Get competitive tenders

Building contractors are currently short of work in many areas, and therefore need to bid very competitively, reducing their margins in order to win contracts and keep afloat. Putting your project out to competitive tender is the best way to find the leanest price. If you want to make sure you get like-for-like prices in order to be able to make a comparison, get a quantity surveyor to prepare a ‘bill of quantities’ and ask everyone to price on exactly the same basis. You can then use the quantity surveyor’s guide prices as the foundation for negotiation on an item-by-item basis. Find a quantity surveyor via the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (

It also makes sense to ask subcontractors to give you a price for work, providing you have sufficient detail for them to prepare a quote.

Renegotiate labour costs

Bricklayers have been getting £130-150 a day for the past year or so, but with very little work around there are experienced bricklayers offering to work for £100 a day — and less in some areas. If you have not already entered into an agreement, start talking to different bricklaying gangs (they usually work in a two-and-one gang, two bricklayers and one labourer) as they may give you a very good price, or day rate. You need to do your usual due diligence to check out the quality of their work. Leave some ‘meat on the bone’ for them though – for instance, by offering a good bonus on completion of the job – or you may lose them halfway through if better-paid work comes up elsewhere.

Use your own DIY skills

With less work about, lots of people have more time on their hands and this can usefully be translated into serious cost savings on labour if you decide to get involved in your project on a DIY basis. To pay a £100-a-day labourer or decorator, you have to earn £156-177 before tax, and double this for a £200-a-day plumber or electrician, so DIY savings are worth more than you might think.

If you have building trade skills you can put these to good use. If not, you can still get involved: you don’t need a high level of skill to do labouring or landscaping, and you can learn painting and decorating, or how to complete second fix carpentry, electrical or plumbing work. The cardinal rule is not to take on too much, and to stick to what you have the time and skills to complete competently. Poor workmanship ends up costing money and devalues the end result.

Pull in favours

A great many self-build projects are family affairs, with retired parents, brothers, sisters, student offspring and best friends all lending a helping hand where they can. Their free labour can help save £1,000s without affecting quality — providing they only take on tasks within their skill base.

Avoid making changes

Changes cost money, wasting both labour and materials. Some changes are made because of errors, others because someone has had a better idea; either way most changes can be avoided by careful planning. There is an axiom that says ‘every hour spent thinking through the design saves two hours on site’ — it can save a lot of money too.

In particular, it is worth spending time upfront on the kitchen and bathroom designs, even to the extent of choosing the sanitary ware, taps and showers. This is because the soil pipes, plumbing, gas and electrical wiring, all of which go in at first fix stage before being covered over with plaster or flooring, need to be in exactly the right places to avoid expensive changes at second fix stage. The plumbers, for instance, will need to know whether the waste pipe for each basin needs to be in the floor for a pedestal basin, or in the wall for a semipedestal, or a wall-mounted basin. Similarly for taps, they need to know whether they can run the pipework out of the floor, whether they are to be mounted on the basin, in a vanity top or out of the wall. If you want a flush shower tray, the waste pipe will have to be set low enough for a subfloor waste trap.

Labour Costs, by Proportion, on a Typical Project

This table shows a typical breakdown of the labour costs on a project. Labour costs usually account for around half of the project’s total costs. The easiest and most significant savings to make in labour terms are on decorating (this 16% allowance includes floor finishes and some of the more final second fix joinery) and landscaping.

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