How to Deal with Poor Workmanship on Site

Not every self-build project will be free of problems when it comes to build quality. Mike Hardwick shares what to do when work does not meet expectations
Build It expert Mike Hardwick
by Mike Hardwick
17th February 2018

No job will be perfectly smooth from start to finish, but the vast majority of projects are completed using competent builders and trades, throwing up nothing more than minor inconveniences along the way.

For some, however, there may be some serious challenges, notably the unreliable or substandard contractor who produces an unsatisfactory job that falls short of your expectations.

Here’s what to do if you are faced with defective works, including what your rights are, and how you can seek resolution.

Your rights

When you contract with another party for goods and services, you have the right to expect the work to be done with reasonable care and skill. This is enshrined in law under the Consumer Rights Act (CRA) of 2015.

Any contract entered into after this date is covered by the CRA. Any work agreed before that date has the same protection but under Supply of Goods and Services Act of 1982.

The main difference between the two is that under the later CRA you can seek compensation for any inconvenience caused. It may seem a small point, but it’s an important one to know, as using the right terms shows that you know what you are entitled to.

Sometimes, simply quoting the right act can produce results because contractors will know you are well informed and mean business.

Resolving and repairing

Half the battle on a project is for both parties to have an understanding as to what ‘good’ looks like. Some trades may default to a standard of work that’s rarely been challenged as inadequate, but then come up against a client who thinks differently.

The homeowner reckons the trade is shoddy, while the tradesperson in question thinks the customer is overly fussy. Who is right?

To an extent, building control and your structural warranty provider will have a say on build quality, but they are more concerned with safety and robustness than aesthetics.

This means that messy work could pass their scrutiny but leave you looking for a better quality of workmanship. If that happens, follow these steps:

1. Talk: Speak to your tradesperson and explain what is wrong and why you think this is the case. Follow up the conversation with a letter or email so that there can be no confusion as to what the problem is.

2. Agree a date to complete the remedial work: Assuming your contractor agrees that the work requires rectification, set a reasonable deadline to complete the task. If they say they are busy and can’t fit you in for a while, remind them that they are in breach of contract with you, so you should be the priority.

Case study: Groundwork mishap

Timber frame waterside home

Designed to fit its uneven landscape, Paul and Margaret Moorhead’s build plans were compromised by a miscommunication

Paul and Margaret Moorhead had designed their highland home around its characterful sloping plot.

However, a miscommunication meant their builders flattened the plot, throwing their plans into disarray.  As a result, none of the exterior doors would have been anywhere near the ground.

Significant remedial work was needed, including installing stone steps up to the front entrance.  From here, the communication problems escalated. When their builders quoted a large fee for this, the Moorhouses went elsewhere to get the work done.

Read the full story

3. If nothing happens: If the problem is still not sorted, it’s time to get serious. Set a final deadline for the work to be completed. There is no legal definition of what a reasonable timescale is, so you’ll have to agree one between you.

I’d say two weeks would be sensible for most jobs. Be clear that if they fail to do the work by then, you’ll get someone else in and claim the cost back from them.

It’s helpful to include quotes for the work you’ve obtained from others so they know what to expect. You should warn that legal action is the next step and put all of this into writing.

4. Look to alternative dispute resolution: One route you might consider at this stage, particularly if the tradesman disagrees that they are at fault, is the use of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). This could be through a trade association such as the Federation of Master Builders, which runs an ADR service for its members.

If the tradesperson is part of an association with an ADR scheme, this could be a good time to get in touch. If you use this route, you will need to support your side of the case, so it is essential to take photos, log dates and times, and keep notes of phone calls and conversations. Retain copies of emails and letters from the minute you suspect something is going awry, too.

5. The last resort: If all else fails and the defective work remains unresolved, write to the tradesperson claiming your money back and get in touch with the small claims court. You can use this route if the value of the claim disputed is less than £10,000 in England and Wales, and £3,000 in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The process is straightforward so there’s no need to involve a solicitor in the small claims process. If the sums are greater than this, however, then you will probably need one to progress your claim through the courts with professional assistance.

If you remain in dispute

If there is no agreement from the outset and you and the trade remain in dispute, you will have to go straight in with a strongly worded letter, and this will need to be drafted correctly. Citizens Advice ( offers a selection of free templates you can base your own letters on. Areas covered include:

Poor workmanship: Work should be carried out with reasonable care and skill to reflect the money charged. If a trade has agreed to provide goods and services under a supply-and-fix arrangement, you have the right to ask them to fix any problems.

If they supplied only a service (if you sourced the materials, for example), you are entitled to ask for a refund and to stop them doing any more work for you.

If an installation, say a kitchen or bathroom, has been done poorly you are entitled to get it fixed or ask for a refund. Examples would be if units had been fitted in the wrong position or the installation was unsafe. The responsibility for rectification lies with whoever arranged the installation, even if the work has been sub-contracted to other parties.

Overcharging for work: When challenging a price, it is important to understand the difference between an estimate and a quotation.

An estimate is essentially a best guess. It is rarely what you end up paying because the true extent of the work will not be known until the job is complete.

However, if the final figure is wildly out from what was originally discussed, you can dispute it because any price given must be reasonable, although exactly what this means is not defined in law.

You should ask what caused the changes to the estimate, why they happened and whether they were within the trades’ control. It’s up to you to suggest what you think a fair price should be, but be prepared to negotiate until a compromise is reached.

With a quotation, the figure is usually based against a schedule of work and detailed drawings. So if something appears in the schedule or on the drawings then it is included in the agreed price.

Additional costs are only allowed if the necessary changes are flagged up by the tradesperson and you agree to pay for them.

These are typically the extra overs that appear on every job. Costs such as an increase in materials or currency fluctuations cannot be added once the quotation has been agreed, so you should only pay what was quoted unless you agree to the additional work or the trades can give a good reason for the increase.

Case study: Transparent costs

Low cost self-build home

With strong communication between themselves and their contractor, the Glovers build went smoothly

For their self-build project, Lee and Hannah Glover decided to employ a local firm, James Richards Builders, to act as main contractor.

Their quote was competitive and the owner of a nearby property gave the firm a glowing reference. Lee acted as project manager and opened a trade account at a local merchant for the builder to draw from.

Not only did this mean they had complete transparency when it came to invoicing, but Lee was able to check with James that the prices he was paying were indeed trade rates.

 Read the full story

If the work is not what was agreed: Verbal and written contracts have the same weight in law – but verbal agreements are significantly harder to prove. With that in mind, it’s best to put everything in writing (an exchange of emails will do).

If the work has been completed incorrectly, then the contractor who did it is responsible for covering all the costs of rework, including materials.

Write to the trade concerned stating “under the terms of our contract you have breached your contract with me by not doing the work as we agreed.I want you to do the work again, this time exactly as we agreed.”

If the contract was entered into after 1 October 2015 (ie. it falls under the Consumer Rights Act) you can also ask for money off for inconvenience caused as a goodwill gesture.

If the work is not finished on time: You must give the builder or tradesperson a second chance to complete the work (unless you have already mutually agreed a finish date). Make the new deadline clear and put it in writing.

If remediation is still not forthcoming, you should only pay for any salvageable work that has been done. If you’ve paid a substantial deposit or money up front (invariably a big mistake) you can suggest what you think is a reasonable figure for the work already done and ask for a refund of the balance.

Dangerous or unsafe work: Mercifully, it is rare to encounter this scenario – but if you suspect that a trader is doing work that is patently unsafe or dangerous, you need to report it. Trading Standards should be alerted, but you can’t approach them directly, so use Citizens Advice as a conduit via its telephone helpline (0345 404 0506).

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