How To Avoid Cowboy Builders

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How To Avoid Cowboy Builders

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Hiring a cowboy builder to complete your project can leave you out of pocket, with a damaged property and cause you no end of stress.

This article today will explore what a cowboy builder is, how to avoid one and what things to look out for when choosing a builder. Jeffery and Wilkes are London’s leading Building Contractors.

What is a cowboy builder?

The definition of a cowboy builder is a house builder with no proper training or official qualifications who does work of a low standard – financial times

10 things that help you identify a cowboy builder

1. They have no registered address – If a builder goes AWOL and changes his mobile number how will you track him down? it’s important you have the business address they are registered to and ideally, a landline number too

2. They add VAT to the quotation but are not VAT registered. If a company is VAT registered, they must state the VAT number on their letterhead. Check that this company matches the one that is providing you with the quotation. There are many rogue builders who give a price plus VAT and are not VAT registered and they pocket the additional 20%

3. They insist on cash payments – Beware of builders that insist on cash only payments, the money trail is difficult to track leaving you vulnerable. It doesn’t mean that all builders that use cash are cowboys as you can pay cash direct for labour which is accepted by the government and can help you avoid some of the additional VAT but if the builder insists on cash only then this would suggest he will not be declaring it and leaves you at risk

4. Very cheap quote – If one builder comes in significantly lower than the others then beware!! As the old saying goes if it looks too good to be true then it probably is. Cowboy builders rope people in with their cheap initial quotation and then start loading on the additional works and unforeseen occurrences and in most cases, you will end up paying much more than if you had gone with the builder that gave you the highest quote

5. No references – If they get a bit shirty when you request references it’s time to question why? All decent builders should be able to provide you with unbiased references from happy prior clients

6. No contract – Beware of any builder that will not provide a contract. A contract is a protection for both sides and set things out clearly. If something goes wrong in the build you can refer to the contract which will already lay out the next stages.

7. No guarantees – Sometimes at the end of the build, even if everything looks good to the naked eye, there could be problems lurking beneath the surface due to faulty workmanship so it’s vital that your builder gives you a lengthy guarantee to rectify these problems if they arise.

8. No reviews – have a look online and see what others are saying. Do they have reviews? are they positive and recent? If they have lots of bad reviews or none at all you should be wary.

9. Vague or no written estimate – if the builder refuses to produce a written estimate or it is vague then steer clear. A decent builder will be able to provide you a detailed estimate with what is and isn’t included. If the estimate is too vague they will be likely loading up on extras later

10. Can start tomorrow – Obviously there can be exceptions to this, perhaps if the builder is running several jobs and one of theirs encounters a problem with planning permission and they need to sort that out first before they start the build so they may pull your job forward or a customer drops out but in general good builders are booked up so be wary of builders that can start tomorrow

Things to look out for in a reputable builder

So you know how to avoid a cowboy builder now by applying the above. But how do you find a good, high quality builder? In additional to the points already mentioned see how many of the following 10 points your builder has and if they score highly, the likelihood is they are a good and reputable builder

1. Members of trade bodies and accreditations- It’s always an added bonus if the contractor is a member of bodies or has accreditations. This means that certain checks were done initially on the contractor and that if there is an issue you have another option to pursue it and have a 3rd party investigation

2. Awards – Award winning companies will have had some outstanding work in the past that they have won an award for

3. Allows you to Visibly see previous work – Seeing is believing – if a contractor is willing to take you to physically see some of their previous work then this is definitely a good sign (even better if you can speak to the previous customer at the time of inspection)

4. CRB/DBS Checked workers – not many companies have it but if they do then they deserve extra ticks especially if you have children. The workers will be spending a considerable amount at your property and in the vicinity of your little ones so knowing that these strangers have are clear via these checks can bring real peace of mind

5. Qualifications and certificates – If your building company has electricians and plumbers that are certified and qualified Project Managers then you have some assurance they know what they are doing

6. They have an office you can visit – Companies that have an actual office you can visit (and not just a registered office) can put your mind at rest as you know if there is a problem with the build there is a physical location you can find the managers/directors. If they do not have a physical office you have seen with your own eyes then you run the risk of them going missing if they are a cowboy builder

7. Protected deposit – Again this is something that is not done by the majority of builders but is a HUGE bonus if they do have protection from a 3rd party company on your deposit. There is nothing worse than a company going bust and you lose your deposit before any works have even commenced

8. Money back for overrunning projects – if there are no additional works added to a job then a company should be able to keep to the time frame they have committed to. If they offer a money back service if they run overtime then you know this company will be doing all they can to get your project completed on time or as near to the completion date as possible.

9. Fair payment schedules – Not only should you have a clear payment schedule with the builder, it should be a fair one. If a deposit is to be paid it should be a reasonable amount and payment schedules that are based on payment when you reach key milestone will reassure you that you are not paying for the work until it is completed. Payment schedules that are very heavily front loaded or where you have to pay weekly regardless of how much work is completed should be avoided.

10. Clear procedure for extras – Some builders go cheaper on the main quote and pile on the extras at the end and all of a sudden you are over budget! Make sure you choose a company who has a clear process for extra works and you sign these costs off before the proceed with the works so you know exactly how much you are spending and on what


If you take all of the above points on board and avoid the builders that fall into the first 10 points in this article and try and find a builder with as many of the second 10 points in place, you will be onto a winner and will avoid hiring a cowboy builder!

Have a read of our article what questions should I ask my builder on our blog page, which will help you choose a suitable one when obtaining quotations.