16 Oct 2014

How to find trades and builders

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Self-build consultant Adrian Hateley gives his insight into how to source reputable tradesmen/contractors and effectively manage them on your project.

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Many self-builders have a desire to be as ‘hands-on’ as possible, undertaking the majority of the build themselves or with the help of skilled family and friends. However, regardless of size or specification of the build, there will always be an occasion when experienced and certified tradesmen will be required, especially when installing electrics, gas and plumbing.

When you consider that much of your budget will go towards the labour costs of your tradesmen, you naturally need to ensure that you have the right person for the job at the right price. Unfortunately, due to the current lack of skilled tradesmen, there is talk that builders and contractors are ‘naming their price’, so it’s always best to shop around and get as many quotes as possible. The accepted rule is that self-builders should always get at least three quotations for every job.

It’s worth recognising that the best builders are rarely the cheapest – you are paying for quality and experience and the best know what they are worth. A tradesman can only accurately quote you on the information you provide, so be sure to be clear and concise with your instructions. Where possible, provide them with a copy of Building Control approved drawings detailing build specification and materials.

If they all come back very high, the chances are that you are trying to build something too big or complicated for your budget or you might need to lower the materials specification. Always seek a fixed price quotation and be aware that if you make changes during the build, you might leave yourself open to ‘extras’ being added to your bill.

Whatever the quotation, there is always room for negotiation – granted, we as a nation are not comfortable with negotiating, especially when it comes to money, but if you are building to a tight budget, every penny matters. Just take heed that if you do try to negotiate a lower price than quoted, be mindful that you could be storing up resentment if the contractor perceives that you have taken advantage of them.

Making it official

Many projects are successfully completed with no formal contract between self-builder and contractor other than a letter of appointment. In its simplest form, a contract of works signed by both parties – you and the contractor – can be recognised as an official arrangement and is always useful in instances of dispute. Examples of contractual forms/contracts can be downloaded online through channels such as the Federation of Master Builders. If you have clearly outlined and discussed the schedule of works with your tradesmen at the outset, you may also wish to think about introducing penalty clauses in the contract – although be realistic that materials may not arrive on site when planned which could affect your appointed trades from doing their job.

Remember it’s your responsibility to consult with tradesmen and schedule works accordingly. Take time to get to know your contractors over a cup of tea and biscuits and take an interest in other building projects they may be involved in and their outside interests – this not only makes for a better working environment but your build might benefit from your contractors additional knowledge and expertise.

Tradesmen will often need paying on a weekly basis and may require to be paid in cash, so be sure to notify your bank in advance of cash withdrawals. Be on time with payments – if you are late with payments you could lose vital builders or contractors to another site and hence delay the progress of your build. You may come across builders who require part-payment ‘up front’ for materials – bear in mind that any reputable tradesman will have an account with local builders merchant; failing that, there is nothing to stop you opening a personal account and buying materials direct. Always pay in arrears according to the amount of work done or the stage that the job has reached and, wherever possible, hold back a proportion of the money to provide an incentive for them to finish the job.

Who does what

You need to decide from the outset how much or how little you can or want to do, and more importantly how much your budget allows. Granted, there are contractors who would prefer to undertake the build from start to finish, but I would suggest that in the first instance you check to see that any ‘supply and fix’ quotation allows you to reap the rewards of any discounts that may be available.

As a guide, most groundworkers working on single dwellings work on a labour only basis so you will be responsible for the hire of groundworks equipment such as digger, dumper truck and arranging delivery of materials on site and on time.

Specific skills possessed by bricklayers and carpenters are always labour only. Plumbers and electricians are often supply and fix but will usually accommodate the self-builder buying certain items such as underfloor heating, radiators and boilers. Plasterers can be labour only or supply and fix. Where they are supply and fix they tend to supply the ‘wet’ items but may leave the purchase of plasterboard to the self-builder.

Dispute resolution

Unfortunately there are instances where disputes arise and rather than let things fester, in the first instance, take your contractor aside and try to resolve any issues. If this does not work, arbitration may be necessary, perhaps relying on the skills of your Building Control Officer. As a last resort, the small claims system is available and should be used for smaller amounts of money up to around £6000. Quite often, a solicitors letter threatening legal action is enough to prompt settlement – at the end of the day, a tradesman has his reputation to uphold.

As the saying goes, ‘hindsight is a wonderful thing’ – so my advice is to have a back-up plan should things turn sour. This may involve keeping a record of approved sub-contracting companies in your area. In addition, some of the larger companies can have many tradesmen working for them who are available at short notice. Bear in mind that the quality and standards of new tradesmen may not perfectly suit and any last-minute contracting issues will incur additional costs.

Finding the perfect tradesmen is like finding gold-dust and invariably are used time and again by self-builders who have got the self-build bug!

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