One of the most common problems that I’m asked about is also one of the most complicated to sort out. Disputes with builders and other contractors.

Before we get going on this, let me be absolutely clear by saying that we have many, many magnificent builders, tradespeople and other freelance contractors out there! However, the actions of a few rogue traders have had a massive impact on how the industry is perceived.

So how do you avoid a breakdown with building work? Here’s my guide.

How to pay

Can you think of any other industry where you pay thousands of pounds up front without a contract in cash?There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to pay in cash for building work. Even your local street coffee vendor or market stall can take plastic cards.

So, when you’ve agreed the work, agree card payments only, ideally credit cards.

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.

Contracts and getting the work done

Make sure you get a full written contract (not just a quote) from the tradesperson before work begins. Ensure this covers every eventuality you can think of, including; over-running works, delays obtaining materials, disputes over quality of work and a final deadline for completion. Don’t just sign the builder’s contract either.

Many complaints I see involve builders working on numerous jobs at the same time. So your house is left in disarray, but you only get two days work completed a week. Make it clear how many days (and hours) a week are expected in the contract. Ask about what happens with other typical causes of delays too, like bad weather or sickness. And always ask for the names and details of the people who will be working on site.

You may want to agree to paying for the work in stages if it’s a big job – but set deadlines for each block. 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 an ombudsman or complaint resolution service for the building and trade industry.

Check to see if your builder has public/employers’ liability insurance. These policies are taken out by the business and cover injury, accidents and damage that could occur. 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 get recommendations from your family and friends – it’s often the best way to find the top tradespeople in your area. Watch out for online forums and websites though, as the reviews can be faked. Or you might just find an angry person with a grudge against a decent builder.


If things go wrong, make a formal complaint in writing and give the builder a chance to resolve things first. Think about what 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. Failing that though, you might have to go through the small claims court.

This 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.

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 you can avoid most problems by planning in advance, getting everything in writing and paying by credit card. And give a good builder a decent review too!

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

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