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How to pick a builder

You are about to embark on a renovation project - you might have been dreaming, saving up and investing countless hours on Pinterest: it's important. How can you give yourself the best chance of making your dreams a reality - let's talk builder.

Your builder is almost certainly THE most important person involved in your renovation project. It's critical that you find a good match for you and your project to give you the best chance of ending up with something that you love, within (or at least close to) your budget.

Here are my to tips for selecting and appointing your builder:

1. Get a quote not an estimate

  • Your budget will be much happier with a quote - best to pin down the detail and costs right at the beginning. Bear in mind that a builder can only give you a realistic quote if you have provided them with sufficient detail of the project. Some people complete projects successfully jumping in and specifying what they want as they go but this is very high risk and will only work with a trustworthy builder prepared to start work on this basis and a flexible budget.

  • Be clear on what work you want carried out - Write it down, draw or obtain to scale plans and use this to obtain quotes. This will help you get a fair comparison between quotes it will also help keep within budget as the quotes will be a more accurate reflection of the work you actually want done. Put in as much detail as you can. If it's a large project I would recommend getting an architect to help you with this - it will almost certainly save you money and heartache in the long run.

  • Get 2 - 3 quotes and meet each builder on site.

2. Recommendations

If you know a friend/acquaintance that has recently had work done ask them who they used and what they thought.

3. References

Obtain references from previous clients (at least two or three), preferably from people that have had similar work done. Here are some good questions to ask are:

  • Did they stick to the project timeframe?

  • How comfortable did you feel discussing any problems with them, were they approachable and receptive?

  • Did they stick to the budget?

  • How did they manage any issues with your neighbours?

  • Was the quality of work good?

  • If they had to make a criticism of the builder, what would it be?

  • Did they use subcontractors for elements of the work? What were they like?

3. Check out the Builder's company if they have one

Ask how long they have been trading? The longer they have been trading, the more secure you can be that they won't go bust before your build is finished. Look them up on Companies House website to see their company record. This will show you how long the company has been incorporated and you can see whether they have filed their accounts up-to-date. Sometimes filing accounts late can be a sign that the company is not doing so well, and this would be worth exploring further.

4. Insurance

This is often overlooked, but trust me you'll wish you'd checked this if something goes wrong with your project. Builders should hold certain types on insurance:

  • Builders public liability insurance: protects against third party injury and damage to neighbouring property;

  • Employer's liability insurance: a legal requirement for limited companies, it protects against an employee being injured whilst at work;

  • Installer's all-risk cover: almost a third of builders don't have this cover - it protects in the event that building work is fully or partially destroyed before completion; and finally

  • Professional indemnity insurance: this protects the builder in the event that a client claims the builder provided inadequate services, and provides a client (you) with compensation if a mistake needs to be rectified.

Don't be embarrassed to ask your builder for evidence of insurance, they should be used to providing this. You're not disputing their trustworthiness.

5. Put what you have agreed in writing

Whether your project is large or small you should have some form of contract with your builder - get it in writing with confirmation that all parties agree. The critical things to cover are:

  • Parties - what is the full name of the builder (their company) and who is the contract with - you on your own, or you and your partner? Who will be liable if something goes wrong?

  • Describe the work - use the specification you provided for the purposes of getting a quote.

  • Payment terms - How and when will you pay? Most good builders have credit accounts with building merchants, so you shouldn't have to pay any money upfront. Ask your builder to break down their quote into payment stages. It is also usual to agree a payment retention, usually 3-5% of the project cost, for you to hold back for a period of time after the end of the project (the snagging period) say 6 - 12 months, to cover you in the event of any problems.

  • Project timeframe - this usually takes the form of a schedule of works that will be provided by the builder when they quote. When will they start works, and how long will each stage take - when will the project be completed? If you have a larger project consider using a JCT contract or similar - the most commonly used is the JCT minor works contract. Unless you are experienced in using this type of contract you will need a professional to help you set this up (usually an architect or lawyer). Your builder should be comfortable and familiar with this type of arrangement.

This is a very quick run through to highlight some of the key issues when entering into an agreement with your builder, and is in no way exhaustive - if in doubt get professional advice, and there is plenty more detail on each of these issues out there on the internet. I'm want to highlight how, even with a small project agreeing setting out what has been agreed in writing, is essential. It makes things clear for both you AND your builder and will reduce the risk of dispute further down the line. Don't feel you are offending your builder by not accepting his handshake as sufficient assurance that the project will be completed to your satisfaction. A good builder won't mind putting things in writing - and if they do then perhaps this is something you need to worry about!? It can be as simple as an exchange of emails where you both confirm what is agreed - even better print it out and both sign. It gets more complicated when your builder uses sub-contractors - again, if in doubt get some advice from a professional, or do some more research.

6. Sub-contractors

Find out what sub-contractors the builder intends to use for specialist aspects of the job. A sub-contractor is a company or person the builder will hire to perform a specific task - for example if you are getting a very expensive parquet floor installed - you want to make sure the person fitting it knows what they are doing. You would normally expect a builder to sub-contract electrical and plumbing work (unless they have registered gas and electrical engineers in their team) other areas where a sub-contractor might be used: tiling, flooring, plastering, window installation, painting and decorating. If you are spending a lot of money on something, or if you are doing something unusual I suggest quizzing your builder about their experience doing this particular type of work if they are intending to carry it out themselves, or find out about who they intend getting in to help

7. Be wary of very low quotes

I'm happy to say that sometimes a low quote isn't hiding anything sinister! Sometimes, however, something else might be going on that would impact your decision to appoint the builder: does the builder have financial troubles, have they quoted for everything you want done - is this clear?, they might simply have made a mistake. Just pause and consider the big picture before jumping in and accepting!

8. Ask the builder how they will run the job.

If it's a larger project will there be one consistent site manager checking everything is running smoothly? Can you expect that someone will be on site every day? How do they deal with neighbours? For a larger project some builders will introduce themselves to the neighbours with a note through the door to let them know what is going on and providing the builders contact details in case of any problems - anything that helps preserve the relationship with neighbours has to be a good thing.

9. Hold out for the right builder

If you can, go with the builder you think will be the best fit for your project and wait for them rather than going with the one that can start first.

Phew - after all of that it then comes down to issues that are harder to quantify: How do you feel about the builder? Are they approachable and professional? Would you feel comfortable discussing any aspects of the build that you feel haven't gone quite right with them?

And now - I would appreciate your help. I'm thinking about putting together some specification spreadsheets for different renovation projects to help you work through all the different parts of your project and make sure you haven't missed anything - these can be used to help you get a quote from a builder. Let me know if you think his would be useful, and what projects you would like help with?

Good luck fellow renovators!

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