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Choosing the right builder for your loft conversion
Last updated 20th Sep 2018
If you love your home but feel like you need more room, converting your loft into usable living space can be the perfect solution. As well as increasing the size of your property, a properly finished conversion can also add significant value to your home.
With a project of this scale, finding the right loft conversion specialist to carry out the job is essential. 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:
- Have your plans ready
- Find out if they’ve done similar loft conversions 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 you 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 conversion specialist for your job.
Have your plans ready
A loft conversion is a big project, and will generally require significant structural work to complete. The vast majority of loft spaces cannot be simply transformed into extra rooms, as regulations regarding stairs and windows will apply to the newly-created space, and most lofts will not be suitable for a straight conversion as they are. With that being the case, there are three general styles of loft conversion that are commonly built, to add space and meet requirements:
- Dormer loft conversions: The most common style of loft conversion, these are an extension to the existing roof, building out sections with vertical walls from the roof to add floor space and room for windows.
- Hip to gable conversions: An option for detached and semi-detached homes where the roof has at least three slanting sides, a single hip to gable conversion fills out one of the sides by building a vertical end wall, giving you a larger amount of interior space. A double hip to gable conversion can be done on detached houses, building out on both sides.
- Mansard roof conversions: The most dramatic style of conversion involves changing the entire roof structure, adding a flat roof with sloping “walls” at 72 degree angles, and dormer windows added. It adds the most room, but significantly changes the appearance of the property.
The work you can do to your own home depends on the type of home you have, what planning permissions you are allowed, and your available budget. To begin the process, you will need drawings of the planned conversion created by an architect or architectural technician, while a structural engineer may also be required to assess the viability of a conversion, and what changes will need to be made to avoid damaging the property. This can all be done prior to hiring a builder, and in the opinion of Lewis Sage of Romford’s UPS Home Improvements, a tradesmen with more than 160 pieces of positive feedback on MyBuilder, it’s best to have it all ready before bringing a tradesman in.
I’d say in seven out of ten cases, people have their plans ready when I come in to quote, and that’s the simplest way, as I’ll know the scope of the job can give a good, accurate quote. Sometimes people have me over and they don’t have plans, in which case, I pass them on to architects I know. It’s best to have them done separately, and pay for them separately - then they’re your plans, and you can take them to different builders to get a range of quotes.
Find out if they’ve done similar loft conversions to yours
Loft conversions are not a simple, off the shelf purchase - they are as different as the homes they sit on.
When looking for a tradesman for your loft conversion, it’s sensible to speak to ones who have performed similar builds to the one you have planned, whether that be simple dormers or a full mansard roof rebuild.
As well as viewing examples from their portfolio, 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 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.
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.
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?
Loft conversions are expensive and time consuming - the entire process can typically last for several months - so 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. Lewis said:
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Getting on with someone is a thing that goes both ways. Sometimes I’ll go to meet a client and just feel that I’m not the right person for the job - I could take it on to make the money, but it wouldn’t be the best for either of us. It goes both ways - homeowners should make sure they like the tradesman and can get on with them for the long haul.
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 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 done. 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.
You can also find out if the tradesman is a member of any trade associations or accreditation schemes. Builders who work on loft conversions 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.
- 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.
Membership of one of these bodies 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. Lewis says:
A loft conversion being worked on by Lewis Sage, UPS Home Improvements
Being a member of a body like the Guild of Master Craftsmen is another string to a tradesman’s bow - it’s good to have, and shows you do your homework. But it’s not the be all and end all - it’s experience that counts.
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 both cover the same things.
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. Lewis said:
It’s vital when you get your quote that it covers everything. Does it stop at plastering, or does it include decoration? Are things like doing the skirting boards included? It’s easy to forget about these things until you get the end of the build and realise you don’t have what you want - and if you want to add them on, a tradesman can charge extra.
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 not expect, or ask for, the total value of an expensive loft conversion 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. Lewis said:
A deposit is normal, but I do advise the homeowner waits until a few days in before handing it over. See what the time-keeping 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.
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 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 keeps until final sign-off of the project, to ensure the tradesman finishes the job to standard. Lewis said
The best thing to do is sit down together, homeowner and builder, and work out a payment scheme that works for both of you. I take a deposit once the work has started then go in stages, but you have adapt to what the client can do. At the end, I leave 5% with the client until all the snags have been worked out.
For larger payments, it is common for tradesmen to accept cheques and bank transfers.
Check their familiarity with planning permission and building regulations
Many houses will have permitted development rights when it comes to loft conversions, meaning that you will not need to apply for planning permission when going ahead with the build. There are exceptions to this however, mostly related to the amount of space being added via the conversion. Additionally, if your home is within a location such as a conservation area, or is a listed property, you may have to obtain planning permission before your work can go ahead.
There are two separate sets of requirements your build may have to abide by - planning permission and Building Control (sometime called building regulations). 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 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.
If you have plans done before hiring a tradesman, you, and your architect, should have established if planning is needed, a process that typically takes around eight weeks with no complications, and requires paying certain fees. 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.
At whatever stage in the process you hire your tradesman, 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.
Ensure you check for snags before the job is finished
With a big project like a loft conversion, 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.
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.
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