligatory. Cash builders should still seriously consider purchasing a 10-year structural warranty.

It offers protection against major defects and gives you an extra layer of quality control throughout the build. Site insurance, meanwhile, can cover everything from theft of materials and tools to those rare, as well as potentially catastrophic events, like fire and extreme weather.

Deviating from planning consent

When you gain planning permission, this will invariably include special conditions that will have to be met – some before you start work, some before you move in. These are not up for discussion unless you make a formal request to amend them.

If you depart from the plans, or decide to contravene Building Regulations, then someone is going to find out and you will have to sort it out at your own expense. It can be incredibly stressful and potentially expensive to resolve errors, so don’t think about deviating from the approved plans without seeking permission to do so.

Failing to maintain good relationships

If you have selected your builder properly, he or she will be someone who is not only competent and capable of doing the work, but also someone you can communicate with. You aren’t looking to make a friend for life, but a cordial working relationship will pay dividends.

Make your site a pleasant place to be and treat your builder well, with basic courtesy and facilities and they will reciprocate with a good job. A valued builder may even help out with those ‘while you are there, could you just….’ moments, sometimes at no extra cost.

Of course, there will be frustrating occasions – the delays, the no-shows, the slower than expected progress – but these will always happen to some extent on any build. Think how you might react to setbacks. No one comes to work to get constantly shouted at or to be picked up on every little detail.

Keep calm and talk first before letting fly; it’s easy to take it out on others when you are stressed. It’s also easy to over-supervise because it’s your pet project. So, watch from a distance and only step in if it is clear that something is not going right.

Case study: Complex construction

Self-build project by John Pardey Architects

This clever 317m2 design in Pembrokeshire by John Pardey Architects was completed to a high standard on a tricky waterside plot in just 18 months thanks to the experience of Carreg Construction. The contractors kept the architects informed of where the job was relating to programme and costs, which made for a clear dialogue between designer and client. The project cost £975,000.

Forgetting about the neighbours

This may be the most exciting thing you’ve ever done – but for those living close by, your project brings months of noise, dirt and inconvenience, all of which can make life an utter misery for others.

Don’t take your neighbours for granted. They’re likely to be there long after the builders have left and you’ll have to live alongside them and hopefully get along. Let them know what’s going on and give them your contact details or those of the site foreman.

If there’s a problem, they will know who to go to resolve it. And remember that handing over a bunch of flowers or a bottle of wine does wonders if there’s been a problem.

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