How to Spot a Cowboy Builder

We’ve all seen TV programs and documentaries about cowboy builders – those tradespeople setting out to make a quick buck by exploiting the vulnerable and trusting; plumbers who have apparently never seen water in their lives, or central heating engineers with a habit of causing dangerous gas leaks. Loft conversions and home extensions are also popular terrain for cowboy builders, and being able to spot one before they take your money is the best way to protect against shoddy workmanship and an empty wallet.

There is a fine line between a cowboy builder who is merely a bad or lazy tradesman (usually both) just acting the part, and an all-out thief who has little intention of actually carrying out the work they charge for. It is far easier to be caught out by a cowboy, so if you’re planning a loft conversion or home extension soon, follow these useful tips for spotting a builder who’s all talk and no action…

Things to watch out for:

  • Cowboy builders are renowned for drumming up trade with forceful door-to-door sales calls, aggressively dismissing the talents of local rival companies and insisting that you need work carrying out that you probably don’t. Be wary of doorstep pitches.
  • If you hire a contractor that suggests beginning work without getting proper clearance or planning permission from the relevant local authorities, it could indicate a cowboy desperate to get in and out with the cash as soon as possible. It also pays to be suspicious of anyone who says they can start straight away, as a good builder is usually a busy builder!
  • Look for a builder that offers a complete service that includes survey, design, construction and finishing of your loft conversion? Not only is this convenient and cost-effective, it also shows that they don’t specialise in individual areas that could be done on the cheap and without the need for accreditation, as a cowboy might.
  • Are you offered a fully itemised quote with no ‘hidden extras’ or admin costs and the like? If not, you could end up with some unexpected bills down the line for work that was not needed or even completed in some cases.
  • Does the contractor provide a guarantee or warranty for the work and materials offered? This protects against shoddy workmanship and cheaply sourced building supplies. Similarly, are the builders insured against accidents whilst performing the work?
  • Even small things like a company address with a landline phone number provide reassurance – if the only contact details you are given is a mobile number, proceed with caution!
  • Do they insist on being paid in cash, or offer you a discount for cash-in-hand payments? Any contractor that cannot provide a business account for payments immediately raises doubt.
  • If a builder starts to over-emphasise the scale of the work, trying to confuse you with technical terms and embellished language, it should start the alarm bells ringing in your head.

Things to consider:

  • Ask to see accreditations: are the builders working on your loft members of the Federation of Master Builders? This will guarantee a certain high standard of product and workmanship. Other associations, such as Fairtrades and Trustmark, may also indicate reliability.
  • Request references from past customers, particularly regarding projects similar to the one you wish to carry out.
  • It helps to get estimates from at least three different builders. Not only does this give you a good idea of the realistic cost of the work, it also gives you bargaining power.
  • Where possible, use a written contract that specifies everything from agreed price of the work to timescale and methods of waste disposal, and do not pay for the job in full before it has been completed.

Easy Home Improvement

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