Use your Designer
Many local designers will have experience of dozens of projects similar to yours, in your area. Depending on the extent of your arrangement with your designer, they may be able to help you in the search for a good contractor. Many self builders and renovators taking on large projects may well engage with a designer in a full supervisory role — i.e. taking on not just design services but also a project advisory and even certification element.
Effectively they will become the site administrator. To that end they will be involved at the tender process – getting in quotes from local builders – and will be able to highlight the contractors they have worked with in the past. Even if your designer is offering no more than a fixed price design service, they remain one of your few early contacts who will have experience of the local building scene and are still worth tapping up for a few names.
Check Out Boards
Reputations don’t necessarily last a lifetime and what made a building company great a decade ago – personnel and circumstantial – might no longer be the case. One of the best ways to find good builders currently active near you is to find local building work that’s going on and check out the boards that remain the builder’s most rudimentary and most effective form of advertisement.
You don’t necessarily have to like the style of work they are currently carrying out – after all, many people opt for ordinary extensions and new homes – but a builder can only produce what’s on the plans in front of them. If you see a board, it’s a sign that at the very least this is a builder proud of their job and looking for more.
Also, make sure that when you’re the person with the builder on site, they put up their own boards. By associating their business with the success of your project, they are displaying confidence that things will turn out correctly — no one wants to be associated with a stagnating site.
Talk to Inspectors
Ignore their undeserved reputation for officiousness — local authority building inspectors are a much under-utilised resource for helping local people taking on building projects. They are ultimately tasked with ensuring that new buildings in their area get built to the best possible standard, and to that end many are happy to engage in informal advice very early on in the project — much sooner than their first site inspection visit.
Although some inspectors are unwilling to do anything off the record, the majority now are progressive enough to help out self builders and renovators looking for builders by giving hints, nods and winks as to local builders they have known well for many years. Understand that these aren’t recommendations as much as informal guidance and no building inspector would ever guarantee a trouble-free project.
The same goes for your warranty inspector, who again is likely to have worked with the builders you should be finding.
Trade associations are not compulsory for builders and as a result they tend to need to compete for membership (they are, after all, commercial bodies in their own way). The best known of the building trade associations is the Federation of Master Builders (FMB). It costs new builders £370 for a basic annual membership or £640 for the premium membership that includes a listing on the TrustMark register.
While the FMB does carry out reference checks on its new members, it does admit that it doesn’t carry out physical checks on the quality of new members’ work, according to a 2007 Guardian report. What appears obvious is that, as you would expect from a commercial company, the FMB is trying to find a balance between funding its very existence and providing a useful, genuine service to the public. It’s also clear that, again, FMB membership or to any other trade body is far from a guarantee of a trouble-free builder experience. It is, however, a better source of names than simply finding one online or looking through the Yellow Pages.
Neighbours, friends and family are a great source of names for reliable builders in your local area. Nothing beats the recommendation of someone you know or, failing that, someone you don’t know — but has had work done that you like the look of.
Chances are that there is a home in your immediate vicinity that has had work carried out recently that you admire — almost everyone who has lived through a major construction project will be only too happy to spend five minutes on their doorstep discussing their builders and project with you, particularly if you can spare a few polite compliments.
“If you want a good job done, don’t leave it to luck — trust the TrustMark! It’s a sign that you’ve chosen a firm you can trust.” Big claims — both made by the Government-backed trade approval body TrustMark, which is effectively an umbrella organisation under which some 30 schemes operate (including the Federation of Master Builders, the National Federation of Roofing Contractors and the electric trade body NICEIC). Any firm that you find by using its searchable database has, it is claimed, had its work and financial status regularly checked. It also offers a range of other benefits including optional extra insurance and a user-friendly complaints procedure.
Although TrustMark is a very good source of names of builders, it is far from a guarantee that things will run entirely smoothly. TrustMark does indeed check the financial status of building firms on its site but its small print reveals that these checks are actually carried out by its roster of approved ‘scheme operators’ and may not necessarily be up to date, for instance. TrustMark also relies very much on the checks being carried out by the trade bodies themselves — and there is anecdotal evidence around of homeowners who have relied on the TrustMark logo as a guarantee of success only to become mired in dispute.
The key for self-builders and renovators is to be realistic in your expectations when dealing with TrustMark. It provides a starting point source of builders’ names who are more likely to be reliable, but in no way should it be seen to replace the usual checks that should always be carried out.
There are two market-leading websites that currently offer a searchable database of builders that come complete with the number-one most important part of the builder-search criteria of all — the recommendation. The concept relies on homeowners giving feedback about their builder once the work has been completed and, the better the feedback, the higher up the local rankings they go.
Mybuilder.com, partly owned by Travis Perkins, was set up by London-based American stonemason Ryan Notz and is effectively a reverse auction site — homeowners post details of the project requirements and builders compete for the job. Builders have to be fully registered and homeowners can see their feedback — the site claims to have details of over 37,000 builders. It is funded by charging builders a fee when they get a job.
RatedPeople.com operates the same model. Again, both are very useful starting points but far from an absolute guarantee of finding reliable builders.
Tap into the local tradesman community and you’ll quickly be able to find out the main names who command local respect (and the ones with a less than golden reputation). Most tradesmen get used to seeing the same familiar names around the sites they are working on and often have preferences for who they like to work with — and who they see as a good source of work. If you can engage with one of them, you can open up into the whole network of local, reliable names.
Avoid Low Prices
A high price is not necessarily a sign of quality in a building firm but, more than that, it is important to resist the obvious temptations of a low price. If one firm comes back with a quote for your work which is significantly lower than the other tender prices, you need to be suspicious.
It may just be that the other quotes are excessively high and the one firm is simply good value, but more likely the one firm is putting in a speculative bid to try and get the work — and aims to make more profit on the project by, for instance, cutting corners or introducing a range of extra charges as work progresses.
This can lead to disputes further down the line — when it is much more difficult to do anything about it. Either that or, as they begin to find the work hopelessly unprofitable and end up making a loss on it, they simply pack up and walk off to more lucrative pastures.
It is far better to have an accurate and realistic quote in the first place and it is your responsibility to make sure of this.
The best way to do this is to look at other people’s build costs in the ‘Your Projects’ section of this website.
Check VAT Registration
You cannot benefit from zero rating for VAT on materials for new build, or most of the VAT concessions on renovation work if the builder you hire is not VAT registered
Chase up References
Whichever way you find your builder, make sure you get references from them for previous work they have carried out. You should ask to see a couple of major projects they have completed and see them, preferably in their absence, in person to talk to the owners. Two or three references can provide significant peace of mind.
How To Keep The Builder You’ve Found
Use a Contract: A contract that details the extent of the work to be carried out in return for the agreed price – in addition to recording any extras as yet unagreed – is a useful point of reference in the event of any dispute. JCT offers the most popular jargon-free contracts at jctltd.co.uk
Pay on Time: Don’t be a cowboy client — pay promptly at each stage
Never Pay Upfront: Paying for work not yet carried out is a recipe for disaster and any request by a builder for labour payments upfront might be a sign he’s in financial trouble. However, you should be willing to fund large material items yourself upfront — but make sure they are bought in your name.
Don’t Change Your Mind: The best guarantee of success is to not change your plans