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How to Handle Disputes with Builders and Rogue Traders

What action can you take against Cowboy Builders and Rogue Traders?

Problems can arise at any point during the process of having work done on your home. While it should not be too difficult to set things right if you are dealing with an honest builder – see our section on home improvement complaints for more on this – some builders are only out to fleece money out of the hardworking homeowner and do not care about the quality of their work. These are known as rogue traders, or, more popularly, cowboy builders.

Spotting a rogue trader

The best way to deal with rogue traders is not to get involved with them in the first place. Of course, this isn’t always possible, but there are a number of warning signs that could tip you off to the fact that a builder is not to be trusted.

Be careful of a builder who:

  • refuses to give you their details, or gives false details

If they won’t tell you anything about their business or provide you with contact details, they may be intentionally making it difficult to get in touch with them. Also, if they refuse to provide any references, they could be hiding something.

Another warning sign is if they claim to be working for a particular company or belong to a particular trade association when this is not the case. For this reason, it is worth checking up on this if they claim to be associated with a company or organisation – many people will just take rogue traders at their word when they make such claims.

  • doesn’t set out or follow plans

Any builder who refuses to offer or sign a contract is to be avoided, as this is a clear attempt to avoid the obligations that come with a legally binding contract. If they won’t give you a written quote or estimate, it could mean that they plan to charge far more than originally suggested, or claim that they never agreed to do certain work.

  • has questionable financial practices

If your builder asks for payment up-front to cover the cost of materials, they may be unreliable. A trustworthy builder with a successful business should be able to afford the building materials themselves and recoup the costs once the work is done.

Also, while it may go against your desire to get a good deal, beware of builders who offer quotes or estimates which are a lot lower than those of other builders. This may be because they have no intention of sticking to these numbers or even doing the work, or they may be extremely inexperienced and not even know how much the work would normally cost.

The same is true of builders who only accept cash or do not charge VAT when they should. While they may insist that you are both getting a good deal by doing this, you should consider that if they are willing to breach the law in order to offer cheaper estimates to customers, they will just as happily rip you off if they get the opportunity.

  • seems in a rush to begin the work

Some cowboy builders will sign up to do a lot of work in a particular area, start the jobs or complete them to a poor standard, then go somewhere else to avoid being tracked down by their victims.

This means that it is in a cowboy builder’s interest to take on as much work as possible in a rush so that they can get paid by as many people as possible before they need to flee. While it’s great to find a builder who can begin the work promptly, if you feel like they are hurrying you to agree to the work or desperate to start on it very quickly, this might be a hint that something is wrong.

Getting rid of a cowboy builder

If you are in the unfortunate situation of having paid a rogue trader or an incompetent builder to do work on your home, it will likely reach a point where you realise that they are not doing things properly and their building work is far from satisfactory. Once you notice this, you will usually have to give them an opportunity to fix it. Point out the poor quality of the work and ask them to do what is necessary to improve it.

Sometimes they might have done such a poor job of things that you do not trust them to fix it. In these cases it might help you to get a second opinion from another builder, to make sure that the work really is as bad as you think. If it is, then you can tell the first builder that you refuse to let them do any further building work because it has not been done with “reasonable care and skill”. This is a legal requirement under the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982, so their failure to meet these standards means that they have failed to live up to their contractual obligations.

It is important that you only take this approach if you have good reason not to allow them back - for example, if you find that someone you hired to install a boiler is not actually qualified to work with gas appliances. Ordinarily, you are expected to give a builder at least one chance to fix their errors, so telling them that you will not let them do so should only be done in extremely serious circumstances.

If such circumstances do arise, once you have told the builder that you will no longer be using their services, you can ask them for a refund for the parts of the work that were unsatisfactory, as well as claiming for any additional costs that you may have to pay to get another builder to fix their mistakes. You may also be entitled to receive compensation for any other financial loss as a result of their poor-quality work.

If they refuse to pay you the money they owe, you can take them to court to claim it back.

Getting your money back

Our section on home improvement complaints gives you all the advice you need to make a complaint to legitimate traders after they have finished their work, but unfortunately with cowboy builders your complaints will likely fall on deaf ears, if you are able to contact them at all.

If you can track down the builder, you could take them to court over the poor quality or unfinished work. This can prove difficult, as experienced rogue traders are used to giving wronged customers the slip and may take careful steps to avoid signing any paperwork that would serve as evidence in court. If you do succeed, however, you could claim against them for the cost of any work you were not satisfied with and the amount it cost you to have it put right, as well as compensation for any further financial loss you suffered as a result.

If you paid the builder with a credit card, you may be able to reclaim your money from the credit card company under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974. If the building work was insured, you could try to make a claim on your insurance policy.

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