Employing Builders: How to Get the Best from Your Builder
Employing builders is generally regarded with trepidation by those who have never done it before, but also, more ominously, by many who have. Horror stories are common, from old ladies being conned out of their savings to unscrupulous roofers abandoning the job halfway through. But it doesn’t have to be like that. With a bit of planning — and help from this site — employing builders can be like entering into any other professional relationship. Funds are exchanged for goods and services and there is a clear linear progression until the transaction is completed to the satisfaction of both parties.
For someit may not be necessary to get the builders in at all. More than 60 per cent of households do some kind of DIY each year, according to a poll carried out for Black & Decker, so it may be feasible for you to tackle the job yourself. However, certain tasks will definitely require expert assistance from builders: an amorphous term that conjures up images of men in hard hats handling bricks and mortar, but in this site is taken to include decorators, plumbers, plasterers, carpenters, electricians, and affiliated trades that you might employ to perform work on your house.
Anything which involves getting, or interacting with other professions such as architects, structural engineers or district surveyors, is generally best left to experienced builders. Work on fittings or appliances carries a legal obligation to employ a registered CORGI (Council for Registered Gas Installers)* member. Water, , bricks and mortar, major carpentry and plastering can become messy if not handled properly by experts. Unless you are a time-served DIYer, with a series of successfully completed projects behind you, it is best to leave jobs such as extensions, interfering with structural walls, putting in kitchens or bathrooms, and cellar and to the professionals or a specialist firm.
Before the builder arrives: a seven-point survival plan
Whether you are a DIYer or one of the 40 per cent of people who at the end of the day would rather put their feet up than put up a shelf, this site is intended as a survival guide for the entire building process, from planning the job and finding a firm, to what to do if things go wrong. Building work is inherently unpredictable, and even if it goes well it will be stressful. There are usually too many variables for work to proceed exactly as planned, and so it rarely does. Stick to the seven-point plan below, and you can survive the whole experience.
1. Planning the job
Make a detailed plan of action in conjunction with the builder, breaking down the job into itemised phases with an agreed timescale and a total price, including materials, for each phase. Reputable contractors should produce a programme of events, and Quality Mark-registered builders are obliged to come up with an overall time or completion date. Depending on the nature of the job, you could ask when critical stages, such as breaking through into an existing house from an extension, will be carried out.
Living without essential facilities
If relevant, ask: ‘How long, exactly, will I be without a bathroom or kitchen?’ This is one of the most important things to ascertain at an early stage, because the inconvenience of being without these facilities is not to be taken lightly. Children might be better off staying with friends or relatives unless there is to be a guaranteed seamless transition from the old to the new facilities within a single day. In most cases this is definitely possible, though it is promised more often than it is achieved.
2. Ordering materials and appliances
Builders generally prefer to order their own materials, such as wood, sand and cement, and then charge the client at the end of the job. This can be beneficial, as they can usually buy materials at trade prices, though there is nothing to prevent them making a profit on the transaction. If you buy the materials yourself, make sure you have ordered everything on the builder’s shopping list, or the job could be held up.
Appliances such as fridges, washing machines and cookers can have long delivery times; six to eight weeks is not uncommon, even from apparently well-stocked showrooms. The same applies to bathroom furniture, carpets and tiles, so make sure that absolutely everything you need for the job will be available when you need it, and not several weeks later. A finished bathroom just waiting for some taps to arrive from Italy is not a finished bathroom, but a major and costly inconvenience.
3. Have a very clear idea of what you want
These days there is so much choice in fixtures, fittings and finishes that almost any effect is achievable from a catalogue. It is a good idea to cut out pictures of what you want from magazines and brochures, so that you have tangible images of how the final result will look. Give your builder drawings and brief him with as much detail as possible about the effect you are after.
For any sizeable project, or for one that does not involve a designer and which you are unsure about, run through the options with your builder. It is important to do your homework properly. If you make any impractical or costly decisions, you may subsequently have to change some of your ideas to ones which are easier to implement. Even if compromise becomes inevitable, having a firm idea of the end point in your mind can stop the project from sliding into something unrecognisable from your original plan.
Avoid problems with custom-made fittings
If you are having things specially made or using non-standard fittings, extra care may be necessary. You should allow adequate time for the manufacture and arrival of specially crafted components, especially if they are being sent from overseas. It’s also important to consider the whole picture. For example, non-standard kitchen units may not interact well with anything else in the kitchen, such as other units, worktops, dishwashers or some-one. Measure everything carefully and consider the appearance of new units to ensure that they will harmonise with other fittings.
4. Expect the unexpected
No building job ever goes entirely according to plan. Worst-case scenarios are discovering after work has started that the entire house needs underpinning, or has, or that the remains of a Roman Temple are lurking where you were going to put your patio.
The risk of mishaps is greatly reduced, however, if you have prepared adequately in advance and have a contingency plan for all eventualities. For example, do you need to obtain a parking permit for the builder’s van? Will you need to? Have you told the neighbours about the work? Have you agreed who will obtain approval?
Many difficulties can be foreseen. If you are doing work on a run-down old property, it is advisable to have damp,and rot surveys carried out to prevent unpleasant surprises later on. Perhaps you need to find out about soil conditions or where the drains run — in this case, your architect or surveyor (or the local Buildings Inspector) can help. In the case of a , find out what developments the conservation officer will allow.
You could consider keeping a contingency sum of roughly 20 per cent of the value of the work aside to meet unexpected costs, though if you have done your homework you should find the job will be fairly straightforward and stay within expected parameters. It is a good idea to ask your builder for a fixed quote, rather than an estimate, to reduce uncertainty about the final cost of the work.
5. Keep it clean
A well-run site is as clean as possible at all times, and good builders tidy up as they go along, devoting at least half an hour at the end of each day to clearing up. Even so, many people are shocked at how much dirt can be generated, even by small jobs. Sanding, for instance, creates enormous amounts of dust, as does the removal of old plaster or the application of new A simple task such as removing a fitted wardrobe may well involve all three of these processes.
By adopting the following tactics you can protect your home and surroundings from the worst of the mess.
- Buy plastic sheeting and tape to seal off unaffected areas, and treat the other side of it like a contaminated zone, vigilantly refusing to allow debris to pass through, or you will soon become enveloped by inexorably seeping dust. You can also put tape around doors, and block up the gap at the bottom with rolled-up newspaper or rags.
- Let your neighbours know about the work, because they will almost certainly be inconvenienced by noise or dirt. Check that piles of sand won’t be trodden into anyone’s lawn, for example.
6. Get everything out
Move out of the affected area anything that you don’t want damaged, leaving only things which are destined for the skip, or are suitable for use in a war zone. If there is to be major work such as knocking down internal walls or stripping out a kitchen or bathroom, most people clear out everything down to the carpet or lino, but it can be worthwhile going further. Carpets may need to come up and go to the tip, and if there is floor sanding to be done, then the carpet grip around the edge of the room needs to be levered up with a crowbar. Doing the light stripping-out work yourself will save your builder charging half a day of his skilled time, and it will help you to adjust to the new conditions.
If you do decide to do any preliminary demolition yourself, make sure that you make a good job of it. Don’t leave lots of mess lying around for the builders to clear up — no-one likes finishing someone else’s job. And be sure to tell your contractor that you are going to do it yourself, or he’ll build it into his costs anyway.
7. Prepare psychologically
Even the most carefully planned and executed building program can still give you a feeling of unease about it: the sense that almost anything can happen and that ultimately a measure of luck is required for it to go well. It is also noisy, dirty and costly, punctuated by enormous frustrations and disappointments — and it all takes place inside your house, which makes it very stressful. One of your main frames of reference, your home, will be torn apart and — you hope — reconfigured in front of you. There will be wheelbarrows in your living room and your hall will become a rat-run to the skip. But probably the worst aspect, psychologically, is the sense of an occupying force taking over for what can seem like an indefinite amount of time. Once the process is under way it is irreversible, so you feel totally dependent on the invaders to put it right again. It is generally safe to say that people who employ builders have a greater emotional attachment to the place where the work is to be carried out than do the builder and his employees, who look at a house in the same way that a pathologist looks at a body — able to envisage it reduced to its component pieces and laid out in front of them.
It is this difference in perspective which makes employing builders so potentially harrowing for the under-prepared; a mini life event, and not something to be undertaken lightly. If you are frantically busy at work, in poor health or otherwise vulnerable (for example, through bereavement, stress or pregnancy), think carefully about whether you need the rodeo bull of a building programme in your psychological china shop.
That frontier feeling can also be exhilarating at times, but even a decent builder will have a radically different take on the situation from you. ‘Is the door wide enough to get the cement mixer in? Will I have to take the windows out? What’s the wheelbarrow access like to the outside? Is there enough room to swing a shovel inside, or will we have to mix up cement and plaster outside? Where’s the nearest cafe?’ These are the questions the builder asks himself while he is sizing up the job. If you could fast-forward to a builder’s-eye perspective of your living room, you would be enormously shocked. Builders are used to this maelstrom: you are probably not; so be warned, and prepare well using the tips in this guide.