There are some things that we do, or habits that we have, that are so ludicrous that when you stop to think about them, you’d find that you’re horrified.

I call these ‘Emperor’s New Clothes moments’ – when you realise that you’ve been doing something that’s just bonkers when you consider the matter in the cold light of day.

Here’s one. Why do we agree to pay builders and contractors in cash? Can you think of any other business or sector that we pay up front, in full or in part, cash in hand? Would you chat to someone on a market stall and give them £15,000 in cash to knock down a few walls in your home and build a conservatory?

When you say it out loud, it seems ridiculous. Yet every year I hear from countless readers who have found themselves in dispute with builders or contractors who have done precisely that.

The way we choose tradespeople is also a bit wacky. Lots of people may have found a business online, though a worryingly large number of people have taken people on who have simply knocked on their door and asked them if they wanted a new driveway or roof.

Disputes over building and contracting work have always been a major issue for people in every corner of the UK. Those problems have become exacerbated since the pandemic, where problems with suppliers, not enough tradespeople to carry out the work and a backlog of jobs has led to a catalogue of unfinished contracts, disputes over the quality of work and businesses going bust while holding your cash.

So how do you avoid cowboy builders and questionable contractors? Here are my top seven tips.

How to pay

All responsible builders and contractors should have the facility to accept debit or credit card payments. If that tiny little van that sells street food, or a local market stall can take a card payment for £3, then a builder can take one for £3,000.

I hear lots of excuses as to why some businesses can’t take card payments. This is usually because of concerns over charges for using merchant terminals (the things you tap or put your PIN in to in order to pay for goods). While this can sometimes be expensive for businesses, there are lots of options these days that are much cheaper, so this isn’t really an excuse. The same goes for things like PayPal, where the charges aren’t really that excessive. If a business gives you excuses for not taking card payments, then be very wary indeed.

This matters because the way you pay for things directly affects your rights if there’s a dispute and you try to get your money back.

You can read my full guide to your rights when using different ways to pay for goods or services in my Times Money Mentor column here. But in summary:

Paying by credit card – even if it’s only a deposit – gives you the most rights. If the goods or services aren’t provided, the contract is not met or the business goes bust, you could get the whole amount back (or part) from the card provider under a ‘section 75 claim, under the Consumer Rights Act. This is up to a maximum of £30,000. But as they say in Death Becomes Her, “now… a warning”. Credit cards come with their own risks.

If you pay by both debit or credit card and the goods or services aren’t provided, then there’s the option to ‘charge back’ the money from the business. But you’ll need to provide proof of the problem when making a chargeback claim and card providers won’t get involved in disputes over quality of work. PayPal has a buyer/seller dispute policy too, though not if you pay by the ‘friends and family’ option.

Any other method of payment, including transferring money from your bank, means you can’t recall your cash back if a dispute arises.

Set out a contract

Make sure you get a full written contract (not just a quote) from the tradesperson before work begins.

Now in theory, as soon as you agree to the work some form of contract is made. But as anyone who has ever watched Judge Judy or Judge Rinder will know, aural contracts are hard to prove – so get it in writing!

You don’t have to be fusty and formal, though there are all sorts of online contract templates online. Don’t worry about becoming a legal expert. The contract should set out the following things:

  • Exactly what the work is that you’ve agreed.
  • Plans, drawings and the quote you’ve agreed on.
  • Duration of the contract.
  • Working days and hours.
  • Materials and where they are being obtained from.
  • Clearing the site and removing waste.
  • Payments (you might want to pay in stages as the work progresses if it’s a big job).

Make sure you sign and date this – and get the tradesperson to do the same.

One last thing. I’m not a fan of paying a deposit for work without some form of protection. So pay on a card (ideally a credit card) if you must and ask if there’s a deposit protection scheme to hold the cash until the work is complete. If the builder wants cash to buy materials, why don’t you pay for them? That way you can check what they actually cost. If there’s a ‘mates rates’ deal with the supplier, then how they pay is irrelevant, so don’t be fobbed off with that excuse.

Allow for all eventualities

Plan for the worst, get the best. I’d try to anticipate the various things that can go wrong with building works. For example, we live on very rainy islands, so ask the builder what happens if rain or bad weather stops play.

Many of the complaints I hear that involve builders are about contractors working on numerous jobs at the same time. This can leave your house in a state, yet you’re only getting a few days-worth of work completed a week. Make it clear how many days (and hours) a week you expect the tradespeople to be on site and working in the contract.

We all get sick sometimes, but some contractors seem to be very unfortunate. While illness is sometimes inevitable, ask what happens if the job moves back due to sickness and confirm that your ongoing work will be prioritised when the tradespeople have recovered, rather than going to the back of the queue due to other jobs in the diary.

And finally, ask about the people who will be on site. This is your home, so you have the right to know who will be in it. Be nice though. The number one grudge from builders is homeowners who don’t let them use the loo. Stick the kettle on and get the nice biscuits out too.

Do your due diligence

Before you commit to a builder or tradesperson, do your research. Ask to see examples of previous jobs and ask if you can speak to a satisfied customer if possible.

Most tradespeople have reviews online, but you can check out review websites and forums in your local area too. Bear in mind some people are never satisfied, so cut them some slack if you sense a reviewer has a grudge. Watch out for obvious fakes and reviews lacking pictures.

Check online with Companies House to see if the builder is a registered business. This is no guarantee of good service – and I’m sorry to say that many fake firms take advantage of Companies House and their lax registration rules. Nethertheless, you can find out how long the business has been operating, if it’s paying tax and where the owners are registered. This is vital if you are forced to take legal action further down the line. A registered business can very easily go bust and reappear in an almost identical form though. 

Be clear about what you want

When you commission any kind of work, think of the businesses as a computer, not a mind-reader.

With a computer you need to tell it precisely what it is that you want, in detail. The same goes for builders, tradespeople and contractors. Don’t leave ‘blank spaces’ in your plans. Be absolutely clear about every aspect of the work you want doing and ask lots of questions.

We tend to focus on the structure of things with big builds, but forget about vital components like guttering, plug sockets and access if things go wrong. Don’t forget to ask about replacements too. So if those fabulous fitted ceiling lights pack in, how do you physically change the bulbs and where do you get replacements?

Look for trade organisations and accreditation

There’s no one organisation that covers all builders or other types of tradespeople, but there are loads of specialist trade and membership bodies out there that your builder or contractor can be a member of. This isn’t an absolute guarantee of quality, but it does demonstrate that the business you have contracted has committed to certain standards and practices.

Many membership organisations have mediation schemes which, while not quite the same as an ombudsman scheme, can step in to try to negotiate a resolution if a dispute arises.

Do double check that the person you’re contracting is actually a member of the scheme they say they are members of though! It’s not unheard of for a cheeky bit of cut-and-pasting of logos to happen from some unscrupulous tradespeople. You can usually check this on the site itself.

Check the insurance options

It’s often overlooked but insurance is vital with building work. Both the builder or tradesperson’s policies and your own.

It’s a legal requirement for tradespeople – or anyone who contracts workers – to have employer’s liability insurance. This covers them if someone gets hurt on the job. If the builder doesn’t have this then you could find yourself having to pay out in the event of a claim.

I’d also recommend asking about public liability insurance. A good contractor will make a point of telling you they have this. But ask if it isn’t mentioned. This form of insurance covers things like property damage (including neighbour’s property) and legal liability for the damage or injury to them/you. You can buy this yourself if there’s a problem but do it before the job starts.

There’s also ‘all risk cover’ which covers the many things that aren’t covered by legal liability insurance. This can be things like damage as a result of accidents, storms, floods and explosions, cargo in transit and other disasters. Finally, the builders might offer a warranty or guarantee, but do check the wording as sometimes these policies aren’t much cop.

Your own insurer will need to be told about what’s happening and the nature and scope of the works. This can be useful because it can flush out potential problems with the contractor. There may be an increase in premiums to cover problems with the works but it’s worth it.

Should things go wrong…

I hope your home improvements go smoothly after all of that! But if things go wrong, there’s always the small claims court. The rules vary depending on where you live in the UK, but you can check out my Times Money Mentor guide right here.

Featured in Times Money Mentor – Martyn James

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