Avoid Cowboy Builders in 7 Easy Steps - INNO Construction
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Avoid Cowboy Builders in 7 Easy Steps

Avoid Cowboy Builders in 7 Easy Steps

Not knowing how to avoid cowboy builders is one of the main reasons such a fear has spread across the nation. Research by FMB a few years back showed that roughly £10billion in potential work is being prevented every year due to people’s fears of not getting a positive experience from their home improvement projects.

“A third of homeowners are so anxious about the possibility of choosing a bad builder, they don’t commission any building work whatsoever” – Brian Berry, FMB (See: Express or Property Reporter)

Despite many discussions around this topic occurring every day, with government consideration even suggesting implementing a stronger licensing system, the current problem shows no signs of stopping. Instead of waiting for these systems to come into effect, there are things you can do today to alleviate your fears of getting a negative experience by learning to avoid cowboy builders, allowing you to finally get your dream project underway.

1) Get several Quotes (You should be looking at 3 as a bare minimum).

By knowing how much your project should cost, you’ll avoid cowboy builders who charge too much or too little!

One of the most important things to do is to ensure the price you’re being charged is fair and honest. Some builders will be inclined to overcharge you and others will promise you a job for half the price you expected to pay and you don’t want either working for you. Most tradesmen will be working under national guidelines and so regardless of their own profit margin, the set rate will be a certain amount so anyone promising to do it for significantly less (regardless of their excuses) is very likely going to be misleading you in some way. You have to ask yourself, if there was a way for that tradesman to perform your job significantly cheaper than everyone else, would they be likely to pass the savings onto you in the first place?

By getting several quotes, you’ll get a rough idea of what you should be expecting to pay for the job and will quickly see anyone who is pricing significantly differently from the rest of the quotes.

2) Be clear about what you’re paying for

Another important thing to consider when negotiating the price is to be clear exactly what you’re paying for. If you’ve hired somebody to come fit new flooring and they’ve removed your skirting board and replaced it without your knowledge, they may insist you pay the cost of it but this is not what you have agreed to. Therefore, make sure you agree between the two of you exactly what work will take place and that if any other work needs to be done that they call you first. You can be more confident in what work is set to be done by doing one of the most important things, getting a written contract.

An effective way to ensure correct pricing from the start is to complete a project spec sheet that contractors can price against. For instance, to reuse the example of the flooring, you might create an excel spreadsheet that lists each phase of the work e.g.

  • Remove existing flooring, skirting boards, and architraves – £XX
  • Install customer supplied flooring and underlay – £XX
Construction plans to accompany a contract will help you avoid cowboy builders.
A JCT contract with good planning will mean you get exactly what you’re paying for!

3) Sign a contract

You should aim to have a signed contract, specifying exactly what work will be done as this is a great way to ensure you are legally secure against those who try to charge you unfairly or refuse to complete their work. It also means they won’t be able to randomly add on extras without your permission so there won’t be any unexpected bills halfway through the work.

Each person signing the quotation along with a project spec list would be sufficient for smaller projects but if you’re going into extensions or conversions a JCT contract is industry standard now and will hold up in court.

4) A good tradesperson is usually a busy tradesperson.

You can avoid cowboy builders by being patient.

It can be tempting, when many of the tradespersons you’ve spoken to are booked for the next 3 months, to hire the one who will start tomorrow. However, it’s important to remember that usually, a good tradesperson is a busy tradesperson. This is not always the case but more often than not, if the person you’re hiring is immediately available, or worse, they’re cold calling, the chances are they aren’t to be trusted. Busy isn’t just for the present though, a skilled contractor will have been busy in the past too and you can check their level of work by further investigating them or their business.

5) Investigate their history

Cowboy builders usually have things to hide and lack a strong, online presence.

Another good method for avoiding cowboy builders is to research their online presence. Trade body memberships are always a great place to start e.g. Checkatrade or FMB (federation of master builders. However, you should be wary of some sites like ‘Rated People’ or ‘My Builder’ as they work off of customer reviews  (this means it can be much easier to gather fake reviews) and these sites do not vet the contractors before listing them either.

Social media and digital photography have also greatly improved your average tradesperson’s ability to record their previous jobs, build a portfolio, and establish an online presence. Whilst social media isn’t for everyone, by searching through their business page on somewhere like Facebook you’ll get a good idea if they’ve been working for a good amount of time, positing completed works and that will also allow you to see the quality of their work.

A tradesperson who doesn’t have an online presence isn’t necessarily a cowboy but one who has social media accounts and consistently updates and shares their work should give you far more confidence in hiring them. (Pro tip: If somebody has a Facebook page where most of their work photos were posted on the same day, you should be sceptical because they may have opened a new account for some reason and this is enough to raise suspicions)

It is also worth asking about what guarantees they may offer.

6) Personal recommendations

You can avoid Cowboy Builders by taking recommendations from trusted friends/family.

A personal recommendation is, like always, one of the best ways to secure a trustworthy tradesperson. By seeing the quality of finished work and the feedback from your friend/family/acquaintance you should feel a lot more comfortable in hiring them but don’t get lulled into a false sense of security, you should still do your due diligence and use these points to ensure you’re hiring the best person for your project.

7) Don’t pay upfront

Avoid Cowboy Builders by only paying for already completed work

Good builders won’t require you to pay upfront on the work they do, instead they should request payment on completion or at set intervals arranged before any work begins. Anyone who asks for payment upfront – especially if their insistent or seeking payment with very short notice – shouldbe avoided.

Also, in regards to payments, we recommend setting a payment structure prior to confirming a contractor. Is a valuation going to be made every week or two weeks or upon completion of works? When completing a larger project or a project over the value of £10k we would certainly recommend an itemised list of works as this can then be measured against when making payment.


With all this information you should now be able to hire with confidence. The most important thing is to stay vigilant and you’ll have your work completed without a hitch or fear.

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