Make a plan of what you want done. Don't be pressured into unnecessary work you cannot afford. For large or complex jobs, professional advice may well be needed.
Get the necessary consents or agreements from your Local Authority and insurance company. Discuss your plans with your neighbours particularly if there are any party structures.
This is probably the most important step of all.
Ask friends, neighbours, local traders and relevant trade associations, who have experience of the type of work you want done, if they know of reliable contractors.
Look for established contractors with premises you can visit. Beware of 'trade' cards which come through your door particularly those bearing only a telephone number.
Draw up a short-list of 3 or 4 firms that appear reliable, checking experiences of previous clients. If the trader has not been in business long or if you have any doubts get bank references.
Find out if the contractor claims to be a member of a Trade Association. This may give you extra security as some Associations have protection schemes, or will help to resolve disputes. It is important to check with the Trade Association that the trader is a current member.
Insist on being given a clear written price for the work described, this is known as a quotation. It differs from an estimate which is a rough price and not binding. Quotations should state whether VAT is included. Seek quotations based on a detailed job specification and compare price, conditions, reputation for reliability and good workmanship.
We recommend that at least 3 quotations/estimates are obtained before choosing which business you wish to employ. The Buy With Confidence Business Enquiry form (56kb PDF document) can be downloaded and printed off to keep with your records and may be a useful guide to some of the questions you may wish to ask before deciding which business best meets your requirements.
Do not rely on a handshake. Get a written contract.
Always get a written contract covering all details of your agreement, notably the work to be done, price, start and completion dates, stage payments and retention periods and the position on delays where time is of the essence.
For more information and advice on contracts, see Small Print: Understanding Contracts.
Once you have signed a contract it is sometimes possible to back out if you have changed your mind. This is particularly so when you entered into the contract in your home or place of work and also for some credit agreements. Contact us for advice as to your cancellation rights.
Find out whether a guarantee is available giving cover against a contractor ceasing to trade. Insurance backed schemes will be particularly appropriate here. Those guarantees which are supplied free of charge that cover goods supplied under the contract you enter into may be legally enforceable. However note that any guarantee is always in addition to your statutory rights as given by the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982. Make sure you read the terms and conditions of a guarantee fully so you are aware of what is being offered.
A contractor going out of business is one of the worst problems you can face with home improvements. Although this is fairly common, there are few, if any tell-tale signs that a contractor has serious financial problems. Be particularly wary, however, if you are asked to make unusual payments, for instance to the individual builder rather than to the firm.
Staged payments are a good way of ensuring the steady progress of work. You are paying for work that has been satisfactorily completed. If it is not, you have a means to apply pressure to the builder. Use staged payments as a means of keeping the work progressing. Use any retained payment to ensure that defects discovered after completion are put right.
Deposits and Advances
Many businesses are happy to begin work without asking for a deposit or advance payment of any kind. This is a preferable way to do business because it means there is no risk that the payment will be lost.
Some businesses will require you to make an advance payment before they agree to begin work, particularly if the value of the work is high. Careful consideration should be given before making any kind of advance payment or providing a deposit because your money may not be protected. Paying in advance carries a risk - if the business ceases to trade or disappears, your money may not be recovered.
How much to Pay
While there are no precise rules about how much you may be asked to pay in advance, in general it should only be a small proportion of the total price for the work. It is up to you and the business to agree what is acceptable but if you are asked to pay too much, this may be considered unfair, and you do not have to agree. If you have paid too much in advance, it may be more difficult for you to resolve any problems which may arise during the course of work - this also applies to stage payments.
You should never pay a deposit if
You do not know the name, permanent address and land-line telephone number of the business you are dealing with. Do not accept that the details provided are correct unless you have been able to check they are genuine.
Remember: Always ask whether any advance payments are required before you agree to any work. If you are unhappy with the answer, you can decide not to proceed and choose an alternative business. You can also contact Consumer Direct for pre-shopping advice.
If the total contract price is between £100 and £30,000, and is financed using a credit card, or by a credit agreement, you will be able to pursue any claim for breach of contract or misrepresentation against the finance provider, as well as against the contractor. In order to receive this additional protection, a deposit paid in this way does not have to exceed £100.
Disputes can arise over such matters as poor workmanship, delays, the cost of extra work done, and materials. Under the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982 you are entitled to expect the following standards from a contractor:
Quality of Work
A service must be carried out with reasonable care and skill. The main contractor is responsible for the work of any sub-contractor.
If the contract did not set a date the law says that the work must be finished in a reasonable time. If you did agree a completion date and the contractor fails to complete by that date the contract has been broken and you are entitled to compensation.
If a price was not agreed at the outset, the law says that the contractor should make a reasonable charge for the work done. You can find out what is reasonable by asking other contractors or by consulting the relevant trade association. If a firm price or fixed hourly rate was agreed then you are bound by it.
Any materials supplied as part of the contract must be as described by the contractor and be of satisfactory quality. If they are not you are entitled to compensation.
If things go wrong
If problems develop there are a number of steps you should take. Consumer Direct can provide information and advice about your rights as a consumer and, should it be necessary, will pass the details on to your local Trading Standards Service.