Avoiding cowboy builders

Cowboys and indians Surveyor Martin Quirke offers some tips on spotting – and avoiding – cowboy builders...

One of the biggest concerns for homeowners wishing to improve their property is the nightmare of employing a cowboy builder’. As a chartered building surveyor, I come across the inevitable results of this time after time. A so-called builder has done work on a house and completely botched it due to a lack of knowledge, skill, experience and care, or all of the above. Use the checklist below to avoid hiring a cowboy! Does the builder actually look like a builder? This may sound flippant but if he has soft, tiny hands and delicate skin, how much real building work do you think he has done? When I built my own house in the late 1970s, I went from a delicate wisp of a young man to a weather-beaten, cracked-skinned, broken-fingered veteran in 14 months. Does he have a land line and a proper address? Is he working right now and, if so, can you go and see his work? Good builders are busy over 75% of the year so, unless it’s a rainy November, he should have some work on. Does he have references? Get phone numbers and call previous customers. Be aware that they may be relatives or friends so be inquisitive and ask lots of questions about the project(s) he has worked on. Is he a registered artisan with a SIRET number? You will risk having no warranty without this, apart from other problems related to the black economy. Look at his van. Is it a wreck or just too shiny? If the van is falling apart, how much care will he take of your home? If it’s too clean, what planet is he from? Building work is grubby and unless he cleans his van every day, there should be some signs of a day’s work. Is he relaxed and positive at the mention of a contract? This should state a fixed price and a set programme with a completion date among other things. A proper contract is meant to be fair to both parties, so why would either party object if they were genuine and honest? Be aware that if you draw up your own contract, which turns out to be one-sided, it will not hold up in court. Use a recognised building contract sanctioned by the local government, architects’ institute or builders’ federation. Does he want a big upfront payment? Be careful about this, as most professional consultants (building surveyor or architect) will advise against it. You should ideally pay in arrears. If he has no credit at the local builder’s merchant, do you want him working for you? Why would you give a stranger thousands of euros for work or materials you have not yet seen? Tell him you will pay every fortnight based upon progress and materials on site. This is quite normal. You can also use what are called elemental work stages, such as foundations and up to damp-course, completion of the main shell, roof on, watertight (walls and windows done and roof on) etc. Does he have a real trade of his own? Most good builders in my experience started out as bricklayers or carpenters. If he was an accountant, hairdresser or coal miner, the leap to builder may be a step too far. Check him out at the mairie. They are the font of all local knowledge. Ask if they know him and if he is reputable. The French are not as bothered by slander and libel as us and tend to tell it like it is. ?A well-known trick on the hapless homeowner is to stick in a temptingly low estimate and then make a fortune from the inevitable extras that occur on every job. If you do not have a detailed works specification and drawings, you’re asking for trouble. You have now left Jesse James with an opportunity to claim for pages of extras that he didn’t include in his estimate. Everything must be described in detail, with manufacturer’s names, products, quality standards, materials etc. Another trick is the use of the word estimate’. What you want is a fixed-price quotation or tender, not an estimate. An estimate is just that, a guess, an approximation.