"Think twice before telling a builder they were recommended": Lessons we learned during our big building project

26 June 2019
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We’ve been talking about what we’d like to do to our three-bedroom semi in St Albans since we first viewed it 10 years ago, writes Rachel Lacey. Progress has been slow, but this year we finally began work on our big building project…

Unsurprisingly, money has been the chief hurdle – builders’ quotes, it seems, rise even faster than St Albans house prices. But it’s not just the worry about the cost. I’ve also been daunted by the enormity of the job. As one builder put it, it would be cheaper to knock the house down and start again.

Although our house wasn’t small the layout of it wasn’t great. Both my husband and I regularly work from home so we each need a decent work space.

Our two boys, aged seven and 10, are also getting to the point where they need their own rooms (our third bedroom is an office). So, as well as redesigning the downstairs to create an open-plan kitchen and dining space and adding a utility room (is it a sign of middle age the latter is one of the bits

I’m most excited about?), we’re adding a new office and another bedroom upstairs.

It means we will have ample space to work, the boys will have their own rooms and we’ll be able to offer guests a proper bed rather than pulling out the saggy sofa bed in the lounge.

Having witnessed the stresses of friends doing similar jobs we did consider moving but the money we’d need to get a similar spec house, in the same area, was just too much (and I really didn’t fancy paying that much stamp duty).

So, after lots of talk and no action we finally decided to bite the bullet last January. But irritatingly, after having spent so much time dawdling, I wasn’t prepared for how long it would take to get our project going.

First base: find an architect

Job one was to find an architect. I had a handful of recommendations – frustratingly, though, many didn’t return my calls. This, it seems, was a warning sign of things to come. Literally nothing was going to happen fast.

We ended up seeing two, both of whom weren’t able to meet us for a few weeks and who warned us that it could be as long as two months before they could actually crack on with the work.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when we finally met. Grand plans? Creative inspiration? Maybe I’ve been watching too many property shows, but the reality was much more mundane.

I quickly realised they weren’t going to suggest any real ideas until they were hired and had completed the survey.

And you can’t hire them based on their drawings (unless you have a bottomless budget) so we just had to go on our hunch of which we thought would do the best job. It ended up being the one that pointed out all the potential problems (like the one posed by the roots of the huge leylandii running down the length of our garden). Everything he said made sense and we figured that, in theory, meant fewer surprises later.

A few weeks after this he came back with four or five options. It was a tough balancing act creating enough space for a workable office upstairs along with a third bedroom that was big enough to fit in a double bed (for visiting grandparents) but didn’t leave a fourth bedroom so small one of the boys felt they were sleeping in a shoe box. With a bit of tinkering our architect made it work.

Stage two was planning permission, which needed to be obtained from our local council. Our architect submitted the plan and then it was just a waiting game. A very long waiting game. By now it was already the end of May, and although we’d been advised planning decisions should be made within eight weeks, staffing issues meant we didn’t actually get ours until mid-August. (I’ll always remember taking the call from a planning officer while sitting in a pedalo with the kids in torrential rain.) On the plus side, it was at least passed first time.

I was itching to get on the phone to builders but our architect told us there was no point – until we had detailed construction plans (including the structural design for steels and foundations) they just wouldn’t quote, he said.

Thankfully, the next stage wasn’t nearly as long and a few weeks later, with the summer holidays behind us we had everything we needed, and the building regulation application was put in.

Party wall agreements

Party wall agreements

If you are building along a party wall or digging foundations within a certain distance of your neighbours you will need a party wall agreement to protect you both in case of any disputes. To do this you need to serve notice on your neighbours (one or two months ahead of the work, depending on the situation). You can download helpful template letters from the government at https://www.gov.uk/guidance/party-wall-etc-act-1996-guidance. Your neighbours have the choice of either accepting your agreement informally or instructing a surveyor to carry out a full schedule of the condition of the property and issue an ‘award’. We had to do this with one neighbour at a cost of £1,200 – it’s an expense we didn’t need but given we are building on their boundary I think we would have done the same if the shoe was on the other foot.

Quotes start trickling in

Nine months after we had embarked on this journey, we could finally start having proper conversations with builders.

Some came to our house to talk through the plans, others just asked for email copies of our drawings. Some did quotes themselves, others sent them off to ‘estimators’ to do the job for them. Some got back to us, others didn’t.

We’d been warned we’d need to go out to a lot of builders – whether it was due to timescales or workloads, many just weren’t interested in the job. In the end we spoke to around 10 and got quotes from five. I would also argue that some of those that did quote didn’t really want the job, either that or their pricing was very optimistic.

I really did need a big glass of wine in hand to cope with the shock of some of them.

Unfortunately the builder we had in mind gave us our highest quote. He had done an amazing job for our friends, had been a pleasure to deal with but was also their cheapest quote.

Given another local friend got a pretty steep quote from him at the same time too, I now wonder whether friends' recommendations can be something of a false economy with builders. Obviously you want to know they will do the job well, but once a builder has done a few jobs in the same neighbourhood and knows customers are singing their praises, its perhaps only human nature to increase their prices. Another time I might tell the builder I found them on Google.

Edward Lacey, 7, checks progress on the new extension.

Edward Lacey, 7, checks progress on the new extension.

Right builder for the job

Even among our remaining quotes it was difficult working out which would offer best value. Some quotes were fully itemised and ran to pages while others were much more scant. One was literally just a number. Some included doors, estimations for windows, and decorating. No single quote included everything and that was before we even considered open-ended costs like kitchens, bathroom and flooring.

Then there was the sheer horror of VAT – 20% on top of everything. EVERYTHING.

It meant lots of calls clarifying details among our contenders and a detailed spreadsheet. Eventually we settled on a firm that we had come across when they were doing an almost identical job further down our road.

After the house was finished I had door-stepped the owners and had a good nose at the work and grilled them on their builders. Did they stick to budget? Did they finish on time? Were they happy with the work? What were they like to deal with? And, a big one for us, how did they manage relations with neighbours?

The owners were very happy and given the similarities between the projects, they seemed like the best team for the job.

After hearing scare stories about some people waiting a year for a builder, I was relieved that they could start in February. OK, it meant more waiting, but the fact they were in demand provided another level of reassurance.

Two days after moving out, our kitchen is empty and the ceiling has come down

Two days after moving out, our kitchen is empty and the ceiling has come down

Stumping up the money

As much as I wanted to crack on with the work, I was also conscious there was a lot to do and I’m glad we had those three months to get ourselves into gear. Now we had a firmer idea of costs it was time to work out how we’d stump up the money. Although we had some savings we didn’t have nearly enough and we needed to raise some money by remortgaging.The thought filled me with dread. Affordability rules have changed since we last took out a mortgage and I knew our spending would come under the microscope.

But I contacted a broker and the process was relatively painless. He suggested we move off the Santander tracker we’ve been on for years and remortgage onto a five-year fix with Halifax. Our tracker has been brilliant for us during a time of rock-bottom interest rates, but given the outlook is anything but certain, fixing and for a lengthy period seemed a more comfortable option.

During those months there was no end of sorting out to do as well. The aforementioned leylandii needed to be removed and there was our imminent move.

As much as I would have liked to live in the house during the works, every builder we mentioned it to looked at us like we were bonkers, and we begrudgingly decided to move out. (Five weeks into our build I’m writing this from a rental house round the corner; judging by the current state of our house – no kitchen, no bathroom and just one working loo for the builders – it was definitely the right call.)

This meant the house had to be virtually emptied: our local charity shops are stuffed to bursting and we made countless tip runs.

The one big chore that we very nearly missed, however, was sorting out party wall agreements. Christmas was now just around the corner and it was the last thing I wanted to do, but it was a good job I got on to it before it was too late. A party wall agreement (see box above) is essentially a document agreeing certain things with your neighbours before the building work begins, covering aspects like builders’ working hours and a schedule of condition for their property.

But time limits apply and in some cases you do need to give your neighbours as much as two months’ notice before work starts.

Blessed with good neighbours ours was relatively straightforward: the owners of the house we're adjoined to exercised their right to get a surveyor to do the work (a bill we had to pay), but our other neighbours signed a document we prepared informally.

We still cut it close to the bone though – only getting our second agreement through within days of the builders arriving.

The relief was enormous. At last, after 13 months, we were finally ready to get going.

Edward and his big brother William, 10, inspect the gaping hole where half their home  used to be

Edward and his big brother William, 10, inspect the gaping hole where half their home used to be

Things I’ve learnt so far…

  1. My local Facebook renovations page has been a godsend. Aside from nosing at what other people are doing it’s been fantastic for getting help, ideas and recommendations for tradespeople. If there isn’t one in your area, set one up!
  2. Keep an eye out for builders doing similar jobs locally.
  3. If a builder has been recommended by friends, think twice before telling them someone has been singing their praises. Let them fight to win your job with a great quote.
  4. Make a spreadsheet to compare quotes and make sure you know exactly what is and isn’t included. Builders won’t include costs like kitchens, bathrooms and flooring. Decorating will only be included if you specifically ask them to factor it in.
  5. If you have to remortgage, consider borrowing more than you need as a contingency. It will be much harder to go back and borrow more if you need to. Of course, only do this if you can afford repayments and you’ll need to have the discipline to pay any surplus back (and, note to self, not blow the lot on a designer sofa).
  6. Even if you’re not borrowing much, remortgage before work starts. If your home doesn’t have a fully functional kitchen or bathroom when it is valued you may struggle, even if the money you are borrowing is paying for new ones.

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