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Choosing the right builder for your conversion project

Last updated 22nd Jun 2017

Whether you need more space, or are simply trying to maximise the space you already have, a conversion project can have a huge impact on the feel of your home - and its value.

But whether you’re knocking down walls to create a single kitchen-diner, or renovating a garage to be an extra bedroom, it’s essential that you find the right conversion specialist to perform the work. 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 conversion projects to yours
  • Make sure you are comfortable with them
  • Look out for experience as much as accreditations
  • Get like-for-like quotes and make sure everything is included
  • Establish a payment plan
  • Check their familiarity with planning permission and building regulations
  • Ensure the tradesman will check for snags before the job is finished

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 conversions to yours

Conversions are not a simple, off-the-shelf purchase. Each one will be a different job, whether it involves turning a box room into an en-suite, or turning an unloved basement space into a high-end home cinema room.

When looking for a tradesman for your conversion, it’s sensible to speak to ones who have performed similar builds to the one you have planned - if you are hoping to convert your garage, for example, find tradesman who have performed plenty of similar jobs.

There are various ways of finding out if their skillset matches your job. As well as being able to read feedback from previous clients on sites like MyBuilder, when you meet your potential tradesmen, you can also ask to see previous examples of their work. They can either show you pictures of their past jobs, or, even better, you can arrange through the builder to visit their previous jobs - they should be happy to put you in touch with previous clients they have done work for before. Lewis Sage of Romford’s UPS Home Improvements, a business with more than 160 pieces of positive feedback on MyBuilder, said:

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.

Lewis Sage, UPS Home Improvements

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As well as seeing the finished product, seeing a work in progress can also be invaluable, as Lewis explains:

The other good thing to do is ask if they have a build currently on the go, and go along and see that. That way, you don’t just see a nice, tidy job, you can make sure everything behind the scenes is being done properly. It also shows you that they’re a well-thought of, active company - not a firm appearing out of nowhere with no history.

Lewis Sage, UPS Home Improvements

Make sure you are comfortable with them

As well as knowing if they are familiar 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?

Conversion projects can be expensive and time consuming - some projects may only take a few days, but others can take several weeks from start to finish - and being able to maintain good communication throughout the build 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 Coulson of KDBS in Newcastle, which has more than 350 pieces of positive feedback on MyBuilder, 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.

Paul Coulson, KDBS

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If you do feel comfortable, you can start to consider how qualified they are for the project.

Look out for experience as much as accreditations

As well as reading feedback, seeing their previous work and seeing how you get on with them, you should also never be afraid to ask them questions - you should feel free to ask them about the qualifications they hold, their length of time in the business, and how they’ll approach your own particular job.

You can also find out if the tradesman is a member of any trade associations or accreditation schemes. Builders who work on conversion projects may belong to a variety of organisations. Some you may encounter 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. Use your own judgement to assess a tradesman’s experience, and see accreditation as a healthy recommendation or extra seal of approval. Paul 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.

Paul Coulson, KDBS

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Get like-for-like quotes and make sure everything is included

It’s advisable to meet with, and get quotations from at least three tradesmen. 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. Make sure they cover the whole scope of the job as well - if you want the conversion to have everything done, including things like skirting boards and door architraves, then the quotation should make that clear; both you and the tradesman need an accurate vision of what the finished job looks like.

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, or is using cheaper materials that may not be up to scratch. Paul 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.

Paul Coulson, KDBS

As Paul points out, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

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 reputable tradesman will generally not expect, or ask for, the total value of an expensive conversion job up front. However, depending on the size of the job, 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. Lewis said:

A deposit is normal, but I do advise to wait until a few days in before handing it over. See what the timekeeping is like, if they come on time and don’t leave early, if the skip comes and the scaffolding starts going up. When you’re happy everything is kicked off, then you can do the deposit.

Lewis Sage, UPS Home Improvements

Some builders may defer payment until after the build is completed, but the most common method of payment is an installment plan that sees you paying certain percentages of the total bill after various stages of the job are completed, after Building Control has inspected the work to ensure that it has been completed to standard. Other tradesman may prefer to be paid on either a monthly or weekly basis, especially over a longer timeframe, in order to cover their material costs and paying subcontractors and employees.

Some builders will also leave a retention payment - a sum of money (typically between about 2% and 5% of the overall cost of the build), which you as the homeowner keep until final sign-off on the project, to ensure the tradesman finishes the job to standard. 

Paul advocates that the tradesman and homeowner sit down together to produce a contract, signed by both parties, which details how payments will work, to ensure that both sides are happy with the process. He 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. If it’s something that will take longer, I like to work with regular payments that happen after each step of the work is done, and Building Control have signed it off. Having a written contract is the best way to operate, it means everyone knows where they stand and there won’t be any misunderstandings.

Paul Coulson, KDBS

For larger payments, it is common for tradesmen to accept cheques and bank transfers.

Check their familiarity with planning permission and building regulations

The majority of conversion projects will not require planning permission. The exceptions to this are generally if the conversion involves altering the external structure of the building, or if your home is a listed property or within a conservation area. It is always worth a phone call to your local authority’s planning office to check if your work is permitted.

While planning permission will typically not be needed, your conversion will need to comply with building regulations, as assessed by Building Control. Planning permission deals with the development of buildings and its impact on the wider community, for example, how an extension effects the street scene, or if an office block can be converted into flats. Building Control on the other hand, sets 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.

Regardless of whether or not you need planning permission, you will need Building Control to sign off the work as it happens, with inspectors coming to monitor the progress of the build and ensure it is being done in line with legal regulations.

Building regulations are likely to apply to several parts of any conversion project - if you are knocking through walls they will have to sign off on the structural soundness of the new layout, while if you are making living space from a garage, they will inspect the flooring, damp proofing, insulation and other aspects. Your local authority’s Building Control office will send inspectors to view the project as it happens to sign stages off, a process that can cause delays - you can also pay for private inspection firms to sign off work, which speeds up the process, but will cost extra. Building Control should be notified before any work begins, and you should arrange with the tradesman as to who will contact the council. During the work, builders should take pictures of their progress which can act as evidence for Building Control, to show that the work has been done to standard.

It also pays to be aware that if you are planning on removing load-bearing walls, you will need a structural engineer’s report, which can lay out what work needs to be carried out, such as installing an appropriate RSJ (a weight-bearing metal beam). As with notifying Building Control, you should be comfortable liaising with your tradesmen over who will organise a report.

Make sure the tradesman you choose is familiar with the planning situation in your area. Experienced builders will be knowledgeable about all the latest requirements and 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. Lewis said:

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. The only issue is if there are delays. With a lot of people choosing not to move house and instead improve their property, there are a lot of renovations and extensions happening, so inspectors can be booked up for a week - you don’t want to wait around for days to begin the next stage. That’s where private inspectors can be useful.

Lewis Sage, UPS Home Improvements

Ensure the tradesman will check for snags before the job is finished

With conversion projects, especially larger ones, there is a chance that there will be complications along the way. 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. Lewis said:

My policy is to leave 5% of the total cost with the client until after all the snags are dealt with. There will always be something - and it’s the homeowner’s prerogative to find any issues and flag them up - they should hold us to account. Even the best tradesman in the world can miss something. So I let them live with it for a bit, and draw up a list of any issues - skirting unfinished, issues with the paint, whatever. Then I come back and they walk me round, and we talk them all through, and see what I have to finish. When that’s done, I’ll take the final payment.

Lewis Sage, UPS Home Improvements

See if any tradesman you are considering hiring is willing to offer an option like this. 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.

Some tradesman may offer a guarantee on their work, covering it for a period of time such as five or ten years. If they do, make sure this is part of a written contract. An insurance-backed guarantee will offer more protection than a general kind, which is often little more than the tradesman giving his word - but if they are an established company with a long track record of happy customers, it can be nice to have.

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