Choosing the right builder for your conservatory
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Adding a conservatory to your house can make a huge amount of difference to how you enjoy your home. Bringing the outdoors in, expanding your living space, and increasing the value of your property are just some of the upsides that people see when they choose to extend their home in this way.
However, as with any large project you undertake, you need to guarantee you are getting the right conservatory installer for the 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:
- Find out if they’ve done similar conservatory jobs to yours
- Make sure you are comfortable with them
- Look out for experience as much as accreditation
- Be aware that subcontracting can complicate the process
- Ensure they’re used to working with the particular product
- Get like-for-like quotes and establish a payment plan
- Check their familiarity with planning permission and building regulations
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.
Find out if they’ve done similar conservatory jobs to yours
There are several large, nationwide companies that install conservatories, offering a bespoke end-to-end service that covers everything from design to installation. While going down this path can be the most straightforward approach for homeowners, it is also likely to be the most expensive. According to a survey carried out by Which? magazine, the majority of people choose a local, independent firm to fit their conservatory, which is what we will focus on here.
Though there are many small firms devoted to installing conservatories, some tradesman who install them will be more general builders. Some will be window and door specialists, others will be carpenters and joiners. There are benefits to both options - a conservatory specialist may have more dedicated experience with your particular requirements, while a general builder may be better equipped to deal with more complex projects that involve other elements.
David Newman of Barnsley’s Westland Windows, a tradesman with 30 years of experience and more than 60 pieces of positive feedback on MyBuilder, said:
You get different kinds of tradesmen doing conservatories, but the main thing is that you want the company to be established and have a record, make sure they’ve done a few conservatory jobs before and are experienced. I do windows and doors as well, but I can show people my experience with conservatories and show them the previous jobs I’ve done.
Seeing their previous work is hugely useful when it comes to choosing the right tradesman for you - seeing pictures in a portfolio is useful, but arranging to see their previous jobs in person and meeting past clients is the best way to assess the quality of their work.
Lewis Sage of UPS Home Improvements in Romford has more than 150 pieces of positive feedback on MyBuilder. His company takes on several types of large building projects, including constructing conservatories. He told us:
Any good builder who takes pride in their work should be happy to put you in touch with old clients. When I’ve done a good job and the client is happy with it, I’ll say to them, can I ask a favour, can I use you for a reference in future, and it’s no trouble. I’d say to clients get out there and have a look at something the tradesman has done in your local area - there’s nothing better than actually seeing it.
Make sure you are comfortable with them
According to David, meeting a variety of tradesmen is important before selecting the right person for you:
When I meet with a client, it’s all about making people feel comfortable and reassured - they need to get the right vibes, from a competency point of view, and an experience point of view. They have to like the person who’s taking on the job.
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You can assess how comfortable you feel with the potential tradesmen 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? A conservatory job isn’t done in a day - being able to maintain good communication throughout the build is essential. You shouldn’t be aiming to become best friends with them, but you should be able to have a professional relationship. If you do feel comfortable, you can start to consider how qualified they are for the project.
Look out for experience as much as accreditation
As well as seeing previous work from builders, there are other things you can do to assess 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.
As well as being able to prove their experience, many tradesmen may also be part of accreditation schemes. Some of the tradesmen who install conservatories may be members of a variety of professional organisations. The most common ones you may encounter might include:
- The Glass and Glazing Federation (GGF): This trade association represents companies which make, supply or fit glass and glass-related products, including windows, doors, conservatories and the relevant hardware. It aims to raise standards in the industry, and offers some protection for customers who use GGF member companies, by safeguarding any deposits, and offering a conciliation service.
- Fenestration Self-Assessment Scheme (FENSA): Set up by the GGF and other bodies, FENSA is a self-certification scheme for companies that install double-glazing windows, doors and roof lights. It means members can certify their own work, without the need for a separate assessment from the local authority’s Building Control department.
- British Woodworking Federation (BWF): Members of the BWF are visited by the body and vetted to ensure they are either compliant, or working towards compliance with a code of conduct that emphasises qualities such as customer care and clear contractual dealings.
- 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.
- 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.
While full and up to date membership of a body like this is a good indicator that a tradesman is competent and working to certain standards, it should not be the main thing that sways your decision - unlike membership of the Gas Safe Register, a legal requirement for tradesman who work with gas in the home, there is no obligation for tradesman to join these trade bodies. Use your own judgement of their past work, and look into their accreditations to see what the organisation does in the way of vetting the tradesmen who use its name and logo, and protecting people who hire its members. David said:
If someone is registered it does give people some comfort, some form of accreditation is good. But some trade membership schemes are just subscriptions - you just pay and you can use their logo. It’s worth doing your research and asking the tradesman about it.
Be aware that subcontracting can complicate the process
When contracting a firm to build your conservatory, you should ask if they are planning to outsource any of the elements of the construction.
Examples of subcontracting on a job like installing a conservatory include hiring a builder to dig the foundations and do the initial groundwork for the build, or bringing in a bricklayer to construct the dwarf wall that forms the base onto which the glazing is added. Subcontracting out like this is relatively common, especially if the person you are choosing is a specialist such as a glazer, rather than a general builder.
If your tradesman is planning to use subcontractors, you should be made aware of this early in the process, and establish your own responsibilities as regards these subcontractors. In most cases, the tradesman you have hired directly will take responsibility for their work and all payments will be part of the initial quotation. However, it is worth checking who will be project-managing the work, and who will actually be on site during the build.
Establishing good communication with the person you hire, and getting all the details in writing before the work commences, are key to ensuring the process goes smoothly and dealing with any issues as they may arise.
Ensure they’re used to working with the particular product
There are a range of ways of purchasing a conservatory - buying the structure on your own and installing it yourself, or getting a tradesman to install it; buying it from a company that both manufactures and fits conservatories; or hiring a tradesman to purchase and install the conservatory for you.
As there are a number of manufacturers and brands available, David recommends that you consult with your tradesman to make sure they are familiar with the product you prefer, or they can recommend what will be most appropriate for your job. It all comes back to communication with your tradesman - did they ask enough questions to understand what you wanted from the project?
You want to make sure you’re getting a decent quality job, and make sure they know what system they’re using. There are different brands of frames and roofs and different materials. Whoever comes in should check what the requirements of the client are, what they want the conservatory for, and make sure that what they plan to do will fit all those requirements. People want conservatories for different reasons - it used to be people wanted it to grow plants, or just wanted somewhere to sit in summer. Now it’s a lot more diverse.
As he says, it’s not simply a case of one size fits all.
Get like-for-like quotes and establish a payment plan
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? The only way to accurately compare quotations is if you are comparing like-for-like. Paul Coulson of KDBS in Newcastle, a building firm which often erects conservatories and has more than 350 pieces of positive feedback on MyBuilder, said:
Getting a good quote is really important. I list everything in the quote, all separated out and itemised - what materials I’m using, what the labour costs will be. And when it’s all done, that’s the final figure you’ll be charged - there won’t be lots of extras. I have seen people get quotes from other tradesman that were massively less than mine, and I’ve been asked if I’d bring mine down, but I just say ‘no’. I know they’re are lower because they won’t be using the correct materials, or they’ll try and add things on later.
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 reputable tradesman will generally not expect, or ask for, the total value of a conservatory job up front. However, depending on the scale of the job, a small deposit is not uncommon. Paul said:
You have to sit down together and come up with something that works for both of you. If it’s a job that only takes a week, I’m happy to take full payment after the job is complete and all the work is finished.
Check their familiarity with planning permission and building regulations
The majority of conservatories are exempt from needing planning permission as long as they adhere to certain requirements, mainly concerned with the size of the extension. Other restrictions may apply if your home is listed or live in a conservation area. Conservatories are usually exempt from needing building regulations inspections as well.
Although it is unlikely, it is always worth checking with your local planning office to inquire about the relevant permissions, and it is important that your tradesman is aware of them before beginning work. Experienced builders will be knowledgeable about the latest requirements, and how they are dealt with by the planning departments of various local authorities - they may even know planning officers to ask for advice. Some firms, especially those that focus on installing conservatories, may manage the whole process on your behalf if it is necessary.
It is always worth doing some research on your own - David said that most clients nowadays are “savvy” about planning permission, because the internet has made it so easy to do the research - but even checking if other houses in your street have conservatories can help give you a good idea as to your situation. Watch out for tradesman who insist that no conservatories need planning permission - breaching planning requirements can lead to fines and being forced to undo any work. As David said:
Most conservatories don’t need planning permission, but there are exceptions and it helps to do some research on that. When you work across different local authorities, you find they work in slightly different ways, so it’s worth hiring someone who familiar with the relevant building departments and keeps in touch with them.
I’m very familiar with local planning offices and all the Building Control staff. When they come on site, they say hello and shake my hand, because they know I do a good job. The whole process is easier with that experience.