There are three main hurdles in the self-build race. The first is finding the land. The second hurdle is the design and planning stage, and the third is choosing and then working with builders and subcontractors.

It is perhaps this last hurdle which is the most fraught with danger. In the rush to get started, many self-builders may turn a blind eye to their doubts. Faced with a builder wanting to start as soon as possible, otherwise they’ll “have to go off to another job”, the unwary novice may let things happen that they’ll regret later down the line.

Here, we highlight the key factors to help you to avoid the common mistakes.

1. Do Your Homework

Any builder of subcontractor is only as good as their last job and there are a few things you can do to assess their standard of work. Ask them where they have worked before and arrange to see a previous client (but check that they are not a relative of the builder first). As well as assessing the work itself ask the client the following:

  • Was everything done properly?
  • Was the work completed on time?
  • Was continuity maintained on site?
  • Were they helpful?
  • Did they stick to the budget or were there extra costs?

If you can, arrange a financial check and speak to the local building inspector too.

Read more on finding a good builder.

2. Understand Who is Responsible on Site

If you take on a builder they will make decisions at the right time and help avoid delays. However, if you are managing subcontractors, you need to be aware that the buck stops with you. This includes making sure that the correct labourers and materials are on site on time, and in the right quantities.

There are things which are not the job of any particular tradesman which will fall on you, such as clearing up between trades so that the next one can get on with their job.

Read more on working with subcontractors.

3. Establish the Terms of the Contract

The looser the terms of the arrangement, the more ambiguous the work will be. Every contract you have with a builder of subcontractor must have a clear outcome for both of you.

Before the start of the project, write to each subcontractor and set out your understanding of the arrangement. This should include:

  • price
  • how and when they will be paid
  • the reference numbers of the plans relating to the contract
  • the date of commencement
  • estimated time of the project’s completion

If you’re using a builder, then a short form of contract will be suitable. You can download and use the Homeowner Contracts from the Joint Contracts Tribunal.

Read more about contracts in our Contracts Q&A with legal expert, Giles Dixon.

4. Never Pay for Work in Advance

There’s never a need to pay builders or subcontractors upfront. This is where the contract comes in helpful, to outline the stages at which you will pay. Any builder demanding to be paid upfront in order to cover materials should set alarm bells ringing — if they have a decent credit rating, materials can be paid for at the end of the month, following the month of invoice.

Make sure you uphold your end of the deal and pay on time, or else you risk an empty site and lost continuity

Our Guide to Paying Builders.

5. Know How to Spot the Signs of Failure

If you notice long gaps in work and little progress you need to ask why. Likewise, if materials you know to have been ordered fail to arrive, make enquiries. This could be a sign of financial troubles and needs to be clarified.

If you find out your builder is in financial difficulties and can’t afford to pay subcontractors or for materials, it does not mean the end of the project. Talk to him and suggest that if it helps for you to pay for the work and materials yourself, then you will do so. You have no obligation to pay subcontractors for work you believe you have already paid the builder for, but you may wish to take a view on this to prevent delays and maintain continuity.

Read more about what to do when builders go bust.

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