While our consumer solicitors tend to only be instructed after a building dispute has already arisen, there are various things that you can do before instructing the builder to minimise the chance of a dispute, or to strengthen your case should it arise later on.
1. Research the builder: This should include not only asking for feedback and references from previous customers, but more importantly research their financial stability. If the builder is a limited company, you can obtain copies of their accounts from Companies House to check whether the business is financially stable in the event that you have to bring a claim against them. Remember, if it is a limited company, it’s the company that your claim is against, not the directors personally. If it is not a limited company, then your claim is brought against the owners of the business personally and therefore you need to know whether they have any assets themselves, that you could enforce a judgment against.
2. Check for trade association membership: If the builder is a member of a trade association or professional body, ask for details of this and make enquiries with the association about what assurances they can offer you about the builder’s work, should any dispute arise.
3. Check for liability insurance: As a minimum, the builder should have public liability insurance, which means that if anyone is hurt or injured on site while the work is being carried out, or if the works cause damage to the rest of your property, they/you should be able to bring a claim on the insurance. Request a copy of the policy from the builder if he says that he has this. Ideally, your builder should also have insurance to cover any claims for defective works. This is rare, but if they have it, it would mean that even if the builder could not afford to pay you personally if you bring a claim, the insurance company would then pay.
4. Get a written quote, not an estimate: An estimate from a builder can be a dangerous thing, as it allows them the flexibility to increase their costs during the project should supposedly ‘unforeseen’ works arise. You should instead insist on a written quote which specifically details exactly what work they are agreeing to carry out and for what price, and what materials are included in that price. If anything changes during the project and more work is required that was unforeseen at the start, ask for a revised written quote before the work is carried out.
5. Make sure the contract is in writing: Not only does this help the parties during the project know exactly what is expected of them, but it will also significantly strengthen your case if a dispute does arise. The terms of a verbal contract are far harder to prove than a written one. For large projects, the Joint Contracts Tribunal (JCT) has standard contracts that you can use as a precedent. More details on this can be found on their website www.jctltd.co.uk.
6. Make ‘time of the essence’: With many projects, you will expect it to be completed within a certain period of time. Often disputes can arise when a project ends up taking months longer than expected. It is therefore important that in your contract, the agreed time is specified and made ‘of the essence’ so that it is binding on them, save for any complications outside of their control such as adverse weather.
7. Agree a retention figure back of 10% if possible, to ensure you are completely happy with the works before final payment: The way that you are going to pay for the project should also be agreed and made part of the contract before you sign it. That way, both you and the builder know what to expect. It is usually not advisable to pay for all of the works before they are carried out. It is reasonable to agree to pay for any materials up front and on longer projects to pay for the builders time in staged payments, once particular sections have been completed. Remember it is an incentive for the builder to finish a project properly and on time if they are not being paid until it has been completed to your satisfaction.
8. Consider planning and building regulations: Some smaller projects may not need either planning or building regulations, but many do. It is important that you check with your builder whether this is required before you have the works carried out. This is something that your architect or builder should be able to tell you, but you should still check yourself as it can avoid you having issues with your local authority afterwards.
9. Ask for evidence of any qualifications or certifications: In particular, if the works being done require a specific certification, such as gas or electrics, it is important not to just take it at face value and make sure that the tradesman is properly qualified. If they are, they should have no issue with providing their relevant certificates which should be up to date.
10. Take photographs/videos before and throughout: If a dispute does arise later on, the more evidence you have to support your claim, the stronger your prospects of success will be. You should take photos or video footage (if appropriate) of the work area before the project starts and then regular photos at each stage so that you can document everything. Make sure that the photos are dated, in the event that they have to be referred to later on.