TOPPING OUT - GERALD COLE

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How to trust your builder

Five tips for these uncertain times

Recently I had a built-in wardrobe fitted by a small family builder I know. As he left he told me to let him know if I had any problems with the work. Meanwhile he was happy to give me a ‘tail light’ warranty. It was a term I hadn’t heard before. ‘Oh it’s easy,’ he explained, grinning. ‘It lasts as long as you can see the tail light of my van.’

He was joking. At least, I think he was. But he did, ever so slightly, touch a nerve. Dodgy builders, or the fear of them, are the bane of British construction. Everyone, it seems, has a story of a repaired tap that still drips, a damp patch that reappears or a paint job in need of a final touchup that never actually arrives.

Most alarming of all are the reported deficiencies of new homes provided by major housebuilders, including poorquality brickwork, ill-fitting doors and windows and missing insulation, and all for a new house premium, generally around 20 per cent.

This isn’t to say, of course, that there aren’t excellent building firms with well established reputations for competence and good value.

But many of the small and medium-sized builders, completing one to half a dozen homes a year, who used to be a major segment of the housebuilding industry, were decimated by the 2008 financial crisis - and the borrowing squeeze that followed.

Now we have the double whammy of Covid and Brexit prompting a shortage of construction workers and materials and rising prices for both. It’s a situation that seems calculated to exacerbate the worst deficiencies of the housebuilding sector: a lack of investment in training, a reliance on subcontractors on daily rates or fixed prices and an absence of licensing, common in the US and Europe. Anyone who fancies becoming a builder can set up shop immediately.

All of which inclines the tyro selfbuilder or renovator to be even warier than they might normally be. So here are five suggestions that may make your relationship with your builder a little less stressful.

1 Specify EVERYTHING

When most of us think of a new house it’s the main features that usually spring to mind - the size, the layout, the stunning views you want to take full advantage of. And in the early stages, even up to the point of Building Regulations drawings, that’s fine – in fact, essential.

But in reality it’s only the start of a long and demanding process, because the spaces you plan have to be filled. Each room requires at least one door with fixtures, skirting, window cills, perhaps coving, light switches, light fittings, power points (with or without USB points or wifi extender), perhaps an ethernet point or two. Each of those items has to be chosen and specified so that your contractor or tradesperson knows exactly what they are and where they go.

If you leave it to your contractor, you could well end up with whatever is available, or on offer, at the local builders’ merchant. One way round this is to agree a ‘prime cost’ (PC) sum to cover an item you have yet to choose - often used for kitchens or bathroom fittings.

Another is to buy the item yourself in advance, stating it’s for ‘fitting only’. But the safer course is to have those items written into a specification drawn up by your architect or designer, who will typically prompt you with a dauntingly comprehensive questionnaire.

2 Ensure you have a contract

This is an agreement signed by you and your contractor agreeing that everything in the specification is done as required within an agreed timetable, to an agreed standard and at an agreed price. Basically it covers everything that happens on site, including insurance, responsibilities and payment terms.

Building contract templates are available free online, enabling you to write your own.

But again the safer option is for your architect or designer to draw up one specific to your project. It could, for example, include a requirement for your architect to inspect and approve agreed stages of the build before approving stage payments, as well as mutually agreed procedures in case of disputes.

3 Consider using a quantity surveyor

A quantity surveyor goes through a specification and provides accurate costings of each item and process. Common on major building projects, QSs are relatively rare for one-offs because they typically charge at least 10% of the budget plus VAT. But in uncertain times they could be a worthwhile expense.

4 Write everything down

Better still, capture it on your mobile, and not just every decision agreed with your contractor or subcontractor so there’s no dispute later. A great deal happens on a house build and most of it is covered up behind plasterboard or concrete screed.

A video provides an invaluable record for later repairs or alterations. If you can, scrawl measurements on the exposed walls, ceilings or floors so you can easily locate pipework and cable runs.

5 Don’t forget the paperwork

In the often exhausted urge to finish a build, bureaucratic details can be overlooked. They include completion certificates from your local Building Control department or approved inspector, a structural warranty, insuring you against structural defects typically for 10 years, or an architect’s certificate.

But equally important are certificates for subcontractors’ work, such as a Gas Safe certificate for a new boiler or an electrical safety certificate.

Finally, having tried unsuccessfully to find the right builder for your project - or, indeed, any builder - don’t despair. A highly experienced surveyor friend of mine suggests it will take a couple of years to smooth out the current disruptions.

Plenty of time, then, to hone the finer details of your specification, and perhaps pick up a few ‘fitting only’ bargain items along the way.