Contractors and tradespeople

We’ve just had our house done up, and some of the lessons we’ve learned and problems we’ve hit may be useful to others.

This is not an exhaustive guide, it’s simply a few pointers that stick out for us. There are many books out there giving advice on renovation and managing building work which will supply you with much more detail this short article.
How long will it take?

Whatever a contractor says at this point allow for it to take about two and a half times longer. Really. Particularly if their work is dependant on having fine weather (i.e. they’re workig outside, taking part or all your roof off, etc). There’s also a point here to not always take the quickest quote, as a builder may be quoting an optimistic completion date in order to get the work.

It’s always a balance how much delay you take before you step in and start expressing displeasure. Bear in mind that a good relationship with the contractor and a good end job is more important that beating up on them to rush the work; we had advice from a family friend who worked as a structural engineer, and he was constantly telling me “better a slow builder than a bad builder”.

Allow for a lot of mess. A lot. Lots. Imagine that someone is going to drag up mud from your garden and rake it through out your house. In the case of an electrical rewire, imagine that someone will get a bag of plaster and cement dust and pour it (not sprinkle it) enthusiastically around the floor. (This is because the electricians will dig into all the walls to embed your new sockets and switches.) In rooms where the contractors are working, expect a lot of mess, in rooms where they apparently aren’t working, expect a lesser (but still significant) degree of mess.

We suggest: If you’ve got a number of trades coming in – we had a plumber, electrician, builder and drainage company – don’t overlap them. Ensure each contract includes cleaning up and fixing any breakages (a useful phrase is “clear and remove all rubble from site”). When you hire a car the company walk you round it noting any dents and scratches, it might be a good idea to do this when the tradeperson first arrives. We’ve discovered, since the electricians leaving (and unfortunately after we’d paid them), that they had simply dumped everything under the floorboards… rubble, bricks, cement dust, old broken electrical fittings, etc, so make sure this doesn’t happen to you!

We suggest: We were told that electricians don’t like to remove the old fittings and fixtures (light fittings, switches, sockets, light bulbs, etc) from the house, as people sometimes get hot and bothered about wanting the old fittings as spares. We didn’t want our old fittings; so if you don’t, make sure you discuss this beforehand and that it’s agreed in writing.

We suggest: Roll up all carpets and store them somewhere safe. If you can’t remove them, ensure they are sealed from dust… remember, there will be lots of mess, much more than you imagine. Do not assume that the contractor will remove carpets for you, as they will be on a schedule and that extra isn’t usually included.

What do you want doing?

Each trade will have a very strong idea in their head of what a rewire, or central heating refit, or whatever, involves. What they think is required and important, will quite probably not coincide with what you think is required and important. You need to communicate, both in writing and verbally, what YOU want out of the job, before they start. Bear in mind that while you know what you want, they will have experience you can benefit from… that’s part of what you’re paying for.

We suggest: Give your brief in writing when you ask for the quote so that they know from the beginning what you want done. Include a summary (e.g. for an electrician, you might summarise as “7 rooms, 10 double sockets, 7 light fittings, 2 telephone sockets, 2 external lights”), this gives them something to quickly quote from. However, do NOT assume that the person who comes into your house to do the work has read the brief and requirements. On the first day bring a copy for them, walk them round the job and talk through everything.


Expect things to be not quite right at the end, consider it a first draft. A good builder won’t mind if you come back to them with things which need correcting. Good practice is to state what is wrong for each item, e.g. “window sill on bathroom window is unpainted”, and then politely request a fix, “please paint window sill with two coats”. Always say please, just like your mother taught you, as it makes for more pleasant reading for the contrator and they’ll be happier to do the work.

We suggest: Go carefully round the finished work with your original brief and make a note of everything that’s wrong. Send this as a letter or fax, as described above. Then arrange to meet the contractor at the house, and walk them through the list. Ensure that you’ve held back a good proportion of the money to be paid on completion of the snagging list.


It sounds like I’m saying this is going to be a nightmare, and it will certainly be hard. However, when you take that first bath, or move into the newly done out room, the pain will fade. Good luck!

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  1. I didn’t mean to begin two sentences in a row with ‘sounds like’. I got distracted by Kylie after writing the first one and before beginning the second. Hmm!

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