Phil Spencer: How to find the best builders – and keep them onside

builders phil spencer
builders phil spencer

A trained surveyor, Phil Spencer is best known for fronting some of the UK’s favourite property shows, including Location, Location, Location and Love It or List it alongside Kirstie Allsopp. He has written three books, hosted podcasts and runs a property advice site, MoveiQ. Spencer joins Telegraph Money as a regular columnist to share his knowledge and experience from over 20 years of buying and selling property and operating as a landlord.

There are a few skills when working in property that, if you master them, can make a real difference to a project. You don’t have to be a professional either – it is about knowing the right questions to ask and what to look out for.

One the most important is being able to find and work with good tradesmen, it has a real impact on the success of a project.

Having any work done to your home, whether it is construction or renovation, is always a significant undertaking. Even if you don’t have to move out, living with what will probably become a building site can be exhausting and stressful.

It is also likely that something will go wrong. Even with careful planning and budgeting, there is little you can do about force majeure events; costs go up, people are off sick, timelines overrun.

But all of that is made much easier if you are able to find a team you trust and work well with.

I have said it many times (a few in this column), but when it comes to property, recommendations are worth more than their weight in gold. It is true for estate agents, and it is true for tradesmen.

If there have been builders working on a site down the road similar to your home, go and have a chat. Even better if you know the owner as they are more likely to give you an unvarnished opinion. But either way, I always think it is worth knocking on the door and asking what work they are having done and whether they would recommend the team.

Has anyone had a new loft extension on your road? Worth a knock if so. You never know, the builder may have done a few jobs in the area and come recommended. I would get three builders to quote for the job.

If you can’t get hold of any recommendations, another option is to go out for tender to different builders, especially if it is a bigger job. This is slightly controversial, and you may not be popular with the builders, but I have found it to be a good way to compare. And it lets everyone know what to expect upfront.

It costs them to tender because it takes time to get the scope of the work and go into detail. It is a bit of an undertaking so some will just say no. But others will do it, although they may say that if they don’t get the work you will need to pay for the cost of the tenders – that is not unusual.


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If they are successful and you choose to work with them, it is likely they will just wrap the cost of the planning into the overall total.

You will also be able to get an idea of how the builder operates their cost structure. Some will do the work at cost, in which case you can see the receipts, and then they charge a flat additional margin.

I think that’s really fair because it’s documented, and they should be able to get the materials cheaper than you could. In the past I have set myself up as a self-builder, the builder has sourced the materials, then I paid for them and paid for his labour.

It means you know what you’re paying, and you avoid the builder’s markup on the materials. But I am not sure I would recommend it if you’re not experienced in property.

However, a good tip for anyone, if possible, is to get most of the materials upfront before the work starts. Then you know the costs and have everything ready so you reduce the chance of delay.

But all builders will have their own way of working and to an extent you need to be flexible – there’s going to be a bit of pushback if you’re trying to influence somebody’s business model.

It is also worth considering how much they want the job. If they really want to do the work, then they’re likely to give you a better quote. If they’ve got loads on and it’s a bit of a pain to fit in, then they’re going to crank up the margin.

One strategy I have found success with is being a big job for a small builder, rather than a small job for a big builder. If yours is a small job for a big builder, you’re not likely to get much attention. I like being an important job. It’s good to try and get a sense of how much work they have got on at the outset if you can.

Builders work on a new house roof
Try to get most of the materials before the work starts to avoid delay - Christopher Furlong/Getty

There is also the old adage that “he who shouts the loudest, gets the attention that day”. But it’s a fine line. You don’t want to be in pain.

And I think this is a crucial point: people management. Now that is a real skill. You’ve got to be decisive, but the last thing you want is your tradesmen to walk off because you’ve made it hard work. That’s a total nightmare to sort; no one wants to pick up a half-finished job.

There are endless opportunities for a fall out, so keeping the lines of communication open is key. Sometimes (and I have fallen victim to this) it all starts off enthusiastically for the first few weeks. The whole team onsite every day. But as things drag and there are the inevitable delays, people slope off on different jobs and you fall down the pecking order.

So be quick and clear with decisions, and accept that there will be problems and knocks. Things go over budget, that is unfortunately the nature of the thing. But if you can start out with a clear plan and stick to it as closely as possible then it will go a long way to keeping in favour.

Another good option is to work on a decision flowchart with the contractor, so you know what needs to be decided, and by when. It gives you notice so your builder is able to say: “Next Tuesday, I need you to take the decision of where that window is going.”

Giving you extra notice reduces the chance you’ll change your mind. Builders hate when you change your mind and, of course, it adds delay.

I have seen people change their minds in the middle of a job, but then things have to be undone and suddenly the cost goes up, and the customer wants to know why. It sours the relationship.

I think what helps the relationship overall is if you bear in mind that it’s a complicated undertaking. These things are not easy, there are a lot of moving parts and plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong.

With this in mind, try not to nitpick or micromanage. You’re not the builder; you’ve paid them to do a job, so you have to trust them and not be looking over their shoulder every day.

There has to be respect and honesty. You really do not want to fall out with your builder, and so strong levels of communication and expectation management throughout the project are absolutely vital.

Calling it when it’s wrong is fine, but there is no point jumping up and down shouting because they’ll probably walk off. I had a situation where I caught a builder walking off site at 2.30pm because he was “finished for the day”. Needless to say I wasn’t impressed. But we found a time for him to come back and finish the work.

When you’re nearing the end of the job, snagging is important. It’s when you and the builder go round together and check everything is in order.

I think this is really important. I know you want the work finished and to have your house back, but something that seems small now – some incorrect wiring or piping, for example – will drive you mad in the future.

One approach is to hold back a small percentage of the final payment, maybe 10pc, until everything is sorted and final. It gives an incentive for the builder to come back and run final checks. Plus, it gives you a fund to use if you need to get someone else in.

We had one issue recently where the hot and the cold tap seemed to be the wrong way round, and there wasn’t any hot water coming out of the shower. It turned out it was going through to the toilet and flushing hot water. Check these things – you’ll be pleased you did.

One final thing: make sure you get all your relevant paperwork, guarantee, permissions, party wall awards, completion certificates, etc at the end of the job. I don’t think you should pay the final bill until you have it.

This is because when the time comes to sell, the buyers may want to see it, and if you don’t have it then you’re going to run into difficulties.

As ever, do email me with your thoughts and questions:

Phil Spencer shares his advice on his website

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