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How to ensure a stress-free building project

First published in Moneywise

Undertaking large works in your house – a warning

Buying a kitchen can be one of the largest expenditures of your life! With such a commitment it’s important to get it right. If your chosen builder turns out to be a cowboy, it can cost you more than you allocated for the job.

Tracey Davies, a freelance travel journalist from Brighton, and her husband, employed BrightSpace, a local building and design project management company, to fix a rotten floor and install a new kitchen and bi-fold doors. They obtained a number of quotes and warned BrightSpace that they had no contingency funds, so had to keep a tight rein on the budget.

However, they say the company overspent by over 50%. Instead of the new bi-fold doors they paid for, the builder obtained a used set from another property (which had been installed wrongly) and had them put in whilst Tracey and her husband were away over Christmas. When they returned, the doors looked appalling. Tracey says “They wouldn’t lock, daylight was coming through all the gaps and they were scratched. We were unhappy about them all.” The bi-folds were so badly installed they were  condemned by a professional glazing company with the doors which eventually had to be removed and replaced (costing £1500).

When they couldn’t pay the extra £7,000 of costs beyond the initial quote, Tracey says “He threw all manner of abuse at me, downed tools halfway through the job (while my husband was seriously ill in hospital) and left the house a building site.” She continues “We spent two years taking him to court, he counterclaimed and we won by default twice (he didn’t attend). We sent in bailiffs when he didn’t pay. It has cost us so much money and the kitchen is still unfinished four years later. Currently, it has damp patches, the worktop has blown and the sink needs resealing, so the splash backs have not been fixed in.” The couple have both suffered depression due to the stress caused by the problems and Tracey doesn’t feel she has any fight left in her to pursue the matter.

The Davies’ contract for the work was with BrightSpace and the work was carried out by their subcontractors. Sam Taylor, BrightSpace owner, says that it’s not liable for the subcontractor’s defective works. He argues that the Davies’  “… opportunistically refused to pay for either installation services to contractors, or [his] project management fee when some works on site were substandard but prior to the snagging stage completion. They refused contractor entry to the property to make good. They refused to settle bills due to other contractors despite there being no fault. Quite simply, an earlier unforeseen … and extensive structural issue with the floor zone to this Victorian build property consumed some extra thousands of pounds that subsequently pushed them over ‘budget’ ”.

“I firmly believe that Mr & Mrs Davies saw an opportunity to save money by not paying, when actually patience, honesty and reasoned attitude were required.”, said Taylor in conclusion.

Your consumer rights when employing a tradesperson

Under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 you are entitled to goods of satisfactory quality, that last a reasonable length of time and services (such as fitting) carried out with reasonable skill and care.

The Defective Premises Act 1972 relates to work undertaken by builders, developers, surveyors and architects. “Defective” in legal terms means work causing the property to be unfit for habitation as a result of design, workmanship or materials. Improvement, small jobs and refurbishments are not covered by this Act but use the Consumer Rights Act 2015 instead.

What if you buy the kitchen and installation from the same company? The same principle applying to kitchen fitting also applies to other goods. You wouldn’t get a full refund on a Rolls Royce because the iPod dock didn’t work! So, it is possible that you won’t get a full refund when only part of the kitchen is messed up.

What you should be aware of when thinking about legal action

Should you be thinking about legal action against a company who provided and fitted anything at your property, be aware that a precedent was set in 1995. The case of Ruxley Electronics and Construction Ltd v Forsyth. Ruxley built a swimming pool in Forsyth’s garden. The contract involved a diving area of 7 feet 6 inches in depth. Once finished it was only 6 feet 9 inches deep but it was safe and the pool value was not affected. Forsyth wanted the pool demolished and rebuilt, at an estimated additional cost of £21,540.

The judge rejected the “cost of cure” damages, ruling that it was unreasonable but awarded “loss of amenity damages” of £2,500. The court of appeal then ruled that

Forsyth should be put back into the position he was in before the pool was built.

Ruxley then appealed to the House of Lords. Lord Mustill’s ruling on the matter concluded that one must look to ‘the loss truly suffered by the promisee’ and reverted back to the award of £2,500.

This means therefore that if you have a poorly-made kitchen you are unlikely to get a full refund if it is still usable! The law, is, sometimes, an ass!

Contracts with builders

All professional builders should willingly agree to a contract which includes an agreed staged payment plan. In addition to the contract, continuous communication throughout the project is the best way to avoid problems arising.

The Federation of Master Builders (FMB) will provide advice and support for free regarding choosing and working with the best builder for you. Brian Berry, the Chief Executive, advises always using a written contract and agreeing payment terms. “Payment terms vary from project to project and it’s ultimately down to what the builder and their client agree between themselves.” However, the FMB generally recommends that the maximum deposit paid to a builder should be 10% of the contract price.

Although it may be time consuming to prepare a contract, remember this is a huge outlay for you. The contract can be referred to whilst the job is being carried out and forms part of your evidence should problems arise and you need to take the matter further. A contract should include the following:

  • Total price inclusive/exclusive of VAT
  • Timescales
  • Start and end dates to include delays and disruptions
  • Payment stages
  • Specifications of materials
  • Insurance and responsibilities for loss/damage
  • Liabilities
  • How unexpected work will be dealt with
  • Health and Safety
  • Termination/cancellation rights
  • Sub contracting
  • Dispute resolution

How to protect yourself when looking for and employing a builder

1) Get at least 3 firm quotes, not just rough estimates. Ignore any that is very different to other quotes.

2) Ask friends and family for recommendations of companies who have already done work for them. Age Concern may be able to provide a list of recommended builders in your area.

3) A growing number of Local Authority Trading Standards Services have partnered together to develop the “Buy With Confidence” scheme. You can check to see if your local authority is listed on the Buy with Confidence website, which allows searching for builders by postcode area Approval is given to traders who have provided a lot of information. This includes a basic criminal background check in some instances, their complaints history and references. Traders must abide by the scheme’s Code of Conduct which is monitored by the Citizen’s Advice Bureau. Customers give feedback directly to Trading Standards who will take action including expelling a trader from the scheme if necessary.

4) If you don’t know anyone who can make a recommendation, ask traders for details of customers willing to show you their work.

5) In addition to providing lots of advice and information on services, Which? operates the Trusted Traders scheme. Members have to sign up to the Which? comprehensive code of conduct and to using a dispute resolution scheme.

6) Be wary of any builder that can start straight away! Any builder worth their salt will be busy! The FMB says “Builder’s workloads have been rising steadily over the past two years, particularly with home renovations. As more than 40% of builders need at least four months’ notice from consumers, it’s important to note that if a builder is free to start work tomorrow, alarm bells should ring.”

7) Check to see if the builder has public liability or employer’s insurance which will give you peace of mind. Consider a building warranty that either they or you can take out to give you further peace of mind.

8) Check out reviews. Be careful and cynical of reviews on Facebook, particularly on the builder’s own page. Scams abound on many sites. So check lots!

9) Take photos before, during and after the work.

10) For some larger projects, both parties can agree that an independent expert will value the work and payments due at various stages in the project.

By following the tips and advice above you will be doing as much as possible to prevent problems and ensure your build runs as smoothly as possible!

Further help with complaints

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