How to Avoid Cowboy Builders: 6 Tips from The Federation of Master Builders

Many of us will have seen TV programmes featuring consumers who have suffered at the hands of ‘cowboy builders’. The family’s dream of a new extension, designer kitchen or bathroom eventually transpires into a nightmare at the hands of the cowboys. Severe delays, excuse after excuse, spiralling costs and botched jobs requiring repairs are typical experiences when a cowboy builder is let loose in your home. The financial and emotional stress can, in extreme cases, be ruinous for the couples or families engaging the cowboy’s services.

However, there are many excellent builders across the country who take pride in their work and deliver high quality projects for consumers. They deliver that dream extension or new kitchen for their clients. These ‘master builders’ also loathe the negative image that cowboy builders pollute the building trade with. But how and where do you find a master builder and avoid the cowboys?

Cowboy builders are able to win work because they look convincing, but there are some precautions you can take to identify them and help make sure that your dream build does not turn into a nightmare.

6 Tips from The Federation of Master Builders on How to avoid Cowboy Builders:

1. Get a relevant recommendation

A personal recommendation from someone you trust is still the best reassurance, but make sure the advice is relevant by asking some detailed questions: what did they have done? How much did it cost? How long did it take? And ask to see the project too – people have different ideas of what constitutes a good job.

2. Look at the past

Before you employ a building firm, check how long it has been trading. It is a common feature of cowboy builders that they trade under a string of different names. If they are reluctant to give you details about their business, such as an address or a landline telephone number, ask yourself why?

3. Don't pay up front

Never pay all of the money up front for your project. Ever. Instead set up an agreed payment schedule and only pay the final amount when you are satisfied that all of the work has been completed to a satisfactory standard. Does the trader offer a warranty or guarantee and is it backed up by insurance?

4. Sign on the dotted line

It cannot be stressed enough how much hassle you’ll save yourself if everything is agreed in writing with a contract beforehand. It may feel like an unnecessary chore, but when it comes to the end of the project and you’re debating over whose concern it is to dispose of the big pile of bricks in your garden, you’ll regret not having a clear agreement. Get it written down – costs, scope, responsibilities, timeframe – everything. Ask if the builder is part of a scheme that can help with complaints if something goes wrong.

5. Don't flash the cash

FMB survey results found that people employing a builder who demands to be paid in cash are far more likely to be unhappy with the quality of work. If a trader is evading VAT, the chances are that they won’t be very honest with you either. Beware if they offer to do the job on the cheap (always get two or three quotes) or if they can start work straight away. Indeed if a builder is free to start work tomorrow, alarm bells should ring. Demand for building work is high at the moment and it should be no surprise that almost one in two builders need to be contacted at least four months in advance of when a client is looking to start a home improvement project. So many building horror stories start with a client approaching a builder who’s free to start work sooner than the more professional builder who is really busy.

6. Check credentials

If the builder is a member of an accreditation scheme or trade association, find out what that membership actually means. Have they been properly vetted or have they just paid a fee for a badge? Also be sure to check whether the firm or tradesperson really is a member of the association or scheme they claim to be a member of.

Master Builders are checked and independently inspected prior to joining the Federation of Master Builders. Use the FMB’s find a builder service to help with your project.


Read our blog about understanding your responsibilities as a landlord.