By choosing to build with subcontractors/direct labour/tradespeople, the self builder or renovator effectively becomes the builder — responsible for all matters on site and required to make sure that all materials, services and labour are on site at the correct time and in the correct quantities.

Managing subcontractors properly is a particular skill. There is a quote which springs to mind: “Subcontractors never work for you. They do you a favour and you pay them for it.” Those hearing this for the first time may scoff. Those who have been through the process will raise a wry and knowing smile.

How to Ensure Quality

One of the first questions a self builder or renovator will often ask themselves is how will they know whether what the subcontractors are doing is right and that the quality of their work is good enough. Understandably it’s a perennial question among those who are new to the building business.

The answer is twofold. Firstly, while many feel that they don’t understand the intricacies of the building process, most can see whether bricks are being laid sloppily, whether architraves don’t meet up in the corners, doors don’t hang properly, and plaster is smooth and even. All of that is cosmetic but, nevertheless, gives a clue as to the underlying and sometimes hidden intricacies of the work.

But the second and perhaps most important way of analysing the quality of work is to make prior investigations:

  • Before employing anybody on site, look at their previous work and talk to their previous clients.
  • Find out if faults came to light after they’d finished.
  • Talk to building/warranty inspectors about your proposed choices; their response may give a clue as to whether you’re picking the right person.

Paying Subcontractors

There are two types of subcontractor: labour only, and supply- and-fix, with perhaps a third as a hybrid of the two. Labour-only subcontractors will, almost always, expect to be paid in cash at the end of each week.

Those new to the industry might feel that somehow they are doing something wrong, but the plain fact of the matter is that the individual self builder or renovator has no obligation to ensure that those they employ on site pay their due taxes. And, with new build, VAT does not come into the equation because labour-only contracts and supply-and-fix contracts are zero-rated and, therefore, exempt.

Supply-and-fix contractors, such as plumbers and electricians, are a slightly different matter. They will usually accept cheques against a written invoice, often given in two stages covering first and second fix.

Above all, never pay in advance. With labour-only contracts, make sure that the payments are spaced out through the estimated duration of the contract, with a little bit held back as an incentive to finish. With supply-and-fix contractors, pay in the two stages. If special purchases have to be made, buy these items yourself in order that you retain the title.

When to Get Involved in the Build

There is often a desire to get involved in one or more of the trades, either to fulfil a desire to have a physical input into the new home, or to try to save money. However, the trades may welcome your assistance, but they may also resent your clumsy efforts to help, and feel that you are somehow slowing them down. They are very rarely likely to accept that your efforts should impact on their take home pay.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t things that you can do. Going off on a Friday lunchtime to fetch fish and chips will mean that the labourer can keep at his job, saving time when they start up again. Offering bacon sandwiches will engender a sense of goodwill on site. (It may become a millstone.) Certainly, clearing up and making sure that materials that are delivered are carried into site and stacked where they are needed will save on day rates and the inevitable slowing down of the job.

Unless you’re an expert in any one of the trades, it is never really a good idea to undertake them, except perhaps one of the finishing trades such as decoration and ceramic tiling, which are unlikely to hold other people up.

Co-ordinating Between the Trades

Tradespeople have to mesh in with each other, sometimes within the day, sometimes within the hour. It’s vital that you make yourselves aware of the sequences within a self build or renovation project and that you learn to constantly think ahead as to requirements for up and coming labour.

A helpful tradesperson will want to let you know that they will be requiring a follow-on or partnership trade, not least because they won’t want to be held up by their non-appearance. And, in truth, many good tradespeople work in laissez-faire groupings who keep in touch with each other and let one another know when they will be wanted. But you can’t just rely on that and in the end, it will always be your responsibility. 

Finding Good Subcontractors

There are several websites dedicated to finding suitable subcontractors with appropriate recommendations, but none negate the need to make your own checks, to see their previous work and to talk to their previous clients. After all, the only people who can really tell you what a prospective subcontractor is really like, are those who have direct experience. If there’s a self build site anywhere in your vicinity, visit it and chat to the owners.

Once you’ve got one good tradesperson on board, they will often lead you to other good tradespeople with whom they regularly work. After all, a good tradesperson doesn’t want to have to follow a bad one.

Visiting smaller sites and asking those working there whether they’ll quote may also produce results. Reading the advertisements in your local press will give you names. But, once again, these are only the starting point for you to commence making your own enquiries as to their worth.

Getting the Best from Your Subcontractors

It’s essential to build up a good relationship with those who are working for you on site. If bad blood occurs between you and the subcontractors it will only backfire and it’s perhaps a good idea if that happens to cut your losses and move to another tradesperson. If trades fall out with each other, then you may have to take sides and dispense with the services of at least one, because the end result could be that one endeavours to frustrate the work of the other, to your disadvantage.

Start off on the right foot, with a clear understanding of what you are expecting them to do and how much you are going to be paying them. Do not expect to form a partnership. There are unequal expectations between you and anybody working on your site. You may form enduring friendships but, in the end, on site, you are building your own home with the expectation of increased equity and they are simply undertaking their day job.

Addressing the Areas Which Fall Between Trades

Most misunderstandings and arguments that occur on site between client and tradesperson result from unclear or imprecise arrangements and expectations before the job commences. Plans must be clear and unambiguous.

Your list of what you expect may be fully detailed in many cases but, in others, it is perhaps best to simply include the whole trade in your description of what you are expecting or requiring. For instance, if the quotation is for the carpentry roof work complete, then any argument that the binders or the bracings are not included, won’t hold water.

Again, leadwork is often within the plumber’s remit and, certainly the on-site manufacture of flashings and trays will fall to this trade. However, the important thing is to make sure at the very outset that you make it clear who is going to be responsible for what. For example, the fitting of leadwork, where the roofers may have to interleave flashings with the tiles or slates and that the bricklayers may be expected to point in the flashings when they come back to fill putlog holes.

Another grey area between trades concerns cleaning up. Many good tradespeople will clean up after their work, but it’s by no means a given. It’s not at all uncommon to find a painter and decorator trying desperately to paint skirting boards while other tradespeople are working in the vicinity or walking past disturbing dust and debris that has been crudely cleared away.

But whose responsibility is it? The painter has no particular responsibility to clear up after others. The carpenter making the mess has no normal remit to clear up afterwards. Either or both could have the responsibility built into their contract as an extra. But the reality is that this normally falls to the builder, who would employ an unskilled labourer to do the work.

In the absence of a builder, it devolves to the self builder or renovator. There is no doubt about it, a tidy site is more likely to result in a build which comes in on time and on budget.

The Importance of Forward-Thinking

It behoves the self builder or renovator, at all times, to constantly think ahead; to think about what comes next and what comes later on down the line. Some materials are off-the-shelf. Some have extremely long lead times and need ordering well in advance, which might mean having to think about finishes at the same time as being involved in preliminary site works. Failure to think ahead will always lead to breaks in the timeline and that will, inevitably, lead to increases in costs.

Find out what each trade does and how much to pay them here

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