Guide To Hiring Reliable Contractors

Even if you are quite handy with power tools, you will eventually encounter a DIY project that requires you to bring in a contractor. This is no reflection on your abilities as a handyman.  Some projects are simply too complex to get done on a bank holiday weekend, and other jobs, such as ones involving gas pipes or electrical wiring, must be inspected by a certified engineer. Finding a good handyman will make life much easier for you and give you the peace of mind that your home improvement jobs will be completed promptly, to budget, and at a high standard.

Builder's Yard - building materials Building Materials

Photo: Ell Brown

Today, the family home is not only the average person’s most valuable asset; it is also their retirement plan.  Buying a home is a huge investment, and once the property is yours it is important that you look after it carefully. Any renovation work must be carried out carefully to prevent damage to the structure of the property.  This means that you must choose the right person for each job.  A handy-man may be able to do simple carpentry, trim your hedges, and maybe even lay some carpets, but would you trust him with plumbing or complex electrical work?

The best way to find skilled tradesmen is via word of mouth.  A plumber that comes well recommended and has been working in your local area for many years will be more likely to give you good service than a random contractor that you found thanks to a glossy advert in the magazine that comes with the local newspaper.  Talk to your friends and neighbours and then call the companies that they recommend.  Get quotes from at least three contractors, and ask them for a break-down of their quote so that you know exactly what is included in the price.  Sometimes the cheapest quote is not the best one.

Tips for Choosing a Specialist

If your planned project is a large one, such as a home extension or a complete interior remodelling then you may need to hire more than one type of contractor.  Here is a look at what each contractor does:

  • Architects: Usually, you would only hire an architect for a new build, but sometimes they can help with renovations that involve major structural changes.
  • Designers: A designer can help you plan your new kitchen, choose fixtures and fittings for the bathroom, and decide on materials, layouts, and other details.
  • Speciality Contractors: Speciality contractors perform a range of building services including fitting kitchens and bathrooms, decorating, and minor repair work.
  • General Contractors: If you have a complex project which requires planning permission, or will need subcontractors, then a general contractor could be useful to manage these things for you.
  • Design and Build: You can think of design and build contractors as your one-stop shop for renovation and building work, as well as project management.

Hiring Considerations for Contractors

Hiring a contractor is, in many ways, a lot like hiring an employee for a full-time job. You should interview the contractor carefully.  Things to ask your contractor include:

  • How much experience do you have? In general, long-standing companies are a better choice than recent start-ups (although not all start-ups are bad, some simply are genuinely new companies).  Check the company’s claims – if they are a Limited Company they should be registered with Companies House.  Also, check with Trading Standards to see if there have been any complaints registered against them.  Even a good company may have one or two complaints lodged against them, but if they have a long list of complaints, consider this a red flag
  • What certifications do you have? Some jobs must be carried out by a certified tradesman – for example, gas appliance servicing and fitting must be completed by a CORGI certified engineer.  Some electrical work must be certified too.  Most electricians are certified via City and Guilds.  Many tradespeople are members of associations or charted institutes – such as the Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering, and the Association of Plumbing and Heating Contractors.  Don’t take certifications or memberships at face value, follow up to make sure they are legitimate
  • How often do you work on projects similar to mine? The more experience your contractor has with work similar to yours, the better.  Ask for references, and follow up on them.
  • May I speak to recent customers? Ask for several references, and call each of them.  Ask if you can see the work they had done, and also ask them whether the work came out how they imagined it would.
  • Is planning permission required? Find out whether you will need planning permission, and whose responsibility it will be to handle that paperwork.  If you are considering major work, the contractor will likely help you with the process of obtaining planning permission.
  • Are you insured, and if so, what for? Make sure that the contractors are insured.  They should have public liability insurance and employers’ liability insurance at a minimum.

What to Ask When Speaking to References

Ideally you should speak to at least three of the builder or contractor’s past customers.  If the company is reticent about providing references then you should walk away and look for another company. Things to ask each referee include:

  • May I see the work that the builder completed?
  • Did the work get completed on time, and to spec?
  • Did the company communicate well with you throughout the project?
  • Were there any unexpected expenses, and if so, what were they for?
  • Did the workers show up on time each day?
  • Was your home left clean and tidy each night, and were leftover materials cleaned up at the end of the day?
  • Would you use this company again if you needed more work done in the future?

Common Scams

While most contractors are reputable, the home improvement industry is a popular target for scammers. The good news is that it is possible to avoid most of the scammers if you practice due diligence and refuse to purchase any home improvements (in particular fitted kitchens, repair work, or conservatories) offered by door to door salespeople.  Here are a few things to watch out for:

Doorstep Salesmen

The recent flooding in many parts of the UK has led to a spate of opportunistic door-to-door salespeople.  These people visit flood victims and offer to perform low cost repair work.  Often, they will claim that they have spare materials left over from repairing a nearby home, and that they will therefore do the work for you at a massive discount.

In most cases, these callers are scammers, and they will leave without completing the work.  In the unlikely event that they are honest local tradespeople trying to do a flood victim a favour, it is still unwise for people to use these companies.  Most insurance policies have quite specific terms which include a list of permissible contractors.  If the door-to-door caller does not work for one of those companies, the flood victim’s insurance company may refuse to pay for the work.

Other red flags to look when talking to a new builder out for include:

  • Promises of big discounts if you refer your friends to him for similar work
  • Large amounts of building materials left over from other jobs
  • High pressure sales tactics
  • Demands payment in cash
  • Demands payment up front
  • Is not listed in the phone book
  • Is listed in the phone book, but has the same phone number as another, now closed, building firm
  • Refuses to give anything other than a mobile number
  • Tries to sell a loan from a lender that you have never heard of
  • Refuses to give references, or will give only one or two and wants to be there when you talk to them
  • Offers unusually long guarantee periods

Avoid Home Improvement Loan Scammers

In some parts of the country, rogue doorstep traders are calling on elderly, disabled and vulnerable people offering home maintenance and improvement services. They use high-pressure sales tactics and suggest that there are issues with the person’s home.  The objective of these tradespeople is to persuade their victims that the property they live in is in urgent need of repair.  They promise to do the repair work at incredibly low prices in an effort to get people to sign up on the spot.

In some cases, people who fall victim to these scams end up paying for purely cosmetic work that is unnecessary. In the worst cases, the tradesman takes the money and never comes back, or leaves the victim with half-completed work and their home in a worse state than it was when they called.

If someone knocks on your door and offers to do repair work “Before the bad weather hits”, send them away.  If you are concerned that some work may actually need done, contact a different tradesman yourself and get a second opinion.

Secured Loan Scams

Another scam, which is less common in the UK than it is in other countries, is to persuade people to take out a secured loan for home improvement work.  If they miss payments on the loan, they could lose their homes.

Be sure to read the paperwork carefully before you take out any form of loan.  In general, it’s best not to sign up for a loan with an unknown lender.  If you must borrow for home improvement work, try to borrow from your usual bank instead.#

Woodstain Removal - flooring contractor Flooring Contractor

Photo: Olger Fallas

Paying Your Contractors

For smaller home improvement projects, you may be able to pay for the work in one lump sum.  It is a good idea to pay with a credit card or cheque for even minor projects, as this will give you a paper trail, just in case things go wrong.  Try to avoid paying in cash whenever possible

If you must take out a loan or other finance agreement, do so via your own bank or another lender that is known for you.  Be aware that for large projects, the quote given is simply an estimate, and you may be charged more if there are unexpected issues. Be sure to get a detailed written contract that explains how unexpected expenses will be handled.

Usually, with large projects you will pay a deposit when the contract is signed, and then pay the rest in instalments (the instalment dates will often be tied to project milestones).  Financially, it is better for you to make the deposit as small as possible.  Naturally, the contractor will want a bigger deposit, so don’t be afraid to negotiate.  If the contractor demands a huge up front payment, this could be a sign that they are having cash flow problems.  Find out what the average payment amount would be for a project of similar size to make sure the amount they’re asking for is reasonable.

If, during the build, you find that you are unhappy with the work that the contractor is doing, your first step should be to talk to the contractor directly.  If a verbal complaint does not work, put a complaint in writing.  Keep a record of all communication, and escalate complaints using the contractor’s own complaints procedure.  If you follow their procedure and do not achieve a satisfactory resolution to your problem then you can take the complaint to your local trading standards, or seek a refund under Section 75 if you paid by credit card.

After Completion

When your renovation project is almost complete, it can be easy to get a little complacent.  You are eager to have your home get back to normal, and the idea of not having to worry about having builders underfoot every day is so attractive that you might be tempted to accept less than perfection in order to get the project signed off as soon as possible. Don’t let yourself think like this! Make sure everything is perfect before you hand over the final payment instalment and sign off on the project.  Here is a quick check-list to help you make sure everything is perfect:

  • Has every task listed in the contract been completed?
  • Do you have written warranties for all of the materials and the workmanship?
  • Do you have receipts for every payment, and proof that all materials and subcontractors have been paid? You may need this proof to prevent a construction lien being applied to your property.
  • Have all materials, waste products and debris been removed from the property?
  • Is the property clean, safe and tidy?
  • Get an independent third party to inspect the workmanship.
House Building New House

Photo: Martin Pettitt

What Should a Contract Contain?

Contracts are designed to lay out the responsibilities of both you as a buyer, and the contractor who is delivering the work. Contracts are legally buying and are an essential document that will help to resolve any disputes that may occur. You should always get a written contract before starting any major home improvement projects. It is a good idea to have a legal expert read over the contract you are given, before you sign it.  The contract should contain:

  • Full contact details for the contractor.
  • Any certifications or licenses that the contractor holds if these are applicable to the work that they are doing.
  • The payment schedule for the work
  • The start date and target completion date.
  • Any milestones that you have agreed to (and how these relate to payments)
  • Confirmation of how any changes to the schedule will be handled, and a cap on any unexpected expenses.
  • A breakdown of all materials that will be purchased for the job, including make and model (where relevant), size, colour, and cost. Full details of any warranties and the parties that will honour them.
  • Warranty details, with any limitations described in detail.
  • A clear “broom clause” detailing what the contractor will be responsible for with regard to clean-up and disposal when the project is completed.
  • A breakdown of anything that the contractor will not be held responsible for.
  • Written confirmation of your right to cancel the contract under certain listed circumstances.
  • Details of anything that the contractor will not be responsible for.
  • If, after the first contract is written up, any promises are made orally, ensure those promises are added to the contract.

Record Keeping and Paperwork

As the project goes on, it is important that you keep detailed records.  If you are notified of any changes to the schedule, cost, or the work being carried out, ask for a detailed written breakdown of those changes.  If you have any complaints, even minor ones, write them down and make a note of the date and subject of any conversations you have with your builder.  Hopefully, you will never need to refer to your notes, but having them will give you peace of mind and make it easier for you to put together a formal complaint if necessary.

Useful Contacts

The following is a list of organizations that may be useful to you if you are looking for a contractor or builder, or if you wish to make a complaint about a building company:

Further reading;

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