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How to Deal with a Dodgy Builder


Dodgy builders. Also known as cowboys, rogue traders and often synonymous with taking their tea with two sugar as well as taking your cash without finishing the job. Recently, the Federation of Master Buildings declared that around £1.5 billion worth of work is undertaken by dodgy builders every year, with consumers who pay builders in cash losing the equivalent of £712,000 a day in botched work, which then must be repaired.

The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) say that they’re inundated with around 10,000 complaints each year about rogue traders. Of course, dodgy builders don’t advertise that they’re dishonest – and you may very well know someone who’s been taken for a ride.

Yes, sometimes it’s easier than you’d imagine to fall victim to the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Because of this, rogue traders often ruin things for perfectly trustworthy tradesmen. Luckily we’ve come up with our brief guide on dealing with these cowboys – from how to spot them to getting your money back after a job goes wrong.

How to Spot a Dodgy Builder

There are certain red flags that might indicate that the builder you’re talking to isn’t totally trustworthy. If you suspect that their way of working is different to that of a genuine business, then chances are that they’re not 100% legitimate. Here are some warning signs to be aware of:

  • Ask to be paid upfront – a reliable builder should only be paid once they’ve completed the job, or have done a reasonable amount of work to the agreed standard
  • Ask to be paid in cash – if a builder only accepts cash-in-hand payments, then they might be acting dishonestly by avoiding VAT
  • Unwilling to give you an exact timeframe or written estimate – this indicates that they’re not planning to stick to the time agreed or decided fees
  • Offer an unusually low quote – this could show their inexperience at being able to give accurate figures. Remember: if things are too good – or cheap – to be true, they probably are. Instead, find three separate quotes from different tradesman and compare
  • Unable or unwilling to provide references – if they’re unable to show good recommendations, then they’re probably not worth hiring
  • Eager to start work right away – dodgy builders often quickly complete lots of work in one area before moving on to somewhere else completely new, leaving unfinished or poor standards of work behind
  • Claim to be a trade association when this is not the case – always check that your builder is part of the trade association that they claim to be. Too many people take dodgy builders at their word

It’s also a major red flag if they insist on not drawing up a contract. “My word is my bond” just shouldn’t’ cut it in a situation like this. A contract acts as a legal binding and should clearly state your desired timeframe, agreed figure of payment and what you expect your contractor to do and not do. If a builder tries to skirt around drawing up a contract, then he’s obviously not planning to stick to whatever is stated within it.

Alarm bells should ring too if they just have a mobile number, an unbranded van and refuse to give you more details about their business. Without registered premises, a landline number or solid references, they can quite easily disappear should you need to chase them for money. Suddenly, you’ll have a phone operator declaring that the mobile number you are calling is ‘no longer available’.

Indeed, there are plenty of stories out there of a client and builder reaching only a verbal agreement over a renovation (we’re talking thousands of pounds), only then for the builder to disappear after receiving their deposit (around 25% of the overall amount). Unsurprisingly, the client is then unable to track them down.

How to Keep Yourself Covered

Although not wanting to draw up a contract is a red flag, it also helps in keeping you covered. Having everything in writing should help to protect you should any problems arise; a contract is your safety net in a business transaction of this nature.

Research is also key to keeping yourself covered. It’s worth looking at a builder’s past work if possible – were their past customers happy, and did they complete it to the standard, time and cost that they had agreed? The Ombudsman Service found that 57% of homeowners did not check credentials before commissioning work, leaving them with cracking, electrical and structural problems later down the line.

It’s well worth asking friends and family for recommendations and to find out if the builder in questions is part of a trade group. However, some dodgy builder firms have allegedly set up fake memberships to seem legitimate in that manner.

The most reputable tradesmen, though, should have the OFT Approved Code logo. This verifies that their business runs to higher standards than the law requires. You can look out for the Trustmark logo too. Alternatively, you can reach out to your local council, who should have a list of vetted, registered contractors in your area. Consumers can also find traders who have been inspected and approved by Which? on their website.

Of course, money is a vital factor in protecting yourself. Did you know that three-quarters of botched jobs are done cash-in-hand? While we’ve said that this is a red flag for spotting a cowboy builder, it’s also the easiest way that the builder can get away with things. All they have to do is fold the notes, put them in their pocket, drive off in their van, and there’s no record of the exchange of money between you two if things later end up in court. Only ever pay for work that’s been completed and to the standard that you’d agreed beforehand, in writing.

It’s also important to keep copies of any correspondence between you and your builder, both leading up to the deal and during any work. Communication such as emails and text messages all act as evidence should your builder vanish into thin air halfway through the job.

Can you get your money back?

This is the burning question that people ask when their cowboy walks off into the sunset with their money and leaves their property in disarray. So, what should you do?

Firstly, you should contact the police. These dodgy builders have technically committed fraud, so you should report them to the authorities with as much information as you possibly can. Recently, a cowboy builder father and son were ordered to pay back more than £2000,000 to their victims after being reported to the police.

Trading Standards also take a very strong stance against dodgy builders, so make sure that you report your rogue trader to them as well – they may be able to help negotiate a settlement or help mediate a solution. In fact, a recent investigation by Trading Standards helped in the prosecution of a rogue trader, who took £2,200 from a homeowner only to leave her bungalow with multiple construction faults. The rogue trader has now been fined £1,000 and ordered to pay £2,840 compensation and £500 costs.

On the condition that you can track your cowboy builder down, you can take them to the small claims court if they refuse to refund any money. If this seems like a costly option, then fear not: the small claims court can cover a small job (up to £10,000) and it won’t cost you much to take this approach.

If possible, you should try and put the job on a credit card in the first place (if the job costs between £100 and £30,000). This means that you can get your money back under the Consumer Credit Act should something go wrong. Alternatively, Citizens Advice can help with claiming your money back.

However, it’s vital to follow our steps before hiring a builder as it’ll make your chances of getting a refund much higher – and ensure that you don’t get ripped off in the first place. In fact, the Home Improvement Guarantee Scheme (HIG) now exists to prevent customers losing money. The funds are placed in an independent account to keep the consumer’s money safe against a dodgy builder and shoddy work. Once the work has been completed and the customer is 100% happy with the level of work, the final payment is released.

So, do your research, draw up a contract, keep a paper trail, look out for any other red flags and never, ever pay upfront or in cash.


Of course, if you have suspicions about a builder, then you can always change your mind. There are plenty of honourable and talented tradesmen out there, so don’t hesitate to find a builder that you can fully trust. You can then rest easy knowing that your property (and money) are in safe, reliable hands.

About the author

Daniel Lee

Company Director

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