How you can beat cowboy builders

Published by Donal MacIntyre on 10 February 2011.
Last updated on 14 February 2011

Donal MacIntyre

As a kid I used to love everything about cowboys - from what they wore (boots with spurs and Stetsons) to their steely gaze and coolness in a showdown.

Today, I feel a tinge of sadness that my childhood memories, from the celluloid world of John Wayne, have been tarnished. The meaning of the word 'cowboy' has changed drastically: it now defines the worst of workmen.

How to spot a cowboy

Unfortunately, it's not easy to spot the wolf in sheep's clothing when you're looking for a tradesman to do some work for you.

My family and I have unfortunately fallen foul of this new breed of cowboys - and we're not the only ones. I've been contacted by a number of Moneywise readers about their experiences with cowboy builders.

The Federation of Master Builders says up to £1.5 billion worth of work is carried out by these reckless scoundrels each year. And the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has told me that it receives over 100,000 complaints every year about dodgy tradesmen.

And yet, despite the sheer size of the problem, it's a notoriously difficult area in which to recover damages and get redress. As a consequence, you have to do all the groundwork at the start of any contracting work to give yourself the protection you need - just in case your builder turns out to be a bit shady.

Where's Paul?

The builder we appointed was so unreliable that I nearly put him on the missing persons list. He was affectionately known as "Where's Paul" as a result. There were broken promises, missed appointments and lost opportunities - he didn't answer; he didn't write; he didn't call. I felt like a spurned lover.

He didn't have insurance, wasn't professionally qualified in any respect, didn't do contracts ("my word is my bond"), but nonetheless carried himself with the confidence of a master builder.

I felt helpless - because cowboys like "Where's Paul" don't carry a gun and holster, park the horse outside the house, and knock on the door saying "Hello Pilgrim". There are, however, some very clear steps you can take to avoid the pitfalls and mistakes I made, first time round.

For more read: How to keep rogue traders from your door

Always go for a reputable tradesman. To find these elusive people check out the OFT Approved Code logo, which certifies that the business operates to higher standards than the law requires (

Also, look out for the Trustmark logo. This is a scheme, endorsed by the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills, to help people select honest and reliable tradesmen ( Your local authority will also have a list of registered contractors in your area.

Don't engage with any contractor who wants to do a deal for cash under the table. If you're worried about a builder, you can find out whether he's solvent with a simple credit check. It will only take about 60 seconds and will cost under £6.

Also ask the firm to provide references - and make the effort to follow them up and check out the quality of their work.

Make sure you sign a clear and explicit agreement about what the contractor will and won't do. In addition, never pay for the job in advance. Instead, make sure you and your contractor agree a payment schedule for works completed, and always allow for a final payment at the end of the job.

If it's a job costing between £100 and £30,000, you should try and put it on your credit card. That way, if it all goes awry, you can get your money back under the Consumer Credit Act.

Naturally, you should file all the paperwork and get the contractor to sign for receipt of all payments. If it's a large job, consider hiring your own project manager.

Should the builder, after all your preparation and planning, still turn out to be a rotten apple, then you have recourse to the courts, credit card companies and the accredited trade bodies and associations that they belong to. If you're struggling to get your money back, contact Consumer Direct for help (

We would all be better off if we heard a little less of the phrase 'cowboy builder', and the word 'cowboy' could reclaim its rightful meaning once again.

Have you been a victim of cowboy builders. Tell us about it below...

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