10 Tips for Choosing and Working With a Builder Successfully
What is it that causes builders who were loved by one homeowner to be branded ‘cowboys’ by the next?
It might seem logical if you’re thinking of having some building work done to start by approaching a builder, but don’t be too hasty.
Builders are (generally) good at building – and at pricing – once they know exactly what is wanted, but asking for a price before there are any drawings or detailed information about the project is as good as inviting them to tell you simply what they think you want to hear.
My advice is only approach builders once you have a set of drawings and a list of what will (and will not) be included, often known as a ‘schedule of works’. Otherwise, you might base the whole project on a figure that could be miles off the eventual cost.
Get tips on how to survive having the builders in
Find the right kind of building company for your project. The kind of building contractor suitable (for example) for a luxury retail project has to be highly organised, usually with multiple managers, a well-organised back office and teams who can work around the clock and produce exceptionally high-quality work at speed. Such contractors tend to be eye-wateringly expensive and (for most people) would be over the top for a kitchen extension or loft conversion.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are plenty of small owner/manager builders who do a lot of the work themselves on-site and organise everything from a mobile phone on their hip. With such low overheads, a builder like this should be much cheaper, but the level of service, organisation and speed may not compare.
You are looking for the most appropriate balance of low price, high quality and good organisation. You never get the best of all three, but here it’s key to decide what will be the best fit for you.
A really good general builder is, unsurprisingly, really good at building work and will be suitable unless the work in question is incredibly unusual.
For example, a good general builder is perfectly capable of building a loft extension or forming a basement. You can, of course, go to a loft or basement company and they, too, may do a great job. The most important thing is to find someone good who will do good work for the right price.
Similarly, you can use a staircase company to make a staircase or a door company to sell you doors – or just use a good joiner to make such things. With a clear design, a good builder will be able to coordinate the right people – joiners, electricians and so on – to source and build exactly what you want.
Find out more about the planning permission you may – or may not – need for your project
Rather than using one main contractor, it might seem wise to try to save money by directly engaging separate tradesmen, such as plasterers, electricians, carpenters and so on.
While it’s true that a main contractor will take a small slice of cost from all the sub-contractors, I would argue that this money is very well earned. Managing and coordinating all of the separate trades on-site takes a great deal of mettle and experience.
I’ve seen lots of people who try to do this themselves get into a horrible mess and end up with a botched job that goes over time and over budget – not to mention the stress they’ve suffered.
While it can work to pull certain specific and well-defined parts of the work out (such as carpet-laying, for example), I strongly recommend using one main building contractor who will take responsibility for the project overall.
There seem to be many different definitions of exactly what project management actually involves, but in my view, the most important manager of a project is the main building contractor.
It’s the builder’s responsibility to make sure the right people in the right numbers are on-site at the right times and that they have the necessary materials to do their work.
While an independent architect or project manager can play an important role acting as an expert to look after your interests, keeping an eye on progress and quality, it’s important the builder is allowed to run the project on a day-to-day basis. If not, there can be blurred responsibility if and when things go wrong. So choose a builder who’s professional and let them do their job.
I’ve mentioned it already, but I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to be absolutely specific.
A set of drawings is a good start, but what about the structural detail – are you asking the builder to work this out? If so, make that clear or, alternatively (and in my opinion preferably), have the structural calculations all done by an engineer before you ask for a price.
Further than drawings, you need to make it clear exactly what the builder is being asked to include in the price. If the work involves fitting a bathroom, for example, who’s supplying the sanitaryware, tiles and taps? If they are to supply them, exactly which ones? If you want to supply the tiles yourself, who’s supplying the adhesive and grout? Unless all such things are clear, there’s potential for misunderstandings and arguments over money once the work has already started.
Competitive tendering is the process of getting alternative prices from different builders for the same work. Clearly, it’s crucial the information against which they are pricing is absolutely clear and specific (otherwise how can two prices compare?)
I would generally send a project out to four or maybe five builders for pricing. This involves the builder in a great deal of work and it’s just not fair in my opinion to go to more than five. However, when the prices come back, it’s not at all unusual for them to vary between the highest and lowest by 100% or more, so it’s well worth going to at least three or four.
A building contract is simply an agreement between a builder, who agrees to undertake a specific set of works, and a client, who agrees to pay a set amount of money.
There are many different forms of contract, but the one that I most regularly use for residential projects is called the JCT Minor Works Building Contract. The drawings and schedules are attached to the contract, so it’s clear what’s included and what’s not, and all of the payment terms and so on are agreed up front.
The important thing the contract does is set out all of the ‘what ifs’ – such as, what if the work is changed along the way? What if it takes longer than agreed?
Ideally, and, I’m glad to say, usually, once signed and filed, the contract is never needed again, because everything has gone smoothly, but that’s often because everyone knows it’s there in the background.
With a kitchen or bathroom, for example, the ‘first fix’ involves bringing the wastes, plumbing and electrical services to the right places. So pipes and cables are installed into walls and under floors and are left poking out. Typically, walls are then lined and plastered and floors laid before the ‘second fix’.
The ‘second fix’ is where the units, appliances, sanitaryware, light fittings, tiling and so on is all done, connecting up to the pipes and cables that have been set in place before.
It may be that you ask your builder to do both the first and second fix, but it’s not unusual for the second fix part to be done by whoever has supplied the kitchen or bathroom. This can work perfectly well as long as all parties completely understand in advance exactly what is (and is not) expected of them.
More arguments happen at the finishing off stage than at any other time in a project, so it’s important to be ready for the common pitfalls.
When the main work is going full tilt, everyone tends to be happy, but towards the end of a project, there are typically a thousand small items to attend to, requiring an array of different tradesmen, and this can be both difficult and expensive for the builder to organise.
Combine with this the fact that the client can see it’s nearly there, and usually desperately wants their home back after a long wait, and often frustration boils over.
Again, my best advice is to be really organised. Communicate clearly with your builder on expected timescales and give them the space to do what’s needed. When it comes to ‘snagging’ at the end – ie, checking for works not completed, or not completed as requested, which the builder will rectify – go round with your builder and agree one comprehensive list. Of course, additional things may come to light, but equally it’s really not fair to keep coming up with ever more snags over a period of time.
What have you learnt from working with builders on a project? Share your insights in the Comments below.