Choosing the right bricklayer
Reading time: 13 minutes
Bricklaying is one of the most fundamental trades there is, literally the building block that forms the basis of many other jobs.
With such an important element of building work as this, it’s vital that you find the right bricklayer to carry out your job. We spoke to some of the experienced tradesmen recommended on MyBuilder to find out the key things you should know in order to make the right choice:
- Look out for experience as much as accreditations
- Make sure you are comfortable with the bricklayer
- Ask questions about how they’ll approach your job
- Get like-for-like quotes
- Establish a payment plan
- Check their familiarity with planning permission and building regulations
- Agree what aftercare will happen after the build
Keeping these points in mind can help you focus on what to look for when you’re meeting with tradesmen and getting quotes for the work. Carry on reading for more details on how to go about finding the right tradesman for your job.
Look out for experience as much as accreditations
When we picture a builder hard at work, it is often bricklaying we can imagine them doing. However, although it is one of the most fundamental of all building jobs, bricklaying in itself is a specialised trade, with many tradesman focusing their attention entirely on building and maintaining brick walls and other structures. Although general builders, handymen and other tradesmen may be able to carry out bricklaying tasks such as building a garden wall or repointing your home, a specialist will always be best placed to carry out these kind of jobs.
When looking for a tradesman for your project, it’s sensible to speak to ones who have performed plenty of similar jobs to the one you have planned. As well as seeing previous examples of their work that they can show you as part of their portfolio, you may also be able to arrange through them to visit their previous jobs - they should be happy to put you in touch with previous clients they have done work for before.
As well as checking their references, there are other things you can do to check their experience. On MyBuilder, you can read honest feedback on the jobs they have undertaken for homeowners, as well as seeing pictures of the jobs they have taken on. Don’t be afraid to ask them questions as well, about any qualifications they may have, their length of time in the business, or how they’ll approach your own particular job. Many will have specific qualifications, such as NVQs or City & Guild diplomas. Others will have learnt on the job, apprenticing as part of the crew of a more experienced bricklayer.
Some tradesmen may belong to trade associations. Bricklayers may belong to a number of trade bodies, which can cover a variety of different disciplines. These include:
- Federation of Master Builders (FMB): The UK’s largest trade association for the construction industry, all members are inspected by the body and expected to uphold standards and follow a code of conduct. There are different levels of membership, with the highest, Build Assure, offering the option of an insurance-backed building work guarantee.
- Guild of Builders and Contractors: Members of this body who become a “Trusted Member” have to demonstrate three years of trading with customer and financial referees, and abide by certains standards such as providing written contracts and clear payment plans.
- Guild of Master Craftsmen: Covering a variety of trades, each full member is assessed in person by the Guild to ensure they are reaching high standards of work. The Guild also provides a conciliation service for disputes between homeowners and member tradesmen.
- National Federation of Builders: Members must provide business and financial references, have public liability insurance and adhere to a code of conduct. Although it does not offer a guarantee against work, it operates a complaint procedure.
- FairTrades Association: Established in 1983, the FairTrades Association covers multiple trades and works to ensure standards, encouraging its members to offer insurance-backed guarantees on their work. Membership of a body such as this is a good indication that a tradesman is competent and working up to certain standards, however, there are many experienced tradesmen who do not belong to these bodies - there is no obligation to be signed up, unlike membership of the Gas Safe Register, a legal requirement for tradesmen who work with gas in the home. While trade body membership can be seen as a good seal of approval, it is experience that is the most important thing to look out for.
Paul Coulson of KDBS in Newcastle regularly does bricklaying work, and has racked up more than 350 pieces of positive feedback on MyBuilder, said:
There are some membership bodies which offer practical benefits to homeowners who hire their tradesmen, such as offering an insurance-backed guarantee, so some people like the peace of mind that brings. Others are good for tradesman when it comes to things like advertising their business or finding leads, so are less important for homeowners. If I was a homeowner looking for a tradesmen, it’s the experience I’d look for over any particular memberships.
I always say go and see people’s previous work. We specialise in repointing, and we say never pick someone from gut instinct, go and see three of their jobs, maybe speak to the clients. I think photos are risky because I could take photos of anything and pretend they're mine. So I think if you go round to a job or get references, that always helps.
Make sure you are comfortable with the bricklayer
As well as knowing if they are experienced with your kind of job, you should simply assess how comfortable you feel with the potential tradesmen. You can do that from your first contact with them; are they polite on the phone, do they arrive for meetings at the scheduled time, do they ask lots of questions about the project?
Depending on the scale of the job, bricklaying can take some time. Being able to maintain good communication throughout the project is essential. You don’t have to become best friends with them, but you should be able to have a professional relationship - you must feel comfortable speaking openly about any concerns that may arise, and dealing with any issues. Paul said:
Getting on with a tradesman is really important for a homeowner. If you’re going to be in their home for weeks at a time, you have to get on with them. All it takes is one miscommunication for things to turn sour, and the whole job can be an issue. If you can sit down together and have a proper chat, then everything will go more smoothly.
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Ask questions about how they’ll approach your job
A bit of knowledge can go a long way when it comes to building projects, and being prepared to ask questions of your potential tradesman can help you to judge how they’ll approach the job. No one wants a tradesman who is happy to cut corners or take shortcuts. As well as asking about previous jobs, ideally going to see them, and checking their past experience, reviews and references, ask about their day to day processes - how they’ll work on site, what a typical day consists of, how they carry out the specific task needed, such as repairing a cracked wall or doing some repointing.
When it comes to common bricklaying jobs like repointing, many people attempt to use their DIY skills, while bad tradesman will use poor techniques, giving the appearance of a job well done, without the actual results. Nick Kilshaw of Kentish Builder, a bricklayer with nearly 300 positive pieces of feedback on MyBuilder, gave some pointers of things to look out for to ensure quality workmanship:
Quality repointing isn’t really a DIY job. I’ve done many repointing jobs, and you get a lot of DIYers that just haven’t got a clue. They don’t know about grinding out the old mortar, how to wash out, what mix to use, what finish - they just put the new mortar straight on the top of the old stuff, which basically you can’t do. It’s got to be done right, and you can ask how they’ll go about it.
We use mortar grinders attached to extractors, so anything that comes out the wall goes into a big machine, whereas when you get people that don’t specialise it you’ll find they just use a small angle grinder and there’s dust everywhere. I’ve actually got photos of how not to repoint because I like to show clients if it’s done badly, this is what it can look like, and it can devalue your property. I think it’s better to use a specialist because obviously they’ve got specialist equipment, they’re faster, neater and more efficient, but you can always ask to make sure they’re going about it the right way.
Get like-for-like quotes
While smaller jobs, such as putting up a low garden wall, will not require complex quotes, with many larger jobs, it’s advisable to meet with, and get quotations, from at least three tradesman. The detail and scope of their quotation can tell you a lot about their process. It’s important to make sure that all the quotations are like-for-like - do they include materials and labour, as well as any subcontracting the tradesman may do, and VAT? If the tradesman will be removing and disposing of any previous materials, such as an old wall that is being demolished, is that included? The only way to accurately compare quotations is if you are comparing like-for-like, and to get them from people who have seen the job in person.
Taking a sample of at least three quotations can can help you spot any that seem unreasonably low - if this is the case, it could be the sign of a tradesman who wants to win the job, but will make up the true value by adding on extra costs during the course of the build.
On large repointing jobs, many bricklayers may subcontract, hiring scaffolders to come and erect professional scaffolding to allow them access to the whole wall. Others will simply use ladders, or perhaps a cherry picker. Talk to the tradesman you are interested in to see if these are necessary and how it affects the cost - you may be able to hire scaffolding yourself at a lower price than a tradesman offers. There are various Work at Height regulations which every tradesman should adhere to, and the Health and Safety Executive has produced a brief guide to what the regulations and guidelines mean in practice.
Establish a payment plan
After agreeing to a price through an accurate, written quotation, make sure you have a payment plan in place that you are comfortable with. A written contract is the best way to ensure you are on the same page, with no misunderstandings.
A reputable tradesman will generally not expect, or ask for, the total value of an expensive job up front. However, a small deposit is not uncommon. While many builders buy materials on account from trade suppliers, and will not request money up front to cover these costs, if it’s a small firm working on a large build with high costs involved, this may be worked into the plan.
Usually, payment will be deferred until after the build is completed. Many tradesman are happy to be paid in cash, but most should accept cheques or bank transfers, especially for larger amounts. Nick said:
I don’t typically take any deposit. For a very small job, they might pay up front, just say here’s the £100, carry on with it. On a week’s work, usually I’ll just get paid at the end. For a big job though, something that is several thousand pounds and taking place over several weeks, I will ask for staged payments on Fridays to cover wages and materials. It’s only a big job that requires staged payments. You just have to agree up front and both be happy with what you’ve agreed.
I literally do not ask for any money up front. I just invoice at the end of the job. I’ve had people ask if I want money up front, but I tell them once the job’s finished and you’re happy and it’s complete we’ll take full payment. Really, if you’re running a decent enough company you should be able to cover one typical job.
Check their familiarity with planning permission and building regulations
Depending on the kind of work you are asking the bricklayer to carry out, you may need to consider planning permission and building regulations.
For example, if you are building a wall alongside a road or pavement alongside a road more than 1m high, you will need to apply for, and obtain, planning permission before construction begins.
However, most maintenance jobs on existing walls and repointing will not be subject to planning.
Planning permission deals with the development of buildings and its impact on the wider community, for example, how an extension affects the street scene, or if an office block can be converted into flats. Building regulations on the other hand, are standards for the design and build quality of any development, ensuring the health and safety of those who will use the building, as well as providing standards on energy efficiency and requirements like disabled access.
Some work involving bricklayers, such as rebuilding interior walls or working on an extension or outbuilding, may require sign off from your local authority’s Building Control department, which administers building regulations. Other work may require a structural engineer to prepare a report beforehand. Discuss with the bricklayer you are interested in hiring whether your job will be subject to planning or building regulation. Experienced bricklayers will be knowledgeable about all the latest requirements and how they apply to your project, and how they will be dealt with by the planning departments of local authorities - they may even know planning officers to ask for advice. Beware of any tradesman who is casual about the need for planning permission or Building Control inspections - breaching regulations can lead to costly fines, and being forced to undo any work. Nick said:
I’ve been to jobs before where people haven’t realised that anything like a structural engineer’s report is necessary. They think they don’t need it, but it pays to do a bit of research and give it some thought, because it can be the first question I ask when I’m invited for a job, and if it hasn’t been sorted, then I won’t be able to come and do it.
Agree what aftercare will happen after the build
With any building project, there is the possibility that complications and problems may arise. Often, these issues may not manifest themselves until after the work is notionally complete, and the tradesman has moved on to other jobs. That being so, it is sensible to hire a tradesman who is happy to return to the build to follow-up on their work and make right anything that may have happened since the work finished.
Some builders will put something to this effect in their initial contracts with the homeowners, while others will offer a more informal arrangement. If the tradesman is willing to put you in touch with previous clients to see their work, then it is a good sign that they have maintained good relationships, taken pride in their work, and ensured that they have followed-up on any issues that have arisen