In recent months, I’ve noticed that I’m being asked to help more and more with disputes over building work. Many of these complaints are exceptionally convoluted, often involving sums of £30,000 or more, and can degenerate into rather unpleasant legal disputes too.

Despite this, there’s a huge, pent-up demand for building work after the pandemic stalled our dreams of home makeovers. On top of that, there are also shortages with some building materials and delays importing goods to the UK too. This means you may wait longer before a job can begin, pay more cash for materials and labour and could face unexpected delays.

So how do you avoid a builder breakdown? Here’s my guide.

How to pay

Let’s start with an obvious statement but a vital one. Do not pay for building work cash in hand. In fact, don’t pay by cheque either or by bank transfer. Card payments only, ideally credit cards. It’s extraordinary that we still hand over thousands of pounds for a ‘good deal’ on home improvements with little in the way of a contract to protect you if things go wrong.

I often mention it in this column but if you pay for goods or services by credit card and you don’t get what you paid for then you may be able to make a claim to the card provider if you’ve spent between £100 and £30,000.

Before the work starts

It’s important to get a full written contract (not just a quote) from the builder before work begins. Make sure this covers over-runs, delays with materials, disputes over quality of work and a final deadline for completion. Don’t just sign the builder’s contract either.

You may want to agree to paying for the work in stages if it’s a big job. Also, check to see if the builder is a member of a trade body or organisation Contact the trade body to confirm this and ask them about any mediation or complaint resolution services they offer if there’s a problem. Sadly, there isn’t a builders ombudsman or all-encompassing complaint resolution service.

Make sure your builder has public/employers liability insurance. These policies taken out by the builder cover injury, accidents and damage that (hopefully won’t) arise during the course of the job. Check with your insurance company too, so you know what you’re covered for while contractors are working in and around your property.

I’d suggest getting recommendations for tradespeople from your family and friends – it’s a great way to find the best builders in your area. You can also check your local council too. Watch out for online forums though, as the reviews can be fiddled – or you might just find an angry person with a grudge against a decent builder.

Complaints

If things go wrong, make a formal complaint in writing and give the builder a chance to resolve things first. Think about what it is you want to resolve the problem. A clean break and a partial refund? Or for the errors to be corrected with no cost?

You can ask the trade body or organisation your builder is a member of to mediate or investigate your complaint. This may be able to resolve the issue, but failing that, you might have to go through the small claims court.

The small claims court isn’t as complicated as it might sound, though there are limits to how much you can claim – and the more you seek the higher the fees. I tackled this with top legal expert Gary Rycroft in our guide to the court here: https://news.resolver.co.uk/expert-view-gary-rycroft-on-how-the-small-claims-court-works/

If you’re really concerned about the behaviour of the builder, then you can also report them to Trading Standards or Citizens Advice, who may launch an investigation.

Most building jobs don’t end in disaster – but don’t forget you can avoid most problems by planning in advance, getting everything in writing and paying by credit card.

Martyn James is a leading consumer rights campaigner, TV and radio broadcaster and journalist.

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