Top tips for a stress-free building project

Helen Dewdney
12 February 2019

From finding a builder to writing a contract and knowing what to do if things go wrong, we lay the foundations for a hassle-free renovation

Carrying out home improvements can be one of the priciest things you will do, after buying your home. It can be wonderful when everything goes well, but can cost a lot of money, time and stress if it doesn’t.

Here are our top checklists to make sure building work goes to plan – and to explain your rights when it doesn’t.

10 tips to finding a good builder

  1. Get at least three firm written quotes, not just rough estimates. Ignore any that are very different to the other quotes.

  2. Ask friends and family for recommendations. Charity Age UK may be able to provide a list of recommended builders in your area.

  3. If your local council has signed up for it, you can search by postcode for a trader through the Trading Standards Buy With Confidence scheme ( Contractors are vetted and are criminal-record checked if they go into people’s homes.

  4. You can also use the government-endorsed TrustMark scheme to find a trader in your area ( The scheme inspects contractors on site to check the quality of their work.

  5. Another option is the Trading Standards Institute Consumer Codes Approval Scheme ( Traders will have agreed to provide good standards of service, including clear information before a contract is signed and a clear complaints procedure.

  6. You can search for a trader who belongs to a building trade association – try the Federation of Master Builders’ find-a-builder tool ( Alternatively, consumer group the HomeOwners Alliance offers a search tool to find local tradespeople (

  7. Which? operates its Trusted Traders scheme ( Members have to sign up to the Which? comprehensive code of conduct and to using a dispute resolution scheme.

  8. Be wary of any builder who can start straight away. The Federation of Master Builders (FMB) says: “Builders’ workloads have been rising steadily over the past two years, particularly with home renovations. As more than 40% of builders need at least four months’ notice from consumers, it’s important to note that if a builder is free to start work tomorrow, alarm bells should ring.”

  9. Check to see if the builder has public liability or employer’s insurance. Consider a building warranty that either they or you can take out to help give you further peace of mind.

  10. If the tradesperson hasn’t been personally recommended to you, ask them for contact details of their former customers who are willing to show you their completed building projects and vouch for their work. Don’t just rely on online reviews – particularly the ones on the builder’s own website.
Get at least three firm quotes in writing – not just rough estimates

Signing a contract

All professional builders should willingly agree to a contract that includes an agreed staged payment plan. In addition, continuous communication throughout the project is the best way to avoid problems arising.

Brian Berry, chief executive of the FMB, advises always using a written contract and agreeing payment terms.

“Payment terms vary from project to project and it’s ultimately down to what the builder and their client agree between themselves,” he says.

However, the FMB generally recommends that the maximum deposit paid to a builder should be 10% of the contract price.

Although it may be time-consuming to prepare a contract, it is invaluable to be able to refer to it while the job is being carried out. It also forms part of your evidence should problems arise – along with photographs you should take as the job progresses.

For peace of mind, you can buy contracts that are pre-prepared with what you need to cover. The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) has produced its RIBA Domestic Building Contract, designed for homeowners and builders. You can fill it out online for £35 or buy a paper version for £25 (excluding VAT). For more details, visit

“Payment terms vary, so it’s up to the builder and client to agree terms”

Your rights when things go wrong

Under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 you are entitled to goods of satisfactory quality that last a reasonable length of time, and services carried out with reasonable skill and care.

If something goes wrong, you should be able to get it fixed, or some of your money returned.

You should first try to work out the issue with the trader who arranged the work, even if some or all of it was subcontracted.

Keep evidence of what went wrong, including paperwork, emails, photos and notes, including dates and times.

If you’re not happy with the job done, you are entitled to ask them to fix it. They should remedy the problem in a reasonable amount of time. If they can’t or won’t finish the job as agreed, you can ask for a refund in line with how bad the problem is.

If you agree to a refund, it will only be on the part of the work that is not up to scratch. You wouldn’t get a full refund on a Rolls-Royce because the iPod dock didn’t work: similarly, you won’t get a full refund when only part of the kitchen is messed up.

Your rights are the same even if you don’t have a written contract. When you told the builder to go ahead, you technically formed a contract at that moment. However, it is much easier to solve disputes if you do have a written contract in place.

If you can’t come to a resolution with the trader and they are a member of a trade association or of one of the schemes mentioned above, contact the association or scheme to see if there is an alternative dispute resolution scheme that could resolve the problem without having to take legal action.

Citizens Advice may also be able to help, or you can phone Trading Standards to make a complaint (03454 04 05 06). It may investigate, educate the trader about the law or take legal action to stop them trading.

Finally, going to the small claims court is an option. However, it can take considerable time, money and stress so it is worth trying all other avenues first to find an amicable resolution.

A contract should include the following:

  • Total price inclusive/exclusive of VAT
  • Timescales
  • Start and end dates, to include delays and disruptions
  • Payment stages
  • Specifications of materials and who is buying them
  • Insurance and responsibilities for loss/damage
  • Liabilities
  • How unexpected work will be dealt with
  • Health and safety
  • Termination/cancellation rights
  • Subcontracting
  • Dispute resolution

HELEN DEWDNEY is a freelance journalist writing for the Financial Times and Which?, and is the author of How to Complain.

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