If it hasn’t happened to us, it’s happened to someone we know. Dodgy tradesmen and cowboy builders took ages to do the work, did it wrong or simply didn’t do it at all. Everyone has a story, which is why it’s crucial to know your rights and remedies so you can be prepared at the outset.

Firstly, don’t be taken in by what appears to be goodwill on the builder’s part. You may be confident of a positive outcome, but this is a business arrangement and you must ensure you have a watertight contract that you are happy with. This would include specific clauses in relation to how much the job will cost and how long it will take. If you do not, then the assumption will the job should cost a ‘reasonable amount’ and take ‘reasonable time’ – which is subject to interpretation and may drag things out if you find yourself in dispute.

Refer to the section on Doorstep selling if you signed up to having some work done after someone paid you a visit to your home (whether or not this was an unsolicited visit).

Your statutory rights

With contracts for Work and Materials where the main focus is labour and skill, you are always protected by three statutory terms, even if you have nothing in writing, or the contract you signed does not specifically mention them. They are:

1. Reasonable care and skill

As you are buying the services of a trained professional, there is the assumption that the builder or tradesman will act with ‘reasonable care and skill’. If he does not, you can claim a breach of your statutory rights and be entitled to terminate the contract and either pay nothing further or seek to get your money back through the courts. Where substandard work has been carried out, you may well have incurred greater potential costs to have the work put right, so it is not enough simply to ask for your money back. In such circumstances, it may be more appropriate to pursue a claim for damages. Remember that where the cost of the work is over £100 and you are able to pay by credit card, you would be well advised to do so. This would make the credit card company equally liable where you were not able to recover your costs from the builder.

2. Reasonable time taken

As mentioned earlier, if you have no contractual clauses specifically in relation to timeframe for the work, the assumption is that the work will be carried out within reasonable time. Once reasonable time has elapsed you would not be entitled to terminate the contract, but you would be able to give reasonable notice, providing a deadline at some point in the future and thereby making time ‘of the essence’. If the builder then fails to meet that deadline, you would be entitled to terminate the contract. If you did agree timeframe as part of your contract with the builder, and this timeframe is exceeded, then you can automatically move to terminate the contract if the deadline is broken.

For this reason, you would always be advised to specify a date for performance and make clear in the contract that ‘time is of the essence’.

3. Reasonable cost

Just like timeframe, if you have no contractual clauses specifically in relation to fees payable, the assumption is that you will be charged a reasonable price. However, problems tend to arise where a service is commissioned, exact price cannot be given and the buyer is then presented with an extortionate bill. Where this happens, and where you have little choice but to pay (for example an emergency plumber), but you must make clear your objections at the time of paying, so that you can take action at a later date. You can do this by writing “paid under protest” somewhere on their documentation or (preferably) on the back of a cheque, and by following this up with an immediate letter to the organisation in question to dispute the price you were charged including evidence of alternative ‘going rates’.

It may be that unforeseen additional work will be required and costs will go up. It shouldn’t be by too much and you could argue that the builder could reasonably have anticipated this when providing the estimate. In any case you should limit your liability by requesting that the tradesman or builder informs you if it is going to cost over a certain amount.

It is always advisable to pay the money in stages, leaving a significant amount until the end, when you are fully satisfied that the work has been completed to satisfaction. You may be required to pay money in advance for the ordering of specific goods, but never be afraid to ask for paperwork so you can check it for yourself.

The work is half done – where do we go from here?

With the purchase of a faulty good from a shop, you can simply return the item and get your money back – putting you back into the same position you were in before you bought it. You can’t say the same for building work, particularly if they have walked off the job with it only half done. The question is, is the contract severable? It very much depends on what you are having done and what payment plan you have agreed. Upon presentation of the finished item, can you simply say that you are not going to pay for it and you are not going to give them the opportunity to make it good? This may be a little unreasonable, but if you plan to cite a breach in contract due to an absence of reasonable care and skill, you must make it clear that you are rejecting the finished item. If you have accepted it, you may have to pay all or a portion of the price agreed in the contract.

What about work is taking place in phases? Let’s say you are having a conservatory built which involves the payment of four instalments. If after the second instalment it is clear that the work is substandard you can sever the contract at that point and ask them not to return. You can then pursue damages for monies paid and additional sums if any consequential losses have been incurred (the cost of putting right the poor workmanship). If however the builder offers to redo the work, then the reasonable response would be agree, as long as it can be done ‘in reasonable time’. But what if you have lost complete faith in the builders and do not want them back at all? This is also a reasonable response, although you would have to have good grounds to claim a loss of faith. For this reason, it is always advisable to take photos and keep a diary when having any long term building work done, so you have evidence should it ever become a dispute. Many trade bodies representing firms such as builders will offer a dispute resolution service – which is always cheaper and quicker than litigation! Therefore always choose a builder or tradesman who is accredited by a trade body, association or guild which can offer this service.

Other relevant sections: