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Building with subcontractors

How to get the best out of individual tradespeople

For sheer convenience, many of those building new homes or large extensions will hand over the whole project to a small firm of registered builders. The small registered builder or contractor will undertake all the construction work precisely to the architect's working drawings and provide all the materials, tools, plant and machinery required. Rather than use a builder on a single contract, those undertaking smaller renovation, extension or building projects, will tend to use individual self-employed tradespeople, as do those who choose to 'self-manage' the build of their own home.

Self-managing the individual trades is often less expensive than placing a single contract with a builder. This is because most small builders or contractors will themselves 'subcontract' the trades to individual, self-employed tradespeople (hence giving rise to the popular term, 'subbies', short for subcontractors) and charge a premium on their labour and materials in exchange for managing them. Employing the trades directly cuts out this premium, but requires the 'self manager' to have at least a basic knowledge of the building process in order to combine all the individual trades successfully and where necessary, order the materials, plant and machinery they require to perform their trades.

Terms of employment

Employing skilled tradespeople or contractors is fairly straightforward. Although the building industry has a bad reputation for 'cowboys', with reasonable care, you can ensure professionalism and a very high standard of workmanship. There are two ways of employing tradespeople, either on a 'supply and fix' basis or on a 'labour only' basis.

'Supply and fix', means that the tradesperson will, in addition to their labour, supply all the tools and materials required to complete the task within their quoted price.

'Labour only', means just that, you are employing the tradesperson for their labour only and you are providing all the materials, plant and machinery required to complete the job. E.g. A bricklayer will have their own tools, but in addition to the materials, will require their employer to provide a cement mixer and scaffold and materials as necessary.

Certain trades are invariably provided on a supply and fix basis and they are listed here. Be sure to detail in your contract the terms of employment that you agree, with details of who is responsible for providing materials, tools, plant and machinery as appropriate.

The right person for the job

If possible, try to employ tradespeople who have been personally recommended to you by someone you trust. Referral is a tried and tested way of sourcing trustworthy contractors. Your architect, designer or package supplier should also be able to put you in touch with local tradespeople who have worked for their clients in the past. If you have no choice but to employ someone direct from an advert or the Yellow Pages, then ask to see references from their previous few jobs. Also look to see if they are a member of the relevant trade association or body. Many of the trade associations will be able to put you in touch with their members in your area. However, even if a tradesperson uses the letters of a trade association after their name, if you are suspicious, it is worth checking with that association to ensure that they really are.

Membership of a trade association will not guarantee a better job than would be provided by a non-member, but it will provide a number of safeguards. Trade associations work hard to maintain standards amongst their members and all have strict codes of practice. Once you have found one good reliable tradesperson, you may find that they are a superb source of other local tradespeople who can help you. They are likely to know others they work with regularly, perhaps for a local contractor.

Agreeing a fixed price

Before making a decision to employ anyone, it is a good idea to get a least three estimates for each trade from different contractors. Whenever possible, get them to provide you with written quotes, detailing the service they are offering you and the basis on which they agree to be employed. Do not just decide which one to employ on the basis of price. Look at the service they are offering and ask them if they will agree to the terms of your contract, including details of a fixed price for the whole job.

Above all, ensure that you are comparing like with like. Use your own judgement of character and do not be afraid to pay a little extra for someone you trust or who has been recommended to you. It is not always easy to resolve disputes if they arise, so it is important to get on with all the people you employ and to stay on good terms with them.

The work programme

If you are employing individual tradespeople, it is vital that you develop a work programme or schedule detailing which jobs need to be done and when. The cost advantages of self-managing are dependent on you achieving the same build efficiency as an experienced contractor. A work programme is vital both in detailing the tasks in your contracts and in ensuring that all the appropriate materials, tools, plant and machinery are available exactly as they are required.

When and how to pay

The first rule is never to pay for anything in advance. Only pay for the work when it is complete as agreed and you are happy with the standard of workmanship. Smaller tasks can be paid on completion only, but payment for larger jobs which take longer to complete can be made in stages.

Be sure to agree how payment is to be made before any work begins and outline what you agree in your contract . If you are not happy with the standard of the work you can withhold payment until the work has been put right.

Never agree to pay on an hourly or daily rate - it will end up costing you a fortune. Always agree a price for the complete job or, in the case of bricklayers, a price per thousand bricks, or per square metre of blocks. Try to act and think like a builder.

Treat tradespeople with respect, but never let them take liberties. Make sure that you have taken all tasks into account in your work schedule. Discovering 'extra' little jobs that you haven't accounted for can send your budget into turmoil! Especially watch out for grey areas like lead flashings and ventilation that can be done by more than one trade - you may find that no-one has quoted for the task and you will be faced with an 'extra'.