Before building works start

Before building works start

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Minor jobs

For minor works, if no suitable contract is supplied by the tradesman, you should consider drawing up your own building contract. Alternatively, a number of document resources are available on this website.

Drawing up your own building contract

If you choose to draw up your own building contract, you should ensure it provides for issues identified under the heading 'What should be included in a contract' below:

If there are plans and specifications for the work, details should be included within the agreement. The work must be clearly defined in the agreement so that there can be no doubt as to exactly what the contractor is expected to do. If the owner is to provide the materials, it should be stated in the agreement. If the owner has particular requirements as to the materials to be used, that should be specified.

Bigger jobs

For bigger home improvement and building jobs, there are extra things to think about.

Step 1: Do you need planning permission?

  • Does your work need to comply with building regulations?
  • Do you need listed building or conservation area consent?
  • Check with your local authority's planning and building control department.

Step 2: Do you need your neighbours' agreement?

Check whether any fences and walls you have in common will be affected. Discuss and agree this with your neighbours. If the builders are going to need to access your neighbour's land, you will want to make a request for access to your neighbour's land by letter.

Under the Access to Neighbouring Land Act 1992, if an adjoining owner does not give his/her consent, you can apply to your local county court for an order to carry out repairs which are reasonably necessary.

The Access to Neighbouring Land Act 1992 does not apply in Scotland and there is no equivalent legislation. However, a person may be granted access to a neighbouring land for specific purposes by a servitude or an ancillary real burden, both of which are types of title condition and may often (though not always) be found by examining the title deeds. In addition, those who live in a tenement (such as a block of flats) have rights under the Tenements (Scotland) Act 2004. This Act includes provision allowing owners of a property in a tenement reasonable access for repairs etc. over the property of other owners.

The Access to Neighbouring Land Act 1992 also does not apply in Northern Ireland and there is no equivalent legislation. In Northern Ireland, there may be covenants contained with your title deeds making provision for access to neighbouring land for maintenance and repair works, however, you should seek legal advice when trying to impose these if your neighbour has refused you access.

Step 3: Do you need a professional to help you plan the project?

A professional, such as an architect or surveyor, may be able to help with designing, planning and managing larger or more complex jobs. If they employ sub-contractors, they are responsible for the quality of the sub-contractor's work.

Step 4: Have you told the company which insures your house that you are having work done on it?

You should inform the company that you are having work done on your house.

Planning the work

Draw up a list of what work is to be done, to be used as a basis for traders to quote a price for the work or to give you an estimate. To help the builder come up with a quote, you might want to include the following information:

  • Preparatory work: removing defective paint, ensuring surfaces are made good before repainting, removing rotten wood from window frames and so on
  • Protection of existing features: for example, if you want parts of your property, such as mouldings, fireplaces or woodwork, to be protected against possible damage
  • Materials: if you want certain materials to be used, say what they are, such as which roof tiles, what type of paint and how many coats of paint you want
  • Location, access and facilities: specify where the work is to be done, how the trader will get in, what storage space is available, what water, electricity or phone utilities can be used
  • At the end of the job: state that the site should be left clean and tidy, with rubbish and any unused materials removed

Even if you are only having minor renovation work done, you should consider drawing up a contract between you and your builder. If you are presented with a contract that has already been written, you should not sign it until you have read it. If you disagree with any of the terms, you should ask the tradesman to remove them or come to an agreement about alternative terms.

Building work legalities

When you ask someone like a builder, plumber, electrician, or gas installer to carry out a service, you have entered into a legally binding contract with that tradesman. The tradesman's obligations when you enter that contract are defined as follows:

  • The terms of the contract between you and the tradesman you appoint
  • The Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982

This Act adds a number of terms to the contract in order to protect all consumers. While this Act does not apply in Scotland, Scottish common law provides similar protection. According to the Act, if the contract does not specify prices and dates, it must be completed in a reasonable time and for a reasonable price. In addition, the work must be done with reasonable skill and care and done with materials of satisfactory quality.

Building a house

If you employ professionals in the construction of a new house, they are also subject to the provisions of the following legislation:

  • The Defective Premises Act 1972 in England and Wales
  • The Defective Premises (Northern Ireland) Order 1975 in Northern Ireland

This legislation imposes duties on builders, developers, architects and other professionals involved in the design or construction of new homes in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (but not in Scotland). This does not include minor works or home improvement type works. If, at the end of the job, the home is unfit for habitation because of poor workmanship, those builders are liable to put everything right.

Consumer Code for Home Builders

You should check to see if the builder or developer that will be building your new home is covered by the Consumer Code for Home Builders (the Code). The Code is a set of 19 principles designed to ensure that the home building industry deals fairly and effectively with consumers throughout the entire home-buying process. Click here for a guide on the Code's requirements.

Currently, the Code only applies to developers and builders who are registered with the following Home Warranty bodies:

  • NHBC
  • Premier Guarantee
  • LABC new Home Warranty

Home Warranty Bodies are organisations that maintain registers of builders and developers and provide warranty cover in the form of insurance contracts for homes built by their members.

Complaints about contracts

Most complaints about tradesmen services arise because the terms of the contract have not been fully explained. Common complaints when dealing with moderate to large projects include:

  • The price charged
  • The standard of work
  • The time it takes to complete a job

In order to avoid problems, these items should be agreed upon beforehand and written down. The time it takes to complete the job will be more complex if it is a bigger project. If this is the case, the contract may have to set out stages that have to be finished and approved before proceeding to completion.

This may not be necessary when dealing with relatively minor refurbishment work, which consumers most frequently use. In these cases, the consumer should have a number of tradesmen provide them an estimate for doing the work. It is important to remember that estimates are only rough guides and not legally binding.

Once a particular tradesman is chosen, he/she must be asked to provide a full written quotation or an estimate. A quotation is a fixed price and cannot be changed later by either party; whilst an estimate is an educated guess on what the work might cost. You may find that the builder is more likely to give you an estimate than a quotation.

You should find out if the tradesman is going to use subcontractors to do parts of the job. If so, you should indicate that you will hold him responsible for any defects in the work of the subcontractor.

Before allowing a tradesman to start working, a contract should be drawn up, to help avoid disputes down the line.

What should be included in a contract

A building contract should include at least the following terms:

  • Your name and the name of the tradesman
  • The technical details, plans and materials that will be used
  • The date work will start
  • The date work will end. A certain amount of flexibility should be allowed for external work, which might depend on the weather. However, it might be appropriate to include a penalty clause where the builder will have to pay a sum for every day's delay in completion
  • The fact recorded in writing that 'time is of the essence', if it is important to you that the work is completed by a certain time
  • The name of the person who has to obtain any necessary planning permission
  • The name of the tradesman's insurer
  • Provision for the tradesman to put right any defective work and pay for any damage to the property
  • A term stating that the site will be left in a tidy state at the end of every day and at the end of the job
  • If possible, a provision that part of the fee will not be paid until the work has been inspected and any defects corrected
  • Provision for either you or the builder to end the contract
  • The total cost of the job and how it will be paid. If the cost based on the number of hours worked, the maximum number of hours it will take

If possible, you should try to include a clause to oblige the contractor to pay the owner money for each day that completion of the work has been delayed where the delay is the fault of the builder. The amount of money inserted must reflect a reasonable estimate of the loss that the owner will suffer if completion of the work is delayed.

If you are presented with a contract that has already been written, you should not sign it until you have read it. If you disagree with any of the terms, you should ask the tradesman to remove them or come to an agreement about alternative terms.

Unfair terms in the contract

Always check for unfair terms in the small print in any contract you sign. A term which is weighted in favour of the trader may be unfair. Sometimes traders try to use standard terms in their contracts to avoid responsibility if things go wrong. You are not bound by terms which are unfair.

Common types of unfair term are those which:

  • Allow the trader to vary the terms of the contract, for example, by putting up the price, without giving you the right to cancel
  • Stop you holding back part of the payment if the work turns out to be faulty
  • Make you lose prepayments if the trader cancels the contract

You have the right to be told, in plain language, all standard contract terms before you sign the contract.

Your cancellation rights

Whether you have cancellation rights depends on how you ordered the work you want done.

Buying from a door-to-door salesperson

You have cancellation rights for some home improvements services (such as double glazing) that you buy from a door-to-door salesperson who has called at your home uninvited. You also have these cancellation rights if the salesperson or contractor made you an offer to do the work in a place other than their business premises (e.g. at a temporary booth in a shopping centre), or if the contract for the work was made in a place other than their business premises. This type of contract is called an 'off-premises contract'.

When you agree to buy the service, they must give you certain information before the contract is made. This pre-contract information includes:

  • the main characteristics of the goods and/or services they are providing
  • their identity, including their trading name
  • their geographical address, telephone number, fax number and e-mail address
  • the total price of the goods and/or services including taxes
  • any additional delivery charges
  • arrangements for payment, delivery and performance and the time by which they will deliver the goods or perform the service
  • your cancellation rights, including the conditions, time limit and cancellation procedures, along with a cancellation form.
  • that if you exercise your right to cancel after requesting that they start to perform services during the cancellation period you will be required to pay for the services already provided
  • that you will lose your right to cancel after the services have been fully performed if you requested them to start work during the cancellation period
  • where applicable the existence of after-sales service and guarantees
  • any relevant codes of conduct and where to obtain copies
  • the duration of the contract
  • the trader's complaint handling process and any out-of-court redress mechanisms

They must give you this information and the cancellation form on paper, or - with your agreement only - in some other way that allows you to access it later, e.g. by email.

This information will become part of the contract. They must also give you a copy of the signed contract or confirmation of the contract when it has been made. They must provide this on paper or electronically in a way that allows you to access and keep it.

You have 14 days, starting the day after the contract was entered into, to cancel a contract that is only for services. This is known as the 'cooling-off' period. However, if the trader is supplying you with goods as well as services, the cooling-off period will be different. It will end 14 calendar days after the day on which the goods (or the last of the goods if they were delivered in batches) are delivered to you. The trader should not begin work within this cooling-off period unless you expressly ask them to. They must inform you that if work has already started by the time you cancel, you'll need to pay for what's been done up to that point. They should also inform you of the conditions on which you will lose the right to return the goods. If they have complied with all these conditions and you cancel after the work starts, you will have to pay for it. You would also need to pay for goods that cannot be returned in the same condition in which they were supplied because they have been mixed with other goods or incorporated into your property.

If the trader does not provide you with the pre-contract information before the contract is made, the cooling-off period will be extended to 14 days after they do provide you with it.

Buying over the phone, on the web or by mail order

If there are no face-to-face meetings (not even a site visit) before you buy, this method of buying is called distance selling. In general the same cancellation rules apply here as those that apply to door-to-door salesmen (see above), except that the trader does not need to provide the information on cancellation rights on paper, but can do so in a form that allows you to access it later, e.g. by email.

Paying as you go

For big jobs, paying in stages is a good way of keeping control of the job. If the trader fails to turn up, point out that the next payment could be delayed or stopped. It is recommended that you:

  • Agree in writing, in advance, the timing of payments
  • If possible, try to negotiate an agreement in writing that you can keep back a percentage of the fee after the work is completed, to check that everything has gone well
  • Don't pay a lump sum to cover materials for the whole job, only pay for those that are needed at any particular stage. It can be better to order the goods yourself and have them delivered direct to you

Package deals

Some companies offer packages for fitted kitchens, loft conversions, etc., where they sort out everything for you. Be aware that you might be paying extra for the convenience of a package.

  • Query the trader if you are asked to pay large deposits or payment in full before the work has been finished. Contact Citizens Advice in England & Wales or Consumerline in Northern Ireland if you need further advice.
  • Make sure the contract includes as much information as possible.
  • In case something goes wrong, make sure you know who has overall responsibility for the work, particularly if sub-contractors will be involved.

Useful organisations

Federation of Master Builders (FMB)

The Federation of Master Builders (FMB) is a building trade association. The FMB gives advice on how to choose a builder and can pass on the details of its members in your area. It has a complaints procedure to deal with disputes with its members. There is also an independent arbitration service which uses the rules laid down by the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators. The FMB also has a warranty scheme called the MasterBond Warranty. The MasterBond Warranty is an insurance-backed guarantee that offers a safeguard should your builder cease trading.

Royal Institute of British Architects

Royal Institute of British Architects' Clients' Advisory Service can send you two introductory leaflets: 'Working with your architect' and 'Selection of an architect'.

Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors

At RICS UK a range of services are offered, including supplying the names and contact numbers for surveyors in your area and help with offering surveyors' opinions in disputes.