Engaging a Builder

Your choice of builder could make or break a construction project, so take time to ensure the experience is a positive one.

Builder laying blockwork

No matter which build route you choose, someone has to physically create your new home, and whether you opt for a large contractor, a one-man band, self-managed subcontractors, specialist craftspeople, an eco-builder or even yourself depends upon your design, talents, budget and personal circumstances.

A popular choice is to employ a building contractor or package company to construct the weathertight shell, and then take over the management at first-fix stage – paying carpenters, plumbers and electricians directly.

Recommendations from a trusted family member, a friend or another selfbuilder in the area are always a good start when it comes to finding a competent builder or tradesperson, and if you’re employing an architect for the design then ask them for advice on builders they have worked with – and who to avoid!

You can also contact trade bodies and ask for a list of registered members in your area as, by ensuring that your builder belongs to a respected trade organisation, you’re confirming that they have conformed to membership standards and requirements, as well as checking that their membership is current.

The National Federation of Builders (builders.org.uk) offers a Find a Builder search which allows you to contact members who have been strictly vetted and have undergone a range of reference checks.

Go and see other projects completed by them, as this will give you an idea of the quality of their workmanship and give you a chance to discuss with previous clients how they performed. You should also check out some of their current projects. See if the site looks tidy and organised, and if you live nearby, monitor progress. Are there long periods when there seems to be little on-site activity?

Casual conversations with subbies and builders’ merchants will also give an insight into how builders are rated by their colleagues.

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Choose your builders carefully. The cheapest isn’t always the best option. It is important that you get on and trust each other.

The Tender Process

When going out to tender for quotes, try to provide potential builders with as much information as possible, including detailed drawings and specifications. The more information you can offer, the more accurate the quotes will be, and there will be less variation during construction.

Home building plans and model House with Exposed Roof LayersSometimes your architect will be able to tender to builders on your behalf, or you may prefer to do this yourself. Before asking a builder to quote, make sure that this is offered as a free service and that everything is in writing in case of future dispute.

Ask that the costs are broken down so that you can see exactly where the money will be going and can then amend the specification or scope of work to reduce the price if needed.

It’s sensible to try to obtain at least three quotes but do check that these cover everything you initially requested, and that it is the same spec for everyone. Prices can vary wildly. This is often down to how much the builder wants the job, but it can also be a result of different interpretations of your brief. Make sure your quote is in writing so the contractor can’t charge you more unless you ask for additional work.

An average builder will provide free quotes for around seven jobs for each contract they win. Ultimately, this can lead to busy contractors not bothering to return a quote, or pricing themselves out of the market, so getting figures in the first place can prove surprisingly difficult in some areas.

Be cautious of low prices, as this may mean that the builder lacks skill or experience. There’s no point in having work done cheaply if it results in shoddy workmanship using substandard materials. Any money you ‘saved’ you will wind up spending, along with a lot more, when you employ another builder to put things right.

A quote should include a fixed total price, which is preferable to a daily rate, a breakdown of all the work to be done and the materials needed, separate costs for each part of the work, how long the price is valid for and if it includes VAT.

The Contract

Before accepting a quote, check the contractor has the correct insurance in place. Ask for a written contract to read thoroughly before work begins, and ensure it covers details such as working hours, toilet arrangements and clearing up the site, as well as who will be responsible for things such as paying for skips. Also, confirm whether subcontractors are to be used. If you are employing a main contractor to oversee the project then they should bring in specialist subcontractors to work on key areas.

You should have a written schedule with agreed start and completion dates. If time is of the essence then it may be possible to negotiate penalty clauses with contractors so that, if they don’t complete the work on time, they forfeit some of the fee.

Simple contracts, such as the JCT building contract for a homeowner/occupier (jctltd.co.uk), are only a few pages long and are written in plain English to cover the major details.

Working on Site

Try to be on site as often as possible to answer questions and oversee progress. Left to their own devices some builders will choose the quickest and easiest solution to a problem, so speedy intervention can often prevent unwanted compromises or expensive mistakes.

Despite the most meticulous planning, problems are bound to occur during a build – it’s the nature of the beast. These can be down to bad weather, delayed material deliveries or unforeseen site conditions, but an experienced builder will have seen it all before and should be able to work around these issues. The biggest problems occur following a breakdown of communication, so keep talking and arrange regular site meetings.


It is important that you are on the same wavelength as your builder, and regularly monitor progress, either personally, or through a project manager or architect.


There is no legal obligation for the major building trades to undertake any form of training – anyone may call themselves a builder, bricklayer or carpenter, so it is up to you to check their credentials.

A good building contractor should be able to manage your project for you, coordinating material deliveries, subcontractors, plant hire, building inspectors and all other aspects of the build. A bad one could leave site for another project, accept poor standards of workmanship, ask for money up front and, ultimately, may even go bust.

As soon as something happens that you’re not happy with ask the builder or contractor to put it right and come to an agreement about how this will be done. If they are unable to correct the issue then speak to them about adjusting the bill accordingly – especially if you need to bring in additional trades to complete the work. Make dated notes about what has happened and take photos to use as evidence of the problem.


Make sure the contract includes details such as when payments will be expected and whether you can pay by card, which is preferable to cash as you may be able to recover funds in case of a problem.

If you are undertaking a larger project you can normally include a retention as part of the contract. This specifies a small percentage of the building costs that you retain throughout the stage payments and release at the end of the project or a few months afterwards.

Avoid deposits or upfront payments if possible. Aim to pay for the work in stages so that problems can be put right before making a final payment, and make sure that the agreed work has been completed to your satisfaction before paying. If a builder asks for a deposit to cover the cost of materials then you could suggest purchasing these yourself. Always ask for a receipt for any payments made.

Remember that for new builds and conversions, you do not have to pay VAT on services and materials, and VAT-registered contractors or subcontractors should present zero-rated VAT invoices.

Any extras need to be authorised by you prior to work starting on them and, as with all aspects of the build, should be discussed with the main contractor rather than those subcontracted by him.

Although you should avoid paying your builder up front make clear the stages at which payments will be made and then try to stick rigidly to this agreement. Buying materials yourself will obviously help their cash flow, but make sure you keep receipts for your VAT claim later.


A self build is an intense experience, especially if you are managing the project. This usually requires living on or near the construction site so you can answer questions, meet early deliveries, and check that the build is running smoothly.

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