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A ‘cowboy trader’ is an unreliable and untrustworthy tradesperson, who tries to overcharge and/or under deliver. They don’t follow the recommended guidelines, and may try to use their expert guise as a means to tell tales and, ultimately, rip you off.  

Signs to look out for:

There are many signs that could suggest you’re dealing with a cowboy builder. These include:

  • They’re cagey about references. Traders should be proud of their previous work and want to show it off to you. If not, what was wrong with their previous work? Or does it exist at all?
  • They just knocked on your door offering to do a quick fix to a problem they’d noticed on your house.
  • The price to too cheap. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
  • There’s no contract. No contract means they can deny ever agreeing to do anything.
  • They want to be paid up front. They should be happy to be paid on completion, when you are satisfied with the job, or in stages throughout the process.
  • Different people keep turning up. You need to know that everyone working on your build is trained and qualified.
  • They keep finding extra jobs. Are they taking advantage?

Questions to ask

So, when gathering your quotes, the most important questions that you need to ask are:

  • Are they qualified?
  • Do they have the relevant experience? Can you contact their references?
  • Do they have the correct insurance?
  • Are they VAT registered?
  • Do they have an office address and a landline?

How to find a reputable trader

A recommendation from a friend or family member is usually a safe bet. Or do your research online to find local tradespeople. There are a few websites, such as, that allow you to search for tradespeople in your area. At Checkatrade, the traders agree to have all of their feedback published online, you can contact them directly, and it’s free to use, so that can be a quick and reliable solution.

Alternatively, for larger projects, it’s worth considering specific associations and bodies, as tradespeople who are members of these will certainly be qualified, and will adhere to the correct guidelines.

Here are some of the main trade bodies to consider:

What can I do if I think I’ve hired a cowboy trader?

The importance of a clear contract comes to light if things start going wrong. The more detailed the contract the better, including price estimates and time constraints, so that you can refer back to this if any part of your agreement is not met.

In the first instance, you should talk to your tradesperson directly to try to resolve the issue. If this fails, you should contact a third party such as such as a regulatory body, Trading Standards or the Consumer Ombudsman. If you found your tradesperson through an organisation, they should have a system in place to help resolve your issue.

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