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Before you get building work done

This advice applies to Northern Ireland

These steps should help you save time, money and stress when you’re preparing to get building work, renovations or repairs done on your home. They’ll also help you avoid problems with builders, plumbers or other contractors, eg decorators and electricians.

Step 1: Check if you need permission or approval

You may have to get more than one kind of permission or approval before you go ahead with work on your home.

Always check if you need:

You don’t have to apply for building regulations approval yourself if you hire a contractor who is registered with a ‘competent person scheme’. These are schemes that are approved by the government.

If you don’t use a contractor registered with a competent person scheme you’ll have to submit a building notice or a full plans application to the Building Control Body. You also have to pay a fee for them to come and inspect the work you have carried out.

If you have to get approval or permission

You may need to hire a surveyor or architect to help you apply for building regulations approval or planning permission. If you’d struggle to pay for this, visit your local Citizen's Advice and ask about applying for the Chartered Surveyor's Voluntary Scheme.

If you’re in a conservation area

You must also check with your local council before doing work on your home if it’s in a conservation area.

If you’re a leaseholder

Check your lease if you own the leasehold (not the freehold) on your home. You may have to get permission from the freeholder before work starts. If the lease says you can’t make changes, you can still ask the freeholder for permission. You may have to pay some costs.

If you don’t get the permission or approval you need, you could be fined, prosecuted or made to pay to put things right. You may also have to undo the work, eg remove a new extension.

Step 2: How to find good builders or contractors

Recommendations and references are good ways to find reliable contractors who do a good job.

If you can’t get personal recommendations from people you know, ask contractors for references. It’s best to get:

  • 2 or 3 recent examples of similar work they’ve done
  • contact details for the people they did the work for - it’s best to get in touch because written references aren’t always genuine

Read more on how to find a trustworthy trader.

Avoid contractors who won’t give references - it’s a sign they could be dishonest.

Do the proper checks

It’s dangerous to use someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing, especially for anything involving gas or electrics.

You should use:

You should also check if the contractor is a member of an approved trader scheme.

Check what a contractor says

It’s good idea to check what a contractor or their website tells you - especially if they’ve knocked on your door or telephoned you to offer their services. For instance, you can:

  • ask to see a business card or letterhead, or get full contact details, then ring the business to check it exists and the contractor works for them
  • ask to see proof of qualifications - eg an NVQ in construction for builders or a card from the Construction Skills Certification Scheme (trade associations can tell you about qualifications for particular types of work)
  • search trade association websites to check the contractor is a member if they say they are

Be wary if a contractor just gives a mobile number. They may be hard to contact if problems come up. Make sure you do all the checks above in case they’re unreliable or dishonest.

Interview contractors in person before you hire them

Before you meet them, it’s a good idea to write down:

  • a clear and detailed description of exactly what you want done
  • a list of questions to help you get all the information you need to compare and choose between contractors - Trustmark has questions you can use as a checklist

Make sure you can communicate with them easily - this will help you sort out any problems that come up later.

When you meet them, write down what they say they’ll do - if you do hire them it’ll be helpful to have a record of the job details from this conversation, as well as the written contract you’ll get before they start the work.

If you’re not comfortable with a particular contractor don’t hire them. You can always find someone else to do the work.

Step 3: Get quotes before you decide who to use

A quote is a promise from the contractor to do the work at a fixed price. Don’t rely on a verbal quote - get it in writing.

Some contractors charge for quotes - ask about this first.

Try to get written quotes from at least 3 different contractors before you decide on one. Comparing quotes will help you decide if you’re getting a fair price.

After you say yes to a quote, it’s a binding agreement between you and the contractor, whether it’s written down or not. But having it in writing means you can check what you agreed and prove it if there’s a dispute later.

Make sure you get a quote, not an estimate. A quote is a fixed price, so you'll know what you’re getting and how much it will cost. An estimate is just a rough guess, so you could end up paying more.

The contractor can’t charge you more than the price on their quote unless:

  • you ask for extra work that’s not included in the quote
  • they let you know they have to do extra work and you agree to pay more for it
  • they made a genuine mistake when writing down or calculating the price - they have the legal right to charge you what it should have been

Be wary if a contractor won’t put a quote in writing. It’s a sign they could be unreliable.

Also be cautious if their price is a lot lower than other quotes you get. It could mean they don’t have the right skills or experience, or they’re not being honest. It could also mean they’re not quoting for exactly the same work.

What a quote should include

Be very clear about the work you want done - this will help you get the most accurate price and prevent misunderstandings later.

A quote should include:

  • a fixed total price - not a daily rate
  • a breakdown of all the work to be done and the materials needed
  • separate costs for each material and part of the work
  • how long the price is valid for
  • if the price includes VAT
  • when the price can go up, eg only if you agree to extra work

If you get a daily rate instead of a fixed total price there’s a risk the contractor could string out the work to get more money. Avoid this by getting them to put in writing:

  • how many days the work will take
  • how many hours of work counts as a day
  • when they need your go-ahead to work more days

Before saying yes to a quote, you should check the contractor has the correct insurance in place and try to get a written contract.

See a sample quote

You can download a PDF of a sample quote .

Step 4: Check there’s insurance in place

Contractors’ insurance - what to check

Ask to see insurance policies and check they don’t run out before the work will be finished. If it’s insurance they must have, they have to let you see the policy.

Insurance it's good to have

Public liability insurance - it's worth asking contractors if they have insurance to cover you and them if someone’s hurt or property is damaged (eg your home or your neighbour’s). If they don't have any, you might want to think about getting your own cover.

Employers’ liability insurance - contractors who work through a company are breaking the law if they don’t have this. It doesn’t matter if it’s their own company or not. It covers you and the company if they’re hurt on the job.

If a contractor doesn’t have the right insurance, and things go wrong or someone’s hurt, you could be forced to pay to fix things, or go to court and pay damages and legal fees.

Other insurance to check for

Other types of insurance may be available, but it’s worth remembering the contractor has to carry out the work with reasonable care and skill. If they don’t, you can ask them to redo the work or refund some of the cost.

Contractors’ all-risk cover - this covers the cost of replacing work that’s destroyed before it’s completed, and before your insurance covers it.

Insurance-backed warranties or guarantees - you can buy one of these as part of the cost of the work, if the contractor offers it. Check exactly what’s covered before you decide to buy one - it should cover the cost of finishing or fixing the work if the contractor does a bad job or goes out of business.

Your insurance - what to check

If you have home or contents insurance, contact your insurer to check you'll be covered during the work. You may have to pay more for your insurance during and after the work.

Your insurer will probably want to know what contractor you’re using and what insurance they have. They might suggest that you take out joint insurance with the contractor.

If you don’t have home and contents insurance, it’s worth looking into getting some before the work starts. You might feel more secure knowing you have insurance in place in case of any damage or if anything goes missing.

Step 5: Get a written contract

As soon as you give a contractor the go-ahead, you’ve made a contract with them, even if it’s not written down.

Always try to get a contract in writing before you give the go-ahead. If the contractor doesn’t do what you agreed, a written contract can help you get what you paid for, or at least get some of your money back.

If the contractor gives you a contract, check if it covers everything you agreed. If they don’t you can write your own.

Be wary of contractors who won’t put anything in writing - it’s a sign they could be dishonest.

Help writing your own contract

Written contracts don’t need to be in legal language - they just need to outline:

  • exactly what you’re paying for (they can refer back to the quote for this)
  • everything you’ve agreed on, eg timings, tidying up, materials and payments

It can help to look at example contracts, or create a contract using a template - eg for:

Timings

Make sure the contract covers:

  • start and finish dates
  • if you’ve agreed on a daily rate, the number of days the work will take and how many working hours are in a day
  • delays - why they might happen, and what the contractor will do about them

Tidying up

Make sure the contract covers:

  • how and when the contractors will remove rubbish and clear up after themselves
  • who pays for delivery and collection of any skips

Materials, equipment and subcontractors

Make sure the contract covers:

  • who pays to buy or hire materials and equipment for things the contractor buys, how they’ll give you receipts and paperwork
  • if and when they’ll use subcontractors

Payments

Make sure the contract covers how and when you’ll pay. Aim to:

  • pay by card not cash
  • pay in stages
  • avoid deposits or upfront payments
  • get some protection for your money

Avoid contractors who only accept cash or want you to pay everything upfront - it’s a sign they could be dishonest or unreliable.

Paying by card not cash

If you pay by credit or debit card, you may be able to get your money back through your bank if something goes wrong, eg the contractor doesn’t turn up but refuses to pay back your deposit.

If this happens, you can contact your bank and say you want to use the ‘chargeback’ scheme. Many bank staff don’t know about the scheme, so you may need to talk to a manager.

If you pay more than £100 by credit card, it may be easier to tell your bank you want to ‘make a section 75 claim’. It’s another way to get your money back.

Paying in stages

This is a good idea, particularly if it’s a big job, because it means problems can be put right before you make the final payment. Be clear about the point in the work when payments are due.

Avoiding deposits

Don’t agree to pay everything up front, in case something goes wrong or the contractor doesn’t turn up.

If they ask for a deposit to pay for materials, offer to buy them yourself instead of paying a deposit - that way, at least you own the materials if something goes wrong.

If the work will take a long time, you may not be able to avoid a deposit. Aim to push it down as much as possible, and don’t agree to more than 25%.

Always get a receipt for a deposit, as well as receipts for any materials it covers.

Getting protection

You can protect your deposit or staged payments until the work’s complete, eg with a:

  • deposit protection scheme - your money will be stored in a secure account until you and the builder are happy with the work
  • insurance-backed warranty or guarantee - you can buy one of these from some contractors to cover the cost of finishing or fixing work if they do a bad job or go out of business

You may be able to cancel the contract if you change your mind within 14 days of giving the go-ahead or signing a written contract. If you agreed the work could start within those 14 days you may have to pay for some or all of it.

Step 6: Be prepared to deal with problems

Get the contractor’s full contact details before work starts. If you know how to get in touch, it’s easier to deal with any problems that come up.

As soon as something happens that you’re not happy with:

  • ask the builder or contractor to put it right
  • come to an agreement about how they’ll fix it, and ask them to put it in writing

Next steps

If a contractor does a bad job or doesn’t do what you agreed, you should be entitled to get it fixed or get some money back. Find out what you can do about problems with building work, decorating and home repairs.

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