Finding a Builder

Mike Hardwick reveals how to track down the right contractor for your self-build or renovation project
Build It expert Mike Hardwick
by Mike Hardwick
7th January 2013

The impact of numerous TV shows means you could be forgiven for thinking that every building contractor and tradesman is a charlatan just waiting to rip you off and ruin your project.

But the reality is that there are huge numbers of excellent builders and tradesmen out there striving to do a good job, not least because their reputation depends on it. So how do we avoid the cowboys?

Finding the right builder

We are an impatient lot on the whole. Once we have obtained the approvals for a project, we want to get going as quickly as possible. In a typical scenario, out come the Yellow Pages and there follows a series of calls to everyone on the list until we find someone who can start on Monday.

But stop. Ask yourself why they are available at such short notice. Good tradesmen are busy tradesmen who will probably have the next client lined up and quite possibly the next one, too. If a builder is available at such short notice, the chances are they are trying their luck with you as an easy touch or, even worse, they have just been ‘finished’ on another job for poor standards of workmanship.

Don’t forget that absolutely no qualifications are required before anyone sets themselves up as a builder, so you need to do your homework on whoever you employ!

A good tradesman is most unlikely to turn into a poor tradesman overnight, whereas a cowboy has probably never had any construction skills in the first place. So it’s fair to assume that if someone has done a good job for someone else, they will be able to replicate this for you.

Recommendation is therefore the number one way of finding tradesmen. If you know someone who has hired a tradesman or builder with good results, then pester them for contact details. Many builders pre-empt this by placing a contractor’s board outside the property they are working on. What they are saying is: “See what I’m doing here? Good, isn’t it? If you’d like me to do the same for you, call this number”. For some builders, this is all the advertising they will ever need and a steady flow of jobs result.

Nevertheless, references are crucial and should be followed up. The cowboys are invariably plausible actors and will sometimes claim other’s work as their own. Don’t just take their word for previous achievements; go and check and drop them like a hot brick if you suspect something is amiss.

The trade association websites, such as the FMB’s Find a Builder service can be a good source of leads. However, you’re likely to be inundated with replies if you bid for tender responses through these sites, so it can be hard to sort out the wheat from the chaff.

Generally, when the economy contracts and it can be hard for small companies to get by, so they bid for everything they can find. In this kind of climate, self-builders and renovators can benefit from some very competitive bids from builders and trades desperate to secure work to keep them afloat.

General builder or individual trades?

Hiring a general builder will be more expensive, because you will be passing much of the risk over to him. A main contractor is going to have to find the individual trades for you but will know who is worth hiring in your area.

If you take on the project manager role and hire the individual trades, you can expect a lower labour bill. But this will be at the expense of your increased involvement and you’ll need to assess every tradesman you hire. Other self-builders can be an invaluable source of good tradesmen, so ask around.

If you are building with a method other than traditional brick and block or timber frame, it’s a good idea to check whether your builder is comfortable with your choice of structural system. If they are not, then seek references for suitable local tradesmen from the supplying company.

If you can’t get the particular contractor you’d like to hire, it’s sometimes a good idea to ask a tradesman from a following discipline for recommendations. For instance, an electrician will tell you who is a good plasterer because a good plasterer is likely to be the one that takes care not to bury the tails of first fix cables in the wet plaster, making it easier for the electrician to find them when he returns to the site.

Managing tradesmen

Try to maintain a good rapport with your builder or trades. You are not looking to make a new friend-for-life here, but you are looking to be able to communicate effectively with the people who can make your project a reality. I think it’s a good sign when a builder asks you as many questions as you ask him during the tendering process – it shows engagement and enthusiasm for the task ahead.

Once hired, my advice is to let them do the job you are paying them to do. No one likes The Boss hovering over our shoulders while they are working and your tradesmen will be no different. By all means keep an eye on progress and quality, but avoid being over-critical or, even worse, refusing to pay the bills because of trivial defects.

If you have a genuine grievance, then point it out immediately and ask for it to be rectified in a firm but polite manner, in writing if necessary. As a last resort, if the grievance isn’t resolved then don’t be afraid to inform the tradesman that he’s finished on the site and get in someone else who can do the job.

For smaller issues you should be holding back 2.5% of all payments as a retainer to cover snagging (rectification of minor faults) at the end of the build, usually a few months after the completion certificate is issued. If the builder doesn’t come back to do this, you have the funding to get someone else in, or fix it yourself and save the money.

Paying your builder

Terms of payment should be agreed at the outset. One golden rule is to never pay money up front – it’s a warning sign that the builder is either insolvent or can’t get credit from suppliers.

A fixed price contract is preferable for most self-builders, but don’t discount agreeing to a day rate for work if you seek particularly high quality of workmanship as this method allows tradesmen the time they need to do an exceptional job.

Stage payments can be agreed at regular intervals, say weekly or fortnightly in arrears, but a more common arrangement is to agree milestones with your builder such as:

  • Preliminaries/site clearance and footings
  • Foundations up to damp proof course
  • Superstructure to wall plate
  • Wind and watertight (roof on)
  • First fix
  • Second fix
  • Completion
  • Snagging

This gives the builder an incentive to progress the work, rather than just waiting for a regular cheque to arrive regardless of what’s been achieved. It’s a good idea to tie these in to reflect the stage release points for your self-build mortgage and any structural warranty inspections so that you will have the funds available to pay and you can have confidence that the quality of the build is up to standard.

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