Forget road rage – it’s during disputes between homeowners and builders that the claws really come out. Fortunately, there is a way to make sure that this doesn’t happen
It’s all very well on this page to talk about megadisputes and quarrels between commercial folk, but none of it comes within a mile of the fury, the spite and the fun that takes place in disputes at the “let’s build an extension” level.
The rot often sets in before a sod is dug, before a word of the contract is written, before a price is even given. It’s neck and neck whether it’s “the fiddle” that fascinates the parties or whether it’s the householder’s deep suspicion that all builders are bent.
The fiddle? Oh that’s that bright idea of giving you a price for the building work “free of VAT” if you agree to pay in crisp tenners – weekly, of course … Smelly? Of course it is. Fraud? Conspiracy? False accounting? Get caught? Go to jail? And as for the other thing – it’s true, it’s the devil’s own job to find a builder that cuts the mustard. Do you ask around friends, family and folk? I would.
But that, by itself, is not good enough. Start elsewhere. Start with yourself.
Mr and Mrs Homeowner, you are recommended to give yourselves a talking to. Wag your fingers at yourself.
The job that the builder promised you would be finished for Christmas will not be finished for Christmas. Right now, up and down the neat streets and houses of our fair land, are thousands of jobs that ran over into the new year. And even now, when builders say they will start the plastering on Tuesday, they don’t mean it; nobody will come on Tuesday. And yes, the contract price will be exceeded. The builder and his blokes, to whom you once happily served cups of tea, will become an utter nuisance in your kitchen.
So who’s to blame for this late completion, that zooming price, those sleepless nights? You are, Mr and Mrs Homeowner. You are, because you started this relationship in the wrong place.
For goodness sake, don’t build a £50,000 extension to your home without engaging, first and foremost, an architect or building surveyor or chartered architectural technician. No, no, not just for planning and building regs and the odd drawing. Pay for this professional to manage the whole deal, all the way to the final account and beyond, to the odd quirky defect that crops up 12 months after you occupy the extension.
Can the homeowners see that the trick is to pay a professional to hold the ring between the builder and them?
Wag some more fingers at yourself. You are daft if you don’t work out with your ‘“professional” every fraction of what you want before you go anywhere near the builder. It’s a huge mistake to say to the builder “while you’re here” please add this, subtract that, change the boiler, move the roof … that’s where time and money becomes a quarrel.
Let’s be brutal – go nowhere near the builder until you and the architect have drummed out the specification, materials, colours, name and size of the boiler, thickness of the screed and more. Then get the architect to choose the builder. Yes, all this costs, but it is worth it. If your architect takes time to do all this, wag your finger again and tell yourself “of course it always takes longer than everyone expects”. So will the bidding process and choosing the builder ...
And once you’ve got your architect, test them. Will they check that the bids match the specification and drawings? Do they recommend that the contract between Mr and Mrs Homeowner and their chosen builder is the JCT05 “Homeowner/Builder” form? And do they urge the use of the JCT form between themselves and you, the client.
While you’re at it, test your surveyors by asking if their fees include checking that the builder’s work complies with the contract as it gets built. Can Mr and Mrs Homeowner see by now that the trick is to pay a professional to hold the ring between the builder and them?
The bad domestic jobs, the ones where throats are aimed for, are those that are done for cash. Don’t play that game.
And the very worst ones are where Mr and Mrs Homeowner change their minds and specifications and still expect the job to be done on time. It will almost always be late and at a higher price than expected ...
Finger-wag yourself: that’s the trick.
Tony Bingham is a barrister and arbitrator specialising in construction