Avoiding Cowboy Builders – 5 Red Flags to Keep an Eye Out For


If you’re a homeowner that has never come across the term ‘cowboy builder’ before, we’re pleased to hear it and hope you never do come across one! In short, ‘cowboy builder’ refers to a tradesperson who carries out poor-quality work at a premium price, often leaving the job half-done or unfinished and leaving the homeowner to pick up the pieces.

When it comes to home improvements, many of the public opt to seek help from a third party, yet over 56% have stated that they’ve had to pay out of pocket to rectify the issues caused by cowboy builders.

As you can imagine, avoiding these tricksters is vital for ensuring that your home improvement project is a success and that you don’t end up paying the price for their wrongdoings.

Yet, you might wonder, how can you avoid a cowboy builder? Fortunately, there are several red flags to look out for, all of which we outline in this article (plus a few extra tips!) to ensure that you make the right choice when looking for local builders in your area.

From being wary of prices that sound too good to be true to reviewing their previous projects – keep reading to find out more.

5 Red Flags to Keep an Eye Out For

Ensure That You Get References

Ensure That You Get References

Even if the tradesperson you’ve found has a TrustMark or accreditation from The Federation of Master Builders, double-check their reviews before reaching out to them. Ultimately their references will determine their worth and authentic character, and the best way to find out both is through their past clients.

Only a fellow paying client will give you an unbiased review of someone’s work, and providing that the tradesperson you’ve found is legit, you should find loads of them on their website or their Google page.

In contrast, if they have a distinct lack of reviews, this is a red flag, and it is best to stay as far away from them as possible despite their qualifications!

If you’d like to go the extra mile, you could visit some of their finished projects, which should also be displayed on their website. Ask yourself, are these projects up-to-standard?

Would you be satisfied if the work in the photos was carried out on your property development? Are the projects recent? However, if they lack before and afters or do not have much recent work on display: red flag!

Don’t Expect Someone To Do The Job Immediately

Don’t Expect Someone To Do The Job Immediately

If someone is good at their trade, they will likely have a waiting list; therefore, don’t expect someone to be able to come and do the job immediately. You may sometimes have to wait months for a trusted tradesperson to become available because they’ll have much work on.

Although nobody likes waiting, it is good because it tells you that others are actively using the tradesperson you’ve found. If you find someone who can come out on the day you’ve called them, or even the day after, as good as it may sound, it’s a red flag.

Yet, we appreciate that excellent tradespeople could have waiting lists spanning longer than a month which is less than ideal if you’ve got a semi-urgent situation. This is where online trade directories can come in handy.

Trade directories make it more straightforward to find builders near you as they list thousands of trade businesses, including recent reviews, contact information, pictures of past projects etc., which makes it much easier for homeowners to find a reputable tradesperson.

Sites like MyBuilder can assist with this using their unique matchmaking system, which alerts relevant tradespeople to the job advert you’ve posted, allowing interested people to get in touch.

From builders and plumbers to electricians and stonemasons, you can contact hundreds of tradespeople using their site. Consider using their site next time you have a job, and see how they could help you avoid the cowboys!

Watch Out For Unmarked Vehicles

Generally, if your neighbour is having improvements on their home, you will see a big van parked out front displaying their builder’s logo, contact details, slogan, etc.

This is because most reputable tradespeople want their details on display so that neighbours, friends, and family members will notice it and potentially contact them for a future job.

In contrast, if a tradesperson parks up at a job with an unmarked vehicle, it could signal that they’re not willing to put their credentials on display because they’d like to retain anonymity, which is strange since their business relies on word-of-mouth to pick up extra clients living nearby to the jobs that they’re working on.

On the other hand, it could be completely innocent, and they could have various understandable reasons why their van lacks marketing.

But, at the same time, it is better to be safe than sorry, so if you can, try only to hire tradespeople with marked vehicles and if you can’t, ensure that you use the rest of this list to vet them thoroughly.

Be Wary Of Prices That Sound ‘Too Cheap’

Ultimately, if you’re trying to hire a third party to complete a job on your behalf, you’re not going to expect it to be ludicrously expensive. Still, you will expect to pay accordingly for the work carried out.

So, if a tradesperson gives you a quote that makes you think: “Gosh, that’s cheap!” then it’s most likely a red flag.

To avoid these red flags, it is vital that you reach out to different tradespeople, collect quotes from them and then compare what you’ve received.

Ideally, you should reach out to at least three other tradespeople, as this will give you an accurate idea of the cost you could expect to pay for your project and ensure that you don’t pay out of pocket.

Just because something can be done cheaper than another quote you’ve received doesn’t necessarily mean it will be done to a high standard and vice versa.

Yet, it is also worth bearing in mind that a reputable builder will charge more and are often busier than people who quote you less for the same project.

Ensure You Sign A Contract

Ensure You Sign A Contract

Before you give the go-ahead, you should always get something in writing that outlines your expectations and the person you are hiring expectations. Doing so gives you leverage against your contractor should anything go wrong throughout the project’s duration.

This will help you get back your money or at least part of it.

The contract should include how much the work will cost, the time for it to be completed, a late penalty clause, and the contractor’s responsibilities to ensure a stress-free project goes ahead.

All reputable contractors shouldn’t have a problem signing a contract; however, cowboy builders will and will try to avoid putting anything in writing so they cannot be held accountable.

Whilst we’re talking about avoiding disputes, you should also consider taking out insurance to further protect yourself against any unforeseen circumstances related to the build.

Typically, self-build and home redesign insurance are the best for these circumstances to ensure that you and your property are covered in the event of foul play and that you don’t end up paying the price for someone else’s wrongdoing.

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