Don’t be haunted by nightmare builders

by , Digital Producer Consumer Rights 18 June 2012
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According to our recent survey, more than a quarter of Which? members who used a builder in the last year had problems. And when they got a tradesperson in to fix them, the average cost was a whopping £532.

Cartoon builder

I personally wasn’t surprised by this. I know lots of people who’ve had building nightmares. At the mild end of the scale, some people experienced poor finishing – wonky tiling and windows painted shut, for example. At the extreme end of the scale, the wrong interior wall was knocked down – thankfully not a load-bearing one.

When things go wrong…

Unfortunately we can’t all have cowboy-builder-hunter Dominic Littlewood hiding in a van outside our house, ready to pounce if things do go wrong.

But there are simple things we can all do to deal with building traumas – and avoid them in the first place. We’ve uncovered the five most common problems that customers experience and have asked our Which? Legal Service lawyers for expert advice on how to solve them.

1. Timing issues: To avoid timing issues, such as work starting late or over-running, either include timings in your contract, or agree them with your builder, in writing if possible.

2. Cost more than original quote: Agree a fixed price wherever the extent of the work can be determined in advance, and ask what rates you’ll be charged for work that can’t be priced.

3. Poor quality job: Picking a good trader is key. But the Supply of Goods and Services Act says that all building work must be carried out with reasonable care and skill, with materials of satisfactory quality that are fit for purpose.

4. Rubbish left behind: Agree at the start – preferably in writing – who is responsible for getting rid of rubbish.

5. Poor communication: Make sure you’ve got more than one way to reach your builder – preferably phone number and address – and remind them that services must be supplied within a reasonable amount of time under the Supply of Goods and Services Act.

It’s not all bad news for builders

Despite numerous people experiencing problems along the way, clearly there are many good builders out there. Which? members who’ve used one in the last year were actually pretty satisfied overall with the builder they chose.

Builders got an impressive 82% customer satisfaction score, which when put against the other sectors we looked at is very good (utility companies got a dismal 47%).

My top tips are: make sure you offer your builder plenty of tea and biscuits – the small things in life can make a big difference too! I’d also say that it’s a good idea to know your rights from the start – get as much agreed up front and in writing if possible, to avoid too much debate later down the line. Have you got any tips of your own to avoid building pitfalls?


Add your comments


John Ward

Personal recommendations or references can also be helpful. A clear written specification [updated if necessary as the work proceeds] is essential and is a protection for both sides. For structural work, or anything that requires building regulations approval, a surveyor or other appropriate professsional can make a world of difference, especially if they are also engaged on project supervision or management. Their fee is a sort of insurance policy and they will usually recommend a builder competent for the work involved.



The problem of rubbish keeps on coming up. A builder if he takes it away is taking away commercial waste. I suppose we will eventually get used to thinking “resource” and “reuse” instead of just “rubbish”. The increase in the number of second hand sites including freecycle help with this.
It does need to be planned into the works.



I had an extension built in 2009 and rust has appeared on the edges of the walls inside the room. The extension is very damp and so I have to keep painting it. Even though I use ‘kitchens and bathrooms’ paint, the dampness still comes, so that my walls are stained with mildew. The hinges used by the workman also rusted. What can I do about this?



Many damp problems are caused by condensation and if your extension is cold and poorly ventilated, moisture will condense on the walls.

David Prince has given advice to many people with damp problems on another Conversation:

With luck, there may be a simple solution and your problem may not be a building fault.



Always check with your council’s buinding regulations team as to their requiements. We had roofing work done a few years ago and only one quote out of 7 complied with the law.



Interesting that.

People don’t realise that there are Building Regulations AND Planning Permissions that may need to be sought. They are different and not needing Planning Permission does not mean not needing Building Regulation Consent.

Builders definitely should know this, just as they should know the law on waste. They probably do.



Re: consulting ‘Building Control’

See copy of email I received from a certain Council as to the enforcement of said Building Control’!

Dear Ken,

Further to my visit today, I have checked our records and we have a current case open on number **. The officer concerned is **** ***** and she can be contacted on 020 7*** ****. Her email address is ****.@*********** She will speak to the managing agents of the property about the problem with the drains.
***** has referred the property to the Planning Enforcement Team who have also visited and are aware of the recent conversion of the property to flats.
I am not sure how the process works but believe that planning permission is likely to be granted ‘Retrospectively’ once an application is made.
Building Control are also aware of the works but I am led to believe that they are not taking any action.

So much for ‘Building Control’, they are one big joke!



Not so. Building Control teams are very good at getting things right if asked beforehand. It is correcting matters after the event where they have resourcing issues.



‘Not so. Building Control teams are very good at getting things right if asked beforehand. It is correcting matters after the event where they have resourcing issues’.
So, in essence, what you are saying is once illegal conversions are reported, they cannot prosecute an illegal build, check for its correct construction, check that its not a danger to the inhabitants or enforce a remedial work??

It’s like the Police telling us, ‘Look, if you tell us a crime is going to be committed, we can act to prevent it’, but, if the murder has already been committed, we cannot do anything about it as we are short on resources!
After reasonable lengthy conversation with the Building Control Office at the time, he informed me I would be aghast at how unscrupulous builders, landlords etc are aware of the flaw in the Building Control and totally ignore the law.

I’m sure that other posters on this forum will have had similar experiences, there seems to be enough of them on the TV series ‘Cowboy Builders’!



Not so. I am sayiing what I am saying.

All public services have to cope with cuts. I would support them in putting prevention before cure and Which? members would be well advised not to discount the service that Building Inspectors can provide because you dislike what happened over an enforcement issue.

Your answer is to press for more resources and easier enforcement. Would Which? support measures such as spot fines and a national register of transgressions?



We had an extension done a couple of years back.
My advice would be

Get plans drawn up professionally.
Talk to the local council about planning and building regs.
Get recommended builders and try to see their work.
Get three quotes, based on building control approved plans PLUS details of issues not clear on the plans. If you want the builder to do it/include it in the quote – specify it now. Our chosen builder admitted we had given him no wriggle room.Builders make money on the wriggles!
Vet the sub contractors (plumbers, electricians etc)
Monitor progress carefully and don’t be afraid to query things.
Be firm but reasonable; somethings are not foreseen and will lead to extra cost.


John Ward

People selling a property sometimes find out too late that works they have carried out should have received building regulation approval. It can completely scupper a sale if the relevant certificate cannot be produced. Sometimes the seller can purchase an indemnity policy that they hand over to the buyer to cover them against any consequential action. In other cases it is possible to obtain retrospective consent but this might not be possible where the works involved foundations, underpinning, drainage, and structural support, or where it might be extremely expensive to re-open the work to permit inspection and rectification. In some cases, once the building control inspector has become aware of a failure to have inspections and approval during the course of the work [prompted perhaps by an enquiry from a prospective purchaser] they might institute legal proceedings and/or order partial or total demolition. I think they would only do this as a last resort where they could not be satisfied that the building was structurally sound. Whatever one thinks of the building control system, it is a vital safeguard and to ignore it in order to save a few hundred pounds is bound to cause trouble in the long run. These precautions are especially important in respect of tenanted property – landlords are notorious for avoiding expense; it is a pity that managing agents are not required to exercise the same due diligence as property buyers when they take on a property management responsibility. My own view is that they do indeed have such a fiduciary duty to the tenants but I am not sure whether that has been tested in the courts and found to be certain.



Unless the building works you are planning to do are very simple then employ an architect, particularly if you don’t work in the building trade yourself. They understand building construction and the building process from start to finish and will deal with all legal/statutory matters. They also have procedures for keeping costs under control and will make sure the work is carried out properly to a high standard.
Yes, you will have to pay them, typically about 10% of the build costs for a full service including site supervision, but this will buy you complete peace of mind and in many cases it will actually save you money due to their cost controlling systems that avoid inflated claims for extras at the end of the job. Builders often quite like it because they get much clearer information on what is required than from an inexperienced client and are therefore able to quote more keenly.
Take advice from others before choosing one though as some are better set up than others for handling ‘domestic’ work.
A top tip for avoiding money problems is to decide everything in advance, specify it in writing and then don’t change your mind!



There is one golden rule. Get it all agreed in advance especially pricing. Put it into writing. Never let a builder start work without knowing what it will cost. If he says he can not price it at the time,stop until he can.There are always extras and the unknowns. Price them as you go. If a job drags on,and it will,if its priced up front it is not a disaster. Keep a record of his hours on site. If a job overruns he will ask for more money.Stick to your agreement,its his problem.



Why, why why – always cowboy builders!

I have been in the building trade since 1964.

Do-good organisations and TV programme makers take note – there are far more cowboy customers than cowboy builders. They offer cash (no vat), expect alterations to the agreed work to be done at no extra cost (when some of this work is already completed), but worst of all keep you waiting for the final stage payment, then issue excuses such as Mum, Dad or Aunty B has died, my bank hasn’t put the funds in place etc etc.

Career welshers, all of them!



‘Why, why why – always cowboy builders’?

I have been in the building trade since 1964.

Do-good organisations and TV programme makers take note – there are far more cowboy customers than cowboy builders. They offer cash (no vat), expect alterations to the agreed work to be done at no extra cost (when some of this work is already completed)!

Tell me about it!

I was in the trade from 1956!

After while, a fellah learns things, you get to know the look/sound/feel of those that do as you describe well before you even cross their threshold!
The signs are always there if you know what to look for!

The funny thing is, most of them are well heeled, its the hard up clients usually, (I say usually, there is always the exception) that never give any problem, I always used to go the extra mile for them, at no extra charge.

You have my sympathies, been there, done it, got the ‘T’ shirt!




The problem with builders is that they do not have to have any qualifications. I know of one ex-fireman who splits his time between a fish & chip shop he owns and working as a builder.
The whole problem can be resolved if the following legal requirements have to be met in order to trade:
1. tradesmen/women should have to be apprenticed trained, qualified and registered before being allowed to trade. Furthermore they should have to use their trade as the name of their business and not be allowed to call themselves builders e.g. Joiners or Bricklayers, not Builders;
2. To be called a builder they should have to be a Chartered Builder with at least MCIOB level qualification, and registered.
In both of the above, registration should be renewable with evidence of keeping up to date with technological/ legislative developments being a requirement before renewal is allowed.
I think this is an area that Consumer Association should expend much effort in campaigning for legislation.



To implement the reasonable legislation you outline would inevitably invoke the Law Of Unintended Consequences.

Have a think on it!

The actual enforcement of you legislation would really be impossible, you could not enforce the law no more than you can enforce landlords flouting the Building Control Regs:, Cyclists ignoring Red traffic lights, Riding on the pavements, Dogs Fouling the Footpaths, Drivers Using Mobile Phones, et-al!


Andrew Chilvers

I am currently going thru hell as a result of a building firm that has effectively made my house unsafe to live in and worthless. They have installed large windows on which the roof is sitting and which are not load bearing. The foundations of the new wall are not deep enough and it has to be rebuilt, the plasterwork is peeling. So far we’ve spent £20,000 on the work and product. I have employed a structural engineer who has written a damning report on the conpany’s work. He said the scaffolding is a health and safety issue that is borderng on criminal negligence. I have shown all this to a lawyer. So the costs are now escalating. I spoke to Fensa who were no help whatsoever and are barely worth their stamp. The lawyer has informed me that the builder is clearly in beach of standards, but with the complexity of litigious law suits and overall difficultly of ever receiving compensation from the builder makes it hardly worthwhile pursuing them. The conclusion I’ve come to is that building firms are free to ride roughshod over people and there’s little anyone can do about it unless you have pots of money. Meanwhile, my home is worthless and unsafe. The stress on my family is very destructive. Personally, from my experince I believe builders are largely scam merchants who have little pride in their work and little respect for their clients. Nevertheless, as a journalist I have every intention of doing something about this disgraceful situation. No one should have to go thru my experience. I specialise in digital journalism, websites and ensuring high traffic numbers for the websites I run using SEO, news, videos, blogging and social media. Within the necessary legal framework, these individuals and companies need to be named and shamed.



With every bad builder story there is probably another bad client story. What about a client who agrees a budget and then claims it to be something else? What about a client who decides he is not going to pay because his financial circumstances suddenly change? What about a client who fires his builders so he can make a deal with their sub? What about a client who harasses and threatens legal action to get free work? Some builders take on a client in good faith, only to have the client turn on them when they run out of money. Verbal agreements and written contracts are not worth anything if there isn’t trust and communication. A client has a responsibility to be involved, informed and respectful. If he or she is not able to understand the construction process they should hire someone to act on their behalf. Builders shouldn’t be expected to subsidise a client’s lack of understanding, preparedness or financial difficulty. They are running a business after all.

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