Routes to Self-Build: Using a Main Contractor

Mike Hardwick explores hiring a single builder to call in trades, buy materials and deal with scheduling problems
Build It expert Mike Hardwick
by Mike Hardwick
11th November 2015

I recently looked at how to use the services of a professional or a package company to oversee your self-build project. Yet, for many, the use of professionals is often an unaffordable luxury. Could you get by with just a general builder? I’d argue that in many circumstances you can. This time, I’m looking at the benefits of completing your project using the services of a main contractor (MC).

Can my builder take on project management?

Let’s think about what these professionals do. You are going to present them with a set of drawings and an idea about what materials you would like to construct your new home out of and then ask for a price.

Your prospective MC will then go to seek various quotes from their relevant contacts (or call in the services of a professional quantity surveyor). This will help to establish a scope of work, a bill of quantities and a cost for putting everything together.

What is a main contractor (MC)?

MCs can be anything from one of the corporate giants of the construction world through to your local builder. The key point is that you have one contract with one firm, not the individual trades that will be working on your home. It is the MC that will source and employ the subordinate trades used to build the house (hence the term subcontractors).

The typical main contractor hired by a self-builder would be a local firm specialising in extensions and new houses in the area. General builders tend to be current or ex-tradesmen with a lot of experience. They’ll have a whole raft of contacts made over the years after working on many different jobs with a host of different people.

While some of the larger outfits may well have paid trades on their books, the smaller set-ups would usually call in the labour as required and co-ordinate their quotations and activities on site under the company banner of the general builder.


If you accept that quote, they will go on to clear the site, prepare for the development, call in the trades in the right order, speak with building control, bring in the scaffolders and (as from April 2015) take on responsibility for health and safety issues. What’s that if it’s not project management? The only thing missing is the organising of the budget, which will come down to you.

Taking references for previous clients and following them up is the best way to gauge a builder’s ability. If they have recently done a good job for someone else, the chances are they will be more than capable of doing the same for you, too.

While there are some unsavoury characters out there, there are literally thousands of reliable, competent builders and trades who can do a high quality job for you at a sensible price. The problems usually arise when the cheapest quote is accepted without appreciating whether or not it represents value for money.

Finding a good professional

I don’t think any builder sets out with the idea of becoming anything but a reputable and sought-after professional. However, the reality is that construction is a hard and unpredictable job. Taking on one project at a time will not cover the bills and most builders operate on frightening overdrafts.

The work is also closely linked to the state of the economy – the past five years have been tough for the industry, with scores of firms going under because no one was building anything. The good news for self-builders was that prices for labour were rock bottom over this period. However, now that things are picking up, everyone wants to start construction and there’s a shortage of trades.

Because of this level of unpredictability, and to keep the money coming in, contractors will probably be juggling several jobs at any one time. This will invariably overstretch their resources. Inevitably, this means that some jobs will lose out to others depending on the criticality and availability of resources, which can often lead to tensions between client and professional.

brick and block house by Scattergood Brothers

Photo: Tony and Cathy Bramley chose Scattergood Brothers, which offered a fixed-price contract of £430,000, for their 354m2 brick-and-block build


I think the key to using a general builder is taut contracting. Some local firms have gone for years doing a grand job on nothing more than a handshake, and many still do. However, I think that the more detail you can give as to what you want them to do and the tighter the cost control, the more likely you will be able to get the results you seek.

Using plain-English small works contracts like those offered by the Joint Contracts Tribunal (JCT) or through builders registered with the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) eases much of the pain. These pre-written documents ensure that both parties go through all that needs to be considered during the project and fill in every detail line by line. There are no surprises about who is doing what, the amount it should cost and when payment is due.

By including plans, permissions and regulations as attachments, there is less ‘wriggle room’ on both sides, so you know what you’re getting. And, importantly, the builder knows how and when they are getting paid.

Speaking of which, it is important to agree payment schedules before you start. There really is no requirement for any firm to need vast quantities of money up front and it should be a warning sign if a builder asks for significant payment in advance. It’s more sensible to agree a stage payment in arrears when key milestones are reached.

The benefits

The beauty of using a main contractor is that you only have one person to deal with when it comes to the construction process. If there is an issue, then instead of awkward conversations with individual trades, something many people hate, you can explain the issue to your builder and he can deal with it.

The MC can also buy products and materials on your behalf, which takes away the responsibility of you having to get the right items in the right quantities at the right time. Of course, they may well make a profit on these purchases, but don’t underestimate how much time and hassle this will save you.

All in all, using a main contractor makes the whole process of self-building much easier for you to keep an eye on. It may cost a bit more than project managing yourself, but your stress levels will be that little bit lower. This is particularly true for first-timers – you’ll find the whole experience much more pleasant if you have an expert pulling everything together on your behalf.

Main photo: Phil and Christine Jones used Jason Shaw Properties to create their 460m2 stone-faced home overlooking Yorkshire’s Hambleton Hills. 

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