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Top Tips on how to spot a cowboy builder

When you employ a builder, it's hard to tell at first if they are trustworthy and reliable. Don't part with your hard-earned cash under false pretences or risk shoddy workmanship on your home improvement project. Learn the tell-tale signs which can help you spot the difference between a cowboy builder and the genuine thing.

cowboy builder

What to watch out for…

Be very careful about taking on a builder who:

  • offers very cheap quotes or estimates – this could mean they are a cowboy builder, or could not be experienced enough to give accurate figures
  • is unwilling to put a quote or estimate in writing – this could mean they don’t intend to stick to it
  • is unwilling to offer references
  • is too keen to start the job straight away – cowboy builders often do lots of work in one area before moving out of the area altogether. They often leave very poor or unfinished work behind and are impossible to track down
  • is unwilling to offer you details about their business – for example an address or landline number
  • claims to be in a trade association when they are not – you should always check if the builder does belong to the trade association. If they don’t, it means they’re dishonest and probably committing a criminal offence
  • claims to work for a company with a good reputation when they don’t – check they work for who they say they do. If they don’t, this means they’re dishonest and you’d be better off not using them
  • doesn’t offer you a contract, or doesn’t sign the one you give them
  • asks for money up front – a reliable builder won’t ask you to do this, not even if they need materials. If they run a business, they should have enough money to cover these costs themselves and only ask for payment once they’ve completed the job, or done a reasonable amount of work
  • gives a detailed quote and schedule of work but then not follow it
  • doesn’t charge VAT when they should – if they are a small or new trader, they may not need to register or pay VAT. It depends on how much work they do in a year. If they should be registered, they could be avoiding paying it, to save money and charge less than others. This is dishonest and against the law
  • only accepts cash -if a builder only offers to accept a cash payment, they could be acting dishonestly by saving on paying out for VAT

Next steps:

Find out more on the Citizen’s Advice Bureau or Federation of Master Builders online.


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