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Category: Tradespeople and builders advice

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If you’re a self-employed tradesman, the newspaper headlines this morning wouldn’t have made for happy reading.

“Rob the Builder”. “Spite Van Man”. “No Laughing Matter” – the government has been criticised by all sides for its budget plans.

Some of the biggest news to come out of chancellor Philip Hammond’s budget announcement yesterday concerned the self-employed. If the plans go ahead, the Class 4 National Insurance contributions paid by self-employed workers, such as plumbers, electricians and decorators, will rise from nine per cent to 11 per cent in April 2019. According to the Sun newspaper, the move will hit 2.84 million people, costing them each £240 a year.

At the same time, sole traders who have become incorporated and pay themselves with dividends instead of an annual salary will also be hit, with the tax-free amount they can hand themselves cut from £5,000 to £2,000 a year, which the Sun estimates will be an average hike of £320 a year for 2.2m workers.

In a case study, the paper looks at self-employed painter and decorator Sandie Webster, who’ll be out by £60 a year when the changes come in. The Lincolnshire tradeswoman will benefit from Class 2 National Insurance being axed, only to be hit by the rise in Class 4. “With no holiday or sick pay, I’m thinking twice about whether I should give up being self-employed,” she told the paper.

The government, which has previously pledged to freeze or cut taxes, is facing a backlash from its own MPs over the proposals, with former Tory minister Andrew Murrison expressing concern for the people running their own businesses: “This party on this side has always been, I hope always will be, the party that supports white van man.”

Pressure is growing on the chancellor to backtrack on the National Insurance changes – but at the moment, he’s insisted they will go ahead.

 

All over the country, tradespeople are waking up every day and going to work. Whether digging out foundations or clambering around the chimney pots, they’re all united by their hard graft and commitment to a job well done.

At MyBuilder, we want to help homeowners find the very best tradespeople, and that means showing off all the great work that tradesmen on the site are doing every day. We love writing about the lengths tradesmen go to to make the jobs happen, but as the old saying goes, a picture speaks a thousands words, so as well as writing, we’re travelling the country to capture tradesmen hard at work.

If you have a job that you think shows off your skills, or a project that you know will make onlookers say “wow”, let us know, and we’ll do our best to try and document it – and you. We’ll even let you have a set of the professional shots for you to use, at no cost. Get in touch with our photographer Andrew at andrew@mybuilder.com, and you could join our other photo stars:

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Adam Prentice of White Knight Central Heating and Plumbing Services hard at work replacing a radiator

 

insulation

Martin Johnson of Evergreen Power adds a layer of insulation to a roof in Croydon

 

Daniel Morgan - Roofer

Danny Morgan (r) and his crew at Morgan Roofing finish off a complete roof replacement in Hampton

 

Ben Robinson - Tree Surgery

Ben Robinson of Clear Cut Trees takes down a tree in North London

 

Carl Lamon - Chimney & Fireplace Specialist

Carl Lamon of Oxon Stoves adds a new flue to this chinmey in Didcot

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It’s always interesting to hear stories of what famous people did for a living before they hit the big time. Harrison Ford was a carpenter before he was Han Solo. George Clooney worked as a door to door insurance salesman. Similarly, many tradesman worked a variety of other jobs before finding the career that was right for them – though not many can claim to have worked in a tights factory.

Neil Burrows is one of the ones who can. Before he and friend Nigel England set up business together, Neil worked making dyes for Pretty Polly, an historic British tights manufacturer. It’s a far cry from fitting kitchens, but like many tradesman, neither Neil nor Nigel followed the simplest paths into the business.

N England Joinery, based in Sutton in Ashfield, has been working through MyBuilder for five years, and completed hundreds of jobs, focussing on kitchen fitting. During that time, the pair have racked up more than 120 pieces of positive feedback, with no negatives – a testament to how well they work together.

The pair began working together after taking redundancy from the same large firm at the same time. Nigel had originally trained as a joiner after leaving school, gaining NVQs in the trade before working for a firm that did fitting work for the NHS. Meanwhile, after a spell in the world of hosiery, Neil also got into the world of joinery, focussing on commercial businesses – fitting out shops and restaurants. “One of the jobs I did was the KFC in Leicester Square. After leaving Pretty Polly, which was a big local employer, I worked all over, across the Midlands and down to London. Eventually I ended up closer to home, but the firm was shrinking, and Nigel and I both ended up taking redundancy around the same time.”

Kitchen Fitters United

 

Living around the corner from each other, and both interested in setting out out on their own, they realised that pooling their resources could make sense.

“It just looked like the sensible thing to do,” Nigel said. “We lived so close and both wanted to do the same kind of thing. It didn’t take long to think that if we worked together, we could make a better go of it. Thankfully, that turned out to be the case.”

As a working partnership, the two have found that while cooperating is key, it also pays to let their individual strengths shine through.

“We get on well together,” Neil told us. “When we’re working on jobs together, we get stuff done very quickly. I think we both have parts of the job we enjoy that the other isn’t so keen on, which helps. Nigel has more of a background in the joinery side of things, so he likes to work with the work surfaces, doing the cutting and fitting. I do a lot more of the plumbing work. But we both have to do the tiling.”

At the same time, there’s work they prefer to stay away from. Nigel said: “When it comes to floors, unless it’s tiling, we tend to stay away it. Lino especially is a real pain, if it’s cheap it just rips easily and is a nightmare to deal with. And when it comes to electricals, we have a friendly electrician who can come and do the work properly and sign it off – we just have to tidy up after him.”

Despite now being self-employed, the duo feel more secure in their work than ever before. “It gives us more security, if anything,” Neil said. “People always need work doing, and we’re around to do it. We go all over the area. Usually we’re out six days a week, and we’ll be giving quotes on off days and in the evenings. We’ve never been short of work. It feels like people are tending to stay in homes for longer and do them up, rather than move house, which works for us.”

Personal and professional

 

As well as getting work through MyBuilder, they also pay attention to work that comes their way through personal recommendations. When we met the pair, they were fitting a new kitchen for a homeowner who had been referred to them by a past client who’d found them on MyBuilder. “You have to do the work you get recommended for,” Neil said, “or people stop recommending you.”

Alongside glowing recommendations, the partnership also regularly work as installers for DIY giant B&Q. “We have a have a great relationship with them,” Nigel said. “We can take measurements then take it into B&Q and they produce pictures of what the kitchen will look like. It helps the customer to visualise the kitchen”.

While the pair are keen to help homeowners get the best results possible, they typically find homeowners can sometimes be too keen to get the work underway. Nigel said: “We sometimes find people have been out and bought a kitchen online. It comes and it just isn’t up to scratch, they don’t really know what they’ve bought, and it just won’t do the job. Then other times, people buy them, all the units and worktops arrive, and they have to put them somewhere while they’re waiting for the actual fitting to start. People underestimate how many boxes there’ll be, and how much space they’ll take up. Because you can’t keep them outside in the garden or anything – if they get wet, or it gets cold, they can get damaged and warp. We’ve been round to start a job and found people’s living rooms piled high with everything. It’s not the best way to go about it.”

While it’s not best practice, it shows how ready people are to have work done, and how much demand is out there for tradesmen like Nigel and Neil. They might be busy for the foreseeable future – but fitting kitchens makes a nice change from dyeing tights.

See their full profile here.

Advice for other tradesmen

 

  • Go hard at the start: Setting up a small business by themselves, the pair needed to find work, fast. “You just have to go for it,” Nigel said. “Try and get as much work as you can, and be prepared to charge a bit less than others might in the beginning so your name is out there and you’re getting recommendations. On MyBuilder, just keep going for leads – it’s the best way to start getting the work rolling in.”
  • Build relationships as well as kitchens: It’s a people-facing business, and the more you connect with a customer, the better business can be. “You have to have good relationships with people”, Neil said. “It’s important to build that straight away. Anything that can help develop that is good – we have a good relationship with B&Q and can pass on the discounts, which pays dividends.”
  • Sort out your schedule: While taking on as much work as possible makes sense when you’re starting out, there comes a point where you need to be systematic about how you book yourself out. “You have to be careful with overlapping jobs,” Nigel said. “Especially when it takes several weeks for ordered kitchens to be delivered, you have to be smart about how long you give yourself, and how much you’re doing. It’s fine to go and give quotes, but be realistic about when you can fit people in – don’t over-promise and stretch yourself.”

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Ask a builder what their favourite project was, and they might point you to all kind of jobs. An extension that helped a growing family make the most of their property. A conversion job that meant a disabled homeowner could have more independence. But for some builders, their favourite jobs are even more personal. And it doesn’t get much more personal than building your own house.

For Yaz Meer, of MPM Builders, building his own home was a dream that came true – even if it wasn’t a job that he was ever able to prioritise. “When you’re a builder,” he says, “your own house is always the last to get done.”

But with the help of one labourer, and an experienced bricklayer who came in to sort some of the details, Yaz built his own home in 12 months, taking on everything from digging out the foundations to fitting the bathroom.

Start as you mean to go on

It’s an especially impressive achievement when you consider that, like many tradesmen, Yaz doesn’t have much in the way of formal qualifications or accreditations. His career in the building industry began young though, leaving school early in order to start going out on site with his dad. From there, it might seem like a straightforward path to setting up on his own with years of experience under his belt, but things didn’t quite go that way.

“I liked being out with my dad, but I didn’t stick at it. I ended up packing it in and getting a job in a warehouse. It’s odd to think now, but I actually wasted six years of my life there, just moving boxes around.”

Thankfully, like riding a bike, Yaz never quite forgot his trade skills, and when he finally picked up the courage to pack in his warehouse job, he was able to go back to his roots as a jobbing tradesman. As his house-building skills show, he has a wide range of abilities, and when we visited him at home in Nottingham, he struggles to pick a favourite when asked what he most enjoys. “I know people say you’ll just be a jack of all trades and a master of none, but I honestly do think I’m pretty good at most of the things I’ve tried. I’ll turn my hand to anything.” He points to the garden decking outside: “I built that after we moved here, not having done decking before. The neighbours liked it so much, they asked me to go over and do some for them as well.”

Despite having an omnivorous attitude to jobs, he’s settled into a few particular niches, particularly bathroom fitting. “I like fitting a bathroom, and I think my wider experience helps with it. If someone is just a bathroom fitter, sometimes they won’t think about the bigger picture, they’re just focused on putting in a new suite and that’s it. Because I’m a builder too, I can take a different approach, and think about things like taking out walls to really make use of the space.”

A night on the tiles

Sadly, bathroom fitting also brings him into close contact with his least favourite activity. “Tiling! I hate tiling. I wish I could just wave a magic wand and have it done. I know it means the job is nearly finished, but I just hate it.”

He still does it though, as he does most jobs. While he’ll bring in a Part P registered electrician for electrics, and a Gas Safe engineer for any gas work, he’s reluctant to bring in anyone else. “Sometimes I think about expanding the business, and having other people work for me, but I’m concerned about my reputation. I need people I can trust to do the job properly. At the end of the day, it’s my reputation on the line.” So far, it’s a reputation that has seen him gain 100% positive feedback on MyBuilder.

Working by himself means there’s always work to do, being hard at it for five days a week and visiting potential clients at weekends to give quotes. After building his own business and building his own home, does he think about hanging up his tools? “Sometimes I think I’d love it if I could retire at 50,” he muses. “But at the same time, I also know I’d get really bored.”

Thankfully, there might be someone to carry on the family trade, with his youngest son keen to follow in his footsteps. If he comes up to Yaz’s high standards, there’ll be plenty to do around the house, as he looks to swap his home’s kitchen and living room. If he gets round to it of course. “That’s the problem,” he sighs. “It’s always the last thing to get done.”

See his full profile here.

Advice for other tradesmen

  • “Make sure you take the time to listen to what the customer wants. I work five days a week and save my quoting for weekends. That means I can sit down with the customer and understand what they want without them feeling rushed.”
  • “Be careful about who you choose to work with. If you’re the project manager, it’s your reputation on the line. Make sure you trust anyone doing work with you to do it up to your standards.”
  • “Look after yourself. You have to look after your body a bit, especially if you’re doing things like tiling, down on your knees all day. It takes its toll. You have to understand your limits. You can’t keep going forever, you have to be sensible.”

stephen-m

Doctors will also tell you that when it comes to your health, prevention is usually better than cure.

Ask Stephen Mackinlay about home security, and he’ll tell you the very same thing. “A lot of jobs come from people who’ve had incidents,” he told MyBuilder. “People who’ve been burgled, or their neighbours have just been victims of it. Now, thankfully, people are more conscious of home security as a preventative step.”

Stephen’s business, London-based DRAM Fire & Security, has been helping homeowners and businesses look after their property since 2010, but has been increasingly busy over the past year as people grow ever-more conscious of security issues. “We’re really busy at the moment,” Stephen said. “I’ve seen a growing awareness. A lot of people are even installing DIY security systems. You can get a four-camera system on the high street for £200. The issue is, people don’t know what they’re buying. They don’t know if they’re going to get something worth having – I’ve taken out dozens of systems after people realised the quality of them just wasn’t good enough.”

 

Good image

 

“Buy cheap, buy twice” is a common saying, and one that Stephen heartily agrees with, and one he advises other tradesmen to abide by. “One thing I never do is use cheap equipment,” he says. “We only supply HD systems and upwards. They can connect with your phone, tablet or computer. If you want want to monitor people, you need a good image – the whole point is to to see people.”

In the six years Stephen has been running the business, which now employs two labourers and an engineer alongside Stephen, he’s built up a wealth of experience, which he’s been offering to MyBuilder users for the past year, gaining 100% positive feedback so far. Originally from Liverpool, Stephen travelled down to London 12 years ago and realised the potential opportunities for starting his own business in the city. “I’ve always been a hands-on person. I came straight out of school and wanted to work. It was certainly the right choice for me.”

All the hands-on experience means Stephen has a wealth of knowledge to pass on to homeowners when it comes to their security – though he often wishes he were involved in their plans sooner. “Security is one of the last things people tend to think about in a build. We’re the last ones to come in, after everything has been painted and decorated. Really, we want to be going in at the same time as the electrics. By the time people want us, they sometimes don’t have the budget left.”

 

No suprises

 

Stephen’s recommendations for homeowners looking to improve their security begin with security lights – in his words, “the most cost-effective thing you can do”, followed by an alarm system, and then CCTV. He likes to meet every potential client to assess their needs – as he puts it, “I don’t like surprises, when I’m giving quotes on something I haven’t seen.” He adds: “We take our portfolio and show them what we’ve done before. We’re not always the cheapest option but people feel comfortable with us and want to use us.” For experienced tradesmen, he says, being the cheapest option isn’t what wins you the work – it’s being able to show your experience and your quality.

One of the services offered is a full maintenance contract, something especially useful for commercial clients. “It makes sense for us to go back and ensure everything is running smoothly,” he said. “Sometimes it’s the simple things that can cause issues, like a spider making its web in a camera lens. You might not notice it until you really need the footage, and then it’s too late. It’s like servicing a car. It needs upkeep or it will fail.”

In Stephen’s line of work, you never stop learning or improving – a lesson all tradespeople can learn from. The business has expanded to cover fire protection, and is doing more work in the area. Meanwhile, changing technologies mean there is always more to know. “We’re looking now at home automation. Everything from lights, to music, to alarms, to cameras. The whole smart home.”

If you’re smart, it pays off to think about home security – after all, prevention is better than cure. Stephen’s experience means he can diagnose every problem, before it’s too late, whether it’s protecting a client’s property, or growing his business.

Check out Stephen’s MyBuilder profile here.

paulcatonheaderFINAL

If practice makes perfect, then Paul Caton must be pretty good at his job.

25 years of installing boilers. 200 boilers a year. The numbers might not be exact, but after thousands of boiler installs, Paul obviously knows his way around a central heating system.

The success is reflected in Paul’s MyBuilder profile – since he joined the site in 2010, Paul has racked up 356 pieces of feedback, and every one of them is positive.

Ask him about his success though, and the Chesterfield-based engineer is keen to deflect any praise, being more likely to attribute his good reviews to a quirk of geography rather than his lengthy experience.

“I can get a lot of good feedback because I do a lot of jobs,” Paul says. “Where I live, I’m literally just off the M1. Five minutes to the junction with no traffic. With that, I can be up to Leeds, down to Nottingham, in to Sheffield – anywhere I need to go.”

Regardless of the size of his patch, Paul wouldn’t be picking up the jobs without his experience.

 

Diamond Geezer

 

As if his recommendations on MyBuilder weren’t enough, Paul is one of a handful of Worcester Bosch diamond accredited installers in the UK, as well as being an approved Valiant and Baxi boiler fitter. It means he can offer longer warranties on the products and his work, giving homeowners extra piece of mind.

Like many tradesman, Paul is a trade lifer – beginning his career when he was still just a teenager, going out on jobs with his dad.

Paul said: “I was probably only 14 when I started going out on jobs with my dad. He was a plumber, and I’d tag along on Saturday mornings and when I was on my school holidays. Now, sometimes when I’m busy, my dad will tag along with me – it’s come full circle if you like.” He added: “I’m trying to get my own son to come on jobs now. He’s 14, the same age as when I started. He’s not quite as interested as I was though – I think he prefers football, to be honest.”

From his days as a teenaged apprentice, Paul expanded his skills and joined up with a commercial firm, widening his knowledge of different trades, but soon coming to find that gas work was where his passion was. After a few years of working for other people, Paul decided to set out on his own, launching his own company, Paul Caton Gas Services, 15 years ago.

 

Seven days a week

 

It’s not a job for people who like lie-ins or weekends off. When we met up with Paul on the job in July, he was fitting yet another boiler, his 150th of the year, with many more in the pipeline, not to mention a list of quotations to give out on weekends. “It is busy, yeah,” Paul admits, “and I’m not always the best at keeping on top of the phone calls and organisation and stuff. But you have to do your best to keep up with it – you need to keep your business head on as well as doing the actual work itself.”

Something is going right for Paul though, with a small team working with him and plenty of work lined up. It’s got to the point where Paul can afford to be more choosy about the jobs he takes on – passing on inspection work to a friend, while he sticks to installation and replacement jobs. He’s also OFTEC qualified, meaning he can install oil-based heaters, another string to his bow.

“I’ve seen it all while doing the job,” Paul says. “You do sometimes see dangerous stuff – people have to get a qualified gas fitter, someone on the Gas Safe Register, to do their work. But sometimes you just see strange stuff, where someone’s cut a corner, and you just wonder why. The other day I got a free foot pump because another tradesmen must have used it when they installed the boiler, found it too awkward to get back from behind the boiler, so they just left it there.”

It’s not the only pearl of wisdom Paul has picked up over his time in the trade. He’s learned a number of things that help him win new work, and then win over clients when he’s in their home. When we visited him hard at work, he was easy to find, with high-quality flag-style signs out in front alongside his van, advertising his presence to the neighbourhood. “I always have something up outside the property when I’m working on it,” he said. It means that people know a little bit about what’s going on inside, and Mrs Jones up the road might take the details so that she knows who to call if she needs work doing.”

 

Clean and tidy

 

As well as dressing up the front of the house, he also makes sure the interior is looked after, putting down plastic sheeting throughout house to make sure the place stays clean and tidy. Paul said: “We always put this down – we buy a job lot of it so it costs us very little, but it means a lot to the homeowner.”

Looking after the homeowner also means going the extra mile for them, encouraging all his clients to buy quality boilers with long-standing guarantees. “If you do buy a quality boiler, it comes with a 10-year guarantee,” he says. “It might cost a bit more, but that peace of mind is priceless. The same with all the extra bits. I do a lot of digital thermostats now that connect with wi-fi, so you can control your heating from your phone or tablet. A quality thermostat like that might cost £200, but it comes with a two-year guarantee, and is massively useful.”

He’s also urges people not to buy cheaper boilers online – although they may look like bargains, the lack of protection can mean issues down the line. It’s a problem he’s had himself. Paul says: “Not long ago I actually managed to buy an AGA off Ebay. It was a lovely thing, in racing green, and a great price.” So what went wrong? “My wife wanted a red one.”

It shows that even the experts can get it wrong sometimes. Paul might have a bit of practice left to do yet.

 

See Paul’s full profile here.

 

Advice for other tradespeople

 

  • Stay on top of your admin: Paul is the first to admit that it can be a struggle to keep up to speed with all the phone calls coming in and appointments being made. “It is difficult to do. I’m used to actually doing the work and getting my hands dirty, not the whole organisation side of things.” But he also knows that being efficient with all the admin is the key to bringing in new work and keeping clients happy – both before the job starts, and after it’s finished.
  • Keep things neat and tidy: A bit of care can go a long way. Paul is big fan of taking steps to look after the home, using plastic sheeting throughout the house to keep the worse of the dust and dirt away. “It really does help. At the end, we just take it up and throw it out, and that’s it, everything is as good as new, and the homeowner really thanks you for it. It’s not a lot of effort on our part, but it shows we’re looking out for them.”
  • Be your own salesman: The best person to champion your work and your business is you – and if there is an easy opportunity to promote yourself, you should take it. Paul says: “It’s such a simple thing to do and it brings in business. I’m getting a new van with nice sign writing, and I always have signs up out the front of any job I’m doing. If you put it out there, people come to you.”
MyBuilder is an online marketplace for homeowners and landlords to find quality tradesmen. The blog features advice for home improvement projects and builders.
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