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Choosing the right builder for your restoration & refurbishment project

Last updated 26th Jul 2017

When choosing the right restoration and refurbishment specialist, there are some key issues you need to think about. In this article, we’ll take you through them step by step.

  • Put together a clear brief before you speak to anyone
  • Choose someone with lots of specific experience
  • Choose someone you’d feel comfortable working with long-term
  • Get a detailed quote from each tradesman you’re considering
  • Never pay in full upfront!
  • Ask who will actually be doing the work
  • Check that a tradesman is happy to do follow-up work
  • Ask about professional membership

Let’s look at each of these in a bit more depth.

Put together a clear brief before you speak to anyone

Before you ask any restoration and refurbishment specialist to visit your home, draw up a clear brief to give them - outlining what you’d like the project to achieve - and include as much detail as possible. Try to answer the following questions:

  • How do you and others plan to use the area concerned?
  • What issues currently exist that you hope the project will resolve?
  • What are your design priorities? For example, are you looking to create a traditional, period feel? Are you after something cutting-edge and contemporary? Or is your main concern environmental sustainability?
  • Are there any areas of your property or existing features that you’d like the tradesman to make a particular focus of?
  • Are there any practical issues a specialist should be aware of? For example, will you be away from your property during the work?
  • Have you already spoken to anyone about planning permission or building regulations? If so, what was the outcome?

Alix St Claire of Alix James Decorators specialising in redecorating and refurbishment work, and has an excellent MyBuilder feedback score. He talks about how this approach can be helpful:

Homeowners should ask each tradesman they’re considering what they would do with the space. Show them the problem area and ask them what their opinion is about what could be done.

If you ask that of every tradesman who visits to quote, it will give you a good idea of how engaged and thorough they are. With a big job like a house refurbishment, you don’t want to have to keep asking the tradesman to do this or do that. You want to be confident at the initial meet that the tradesperson understands what needs to be done.

Alix St Claire of Alix James Decorators

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Choose someone with lots of specific experience

Look for a tradesman who has plenty of relevant, recent experience: For example, a specialist who has restored or refurbished several similar properties before, using the same materials and to a similar projected timescale.

Lee Morris of L Morris Stonework & Building has a fantastic MyBuilder feedback rating. He specialises in restoring old buildings using traditional methods and materials, and explains why specific experience is so important:

For a restoration job, it’s so important that you’ve completed similar projects before - using the same materials and so on. There are certain materials you should use when restoring old buildings, and I often get asked to correct mistakes made by other tradesmen who haven’t used those materials. Lime mortar is one of the most common ones. A lot of general builders, bricklayers and so on - they usually use sand and cement and they don’t really understand how lime works. So they get the mix wrong - they prepare it wrong, they use it at the wrong time of the year and so on.

When working on old buildings, you can only really learn by doing. You can have it explained to you, but when using old materials in particular, you need to work with them and touch them and feel them to really understand them.

Lee Morris of L Morris Stonework & Building

As Lee points out, a tradesman with experience of using old materials may also find it easier to reclaim and reuse those you already have on site:

If you’re restoring or renovating an old building, I always try to use reclaimed materials. When you’re taking a building apart there’s always stuff you can use somewhere else - old beams, timbers, lumps of oak - that sort of thing. It’s a bonus for the homeowner’s budget too, if you can re-use stuff. And it always looks better as well, I think.

Lee Morris of L Morris Stonework & Building

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Choose someone you’d feel comfortable working with long-term

As well as reading the feedback on MyBuilder, it’s worth asking to see photos of previous work, and to speak to one or two of a tradesman’s previous customers. That way, you’ll be able to find out what a particular tradesman or firm is like to have around on a day-to-day basis, over a fairly long period of time.

This is particularly important with large jobs like restoration and refurbishment projects, which can go on for months. For example, as well as being competent, are they punctual and polite? Do they clean up properly after themselves? How well do they resolve unexpected problems or complications? A good tradesman should be happy to put you in touch with previous clients.

Get a detailed quote from each tradesman you’re considering

Ask at least three restoration and refurbishment specialists to quote on your project, and get each one to provide a detailed written quote with all the costs broken down. It’s important that these documents can be compared like-for-like, and should include costs for all of the following:

  • Labour - including the hire of any sub-contractors
  • Materials
  • VAT if applicable

Any extra expenses, like site maintenance and security, the removal of waste and the cost of scaffolding hire.

The quote document should also make clear the level of finish the specialist would be providing. For example, will they stop after they’ve restored the main ‘shell’ and replaced the doors and windows? Or are they offering to redecorate the property completely, up to and including the final coat of paint?

Alix emphasises:

It’s important tradesmen treat their customers as individuals - rather than just knocking out a quote that follows a template”, Alix emphasises. “I give a very explicit quote, and that protects both parties - the tradesman and his team, and the client themselves. It means everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet. That means a fully itemised quote, breaking down what labour you can expect from the team, what areas are going to be done and so on.

Alix St Claire of Alix James Decorators

If you think the quote is missing any detail, Lee adds, don’t be afraid to ask:

If the homeowner is unsure about anything, I would encourage them to ask as many questions as they want. A builder should never mind or get bored if a customer asks loads of questions.

Lee Morris of L Morris Stonework & Building

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Never pay in full upfront!

Each quote you receive should also clearly explain the payment structure a tradesman would implement. A reputable tradesman will never expect a customer to pay the full amount for a job upfront. However, a deposit before work begins - typically 25% or less of the total cost - is relatively common. This is particularly the case with big jobs like refurbishment and restoration projects, where the cost of materials can be substantial.

Once work begins, 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. Other tradesmen may prefer to be paid on either a monthly or weekly basis, to cover their material costs and ensure they can pay subcontractors and employees. Lee explains his approach:

The only money I would ever ask for upfront would be to pay for materials. I don’t think a tradesman should get paid any actual wages until they’ve done some work! I think it’s reasonable to arrange payment on a monthly basis, if it’s a big job. That way the homeowner can see what progress you’re making, and they don’t have to find really large amounts of money all in one go.

Lee Morris of L Morris Stonework & Building

Ask who will actually be doing the work

When each tradesman comes to quote on your project, make sure you ask them who will actually be doing the work. Which aspect of the refurbishment or restoration project will he be carrying out himself, and which elements will be undertaken by other members of his team, or sub-contractors?

Many good restoration and refurbishment specialists subcontract out certain tasks - this is not necessarily a problem. But it’s important you find out the extent to which work will be outsourced - and crucially, who will be taking responsibility if there are any issues. Alix describes how he operates:

I have a core of about four lads who I have on site with me constantly - I know them well, and I know I can trust them to get on with their own work. If there are any mistakes or misunderstandings, it should be the main contractor’s responsibility to sort things out with the customer. It’s my name in the company title, and I take full responsibility.

Alix St Claire of Alix James Decorators

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Check that a tradesman is happy to do follow-up work

With a large restoration or refurbishment project, there can be extra complications and issues which don’t become apparent until after the project is completed and the tradesmen have left the site.

It is, therefore, a good idea to choose a tradesman who specifies that he will be happy to return to the property and resolve any snags that arise in the weeks following the work.

Some tradesmen will put this assurance in writing, in the contract they provide you with. It’s also a good idea to ask about their attitude to follow-up work and snagging when you’re talking to any previous clients.

Lewis Sage - of UPS Home Improvements - has been a MyBuilder member since 2009 and has almost 170 positive reviews on the site. He explains his approach:

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 of UPS Home Improvements

Ask about professional membership

It’s not essential for a restoration and refurbishment specialist to be a member of any particular trade body. However, professional membership does indicate they take their profession seriously - particularly if it’s an organisation that requires them to adhere to certain standards - so it’s worth checking.

Some of the main organisations tradesmen might be members of 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. 

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