Dealing with Cowboy Builders

by Mike Hardwick
7th August 2018

After missing out on a medal at the Winter Olympics in South Korea earlier this year, speed skater Elise Christie seems to have suffered yet another blow – this time in the hands of rogue builders.

According to the papers, the athlete was left high and dry after contractors walked off a job to extend her home in Nottingham after she had paid the full amount up front. Once again, the construction industry gets bad press, leaving people to assume that all builders are there solely to rip homeowners off.

I’m no apologist for the cowboys, but we hardly help ourselves sometimes. The glaring fact in this story is that Ms Christie paid for the entire project in advance. But why?

Show me any other situation where you’d commission complex work or buy a major item, such as a new car, and pay for it prior to seeing what you are getting. It’d be madness, yet for some reason we have convinced ourselves that builders should be paid beforehand.

In doing so, you take away all of the incentive for the contractors to complete the work. If the structure is near completion and another opportunity comes along offering more cash, then that will become the focus of the cowboys’ attention.

In other words, why would they bother with finishing the first assignment when they have been paid all they are going to get?

As with any industry, there are good and bad people out there. In fact, cowboy customers (who refuse to pay extra after changing their minds half-way through the job) outnumber rogue builders by around four to one.

The trouble is, contractors you can trust are not necessarily the cheapest – and are usually very busy with many projects scheduled in advance. We are programmed to seek cheap quotes and don’t like waiting, so we accept the first one that comes along, often failing to take references or inspect previous work.

The cowboys are aware of this; and as they look and talk like reliable professionals, they know that many clients will hire them.

Asking for all the money up front should be one of the biggest alarm bells when spotting the rogue contractor. Offering a small advance for work is a different matter and can show good faith on your part, but it should never be the whole fee.

Of course you should pay, but only when the job has been done to the right standard. Ideally, you should agree defined stage payments in arrears: such as when the foundations are in; at first floor level; when wall plate is reached; wind and watertight stage and then at completion.

This way, the last of your money is handed over when the job is complete and the snagging list has been cleared.

Ask yourself why any trader claiming to need vast sums up front can’t buy materials on credit at the local builders’ merchant. Odds are that you’d be able to, so why can’t they?

It’s likely they have a poor credit record and no supplier will touch them with a bargepole, and if they ask for all the money up front, neither should you.

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