Working with contractors


Selecting  Contractors

Finding the right contractor can mean the difference between feeling in control of your project and feeling utterly at its mercy. So, look around. Ask family, friends and neighbours. Look up and down your street. Can you see any other houses in your road who have had similar work done?

Speak to at least three contractors. Get quotes from all of them. Make sure those quotes include as many criteria as you can think of, from preferred timescale for the project (if you have one) to what door handles, light fittings, bath suites, kitchen units, woodwork and ornamentation you want. The more you can pack into the estimate, the less likely you are to encounter hidden extra costs as you go along.

Don’t necessarily go for the cheapest quote. Choose who will work best with you, and whose work, when you checked it out, you preferred.

What You Should Ask Contractors

First, find out which trade association or professional body your contractor is a member of. (See Registered Workers below).

Make sure you choose an established contractor with premises you can visit.

Ask them how long they’ve been in business, who else they’ve worked for in the area and what kind of work they have done.

Make sure you have the correct registered address of the business so you can put things in writing. Phone numbers and email addresses are all very well but can easily be changed by a less scrupulous organisation.

Always check out any references. Ask if the work was done on time, whether they were happy with the work, whether the final cost was in line with the original estimate.

Timescales for Contractors

The project should have a start date and an expected completion date. For your own purpose only, build in a contingency of an extra 30% of time for overruns (just don’t tell the contractor you’ve accounted for this). Contractors are used to things going awry – sometimes the weather plays a part, sometimes, remedial work needs done. There is little that can be done about either of these factors. However, whenever some extra work is uncovered or the weather has caused a delay feel free to ask whether either has caused a delay to that phase of the project or to the overall completion date.

When the contractor gives you a timescale for the job, ask them to break this down into phases. Ask them what contingencies they have factored into this time frame. Ask what happens to your project -particularly your labour – if the project overruns. Try and get your contractor to commit not to pull men from your job onto others. There is nothing more frustrating than finding your extension is running six weeks behind schedule and the plasterer you need on site to get all other areas finalised has been put elsewhere to quieten down another disgruntled client.

Building a Working Relationship with Contractors

All too often the working relationship between client (i.e. you) and the contractor deteriorates because of a lack of communication. For the contractor, dust dirt, noise and disruption are daily occurrences. For you, this is your home. If some areas are sacrosanct then make that clear from the start. You can always ask what arrangements the builder will make for your safety and convenience while the project is underway.

If the mere thought of your project makes your blood boil then go away, make a cup of tea and take time to assess the situation. Think about which aspects of the project are working well and which are not. Think about why that is and then explain that to the build team. You are more likely to get more cooperation as a result.

There are two golden rules that every homeowner should remember when managing a big build project:

1) Let the professionals get on with their job.

By all means, make sure each element of the project is going according to plan but don’t hover over people’s shoulders while they are trying to work. The work will probably go slower, not faster as a result of such a “hands-on” approach.

2) Make your mind up and stick to it.

For a contractor, nothing is worse than a client that cannot visualise the project and therefore keeps changing their mind. If you do that, the project will be delayed, it will cost significantly more money and your relationship with your contractors will suffer as a result. Unless you have a horrible sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, trust your original thoughts and trust the contractors to see them through to fruition.

Contracts, Agreements and Payment

First things first, agree payment terms before you start. If it is a particularly big project your contractor may ask for an upfront payment. Be wary of doing this. More appropriate for both parties would be to split the payment into three or four lots, payable after each phase of the works. That means you can ensure the work is done to your satisfaction at each stage and your contractor can maintain a healthy cash flow.

Some contractors might let you pay by credit card. If they do, take that option, it gives you scope to get your money back if anything goes awry.

Once you’ve agreed to a start date and price, ensure you get a written contract. And whatever you do, read it!

The contract should explain what is included in the quotation, when the work will start, how long it is expected to take, what payments will be expected and when and how will you agree any increase in cost (i.e.oral or written and before any additional expenditure has been incurred).

If your contractor is unwilling to come up with a written contract, why not write it yourself? It’s not as daunting as it sounds and help is at hand. Sample contracts are available from or the plain English contract at Both options can provide a great start point and are easy to amend to suit your particular project.

The final payment should not be made until all works are completed and you have the required completion certificate from your local authority building control surveyor (see our Building permissions and controls article)

Registered Workers

Ideally, pick a contractor who is a member of one or more of the recognised trade bodies relevant to their work. That way you can find out easily what approved standards have been achieved and what minimum experience your chosen firm has. Choosing an affiliated contractor is also useful should any disagreement arise between both parties. In such instances – and should you complain to them – the federations can often act as arbitrators, helping to resolve the situation.

More specifically with Contractors:

For anything to do with gas you should make sure your engineer is Corgi registered.

For anything electrical, ensure the electrician is an NICEIC approved contractor. (National Inspection Council for Electrical Installation Contracting – an independent consumer safety body).

Often, a big project involves a variety of skills: carpentry, plastering, electrics and gas. Many building firms have their own professional gas and electrical engineers they use. Most will only use approved professionals but, if you are in any doubt, always check.

Finally, the government has introduced the Quality Mark scheme to try and make things simple. In other words, no matter which professional body your contractor is a member of, if they come up to scratch, they can apply to be a member of the government’s over-arching Quality Marks cheme. Contact the Department of Trade and Industry on 0845 300 8040 or via their web site to find your local member.

Photo Credit

Madeline Thomas

Madeline Thomas

A journalist for over a decade, Madeline has written internal publications for one of the big four banks and edited a pan-European series of websites for retail investors. She has contributed to the Money Observer and Telegraph's best of brokers section. She also appeared as a weekly pundit on CNBC Europe. Following three years writing for Reuters' UK website she left in 2006 to freelance. Since then, Madeline has written for the Mirror, Observer and Independent on Sunday as well as specialist trade papers, US magazines and various websites. Madeline specialises in writing about money, consumer issues and savvy women's copy with an original twist.

More Posts