Embarking on building works or home improvements can be an expensive and time-consuming business, so it is important to plan carefully in order to avoid any additional problems, such as disputes with the contractor - and should the worst happen, to make sure the appropriate steps are taken to rectify the situation.
Protecting against problems
Prevention is better than cure, and it is essential to have in place a written quotation and contract before the work begins. The contract should include details of the work to be carried out, the cost of that work, the arrangements for payment and the dates for beginning and completing the work. It is also important to keep copies of all invoices and receipts relating to the work.
It is also sensible policy not to pay all of the monies due, or any significant deposits, to the contractor upfront. This will avoid the (all too common) scenario whereby a contractor disappears with the funds, without trace. Withholding the final payment until the work has been completed also provides bargaining power in the event that the work is unsatisfactory, or does not meet the terms of the agreement. (Note that if payment is being made via a credit agreement, withholding funds could affect your credit rating, so seek advice on this first.)
Should the contractor ask for any extra money at any point during the building works, it is again advisable to agree the additional costs in writing before the additional work commences.
As an added safeguard, you may wish to choose a contractor who is a member of a professional body, such as the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) or the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Such organisations set out codes of conduct, and can offer mediation or arbitration services. It is also always worth asking for references from a contractor's previous customers.
Knowing your rights
The law states that any building works which are carried out must be done so:
- with reasonable care and skill, and to a proper standard of workmanship
- within a reasonable timeframe (subject to any timescales which have been specifically agreed, and notwithstanding any delays which are outside the control of the contractor)
- at a reasonable cost (subject to any previously agreed pricing structure)
In addition, the goods or materials provided must:
- match the supplier's description, including any written description in a brochure or catalogue (and normally as described in any advertising material)
- be of satisfactory quality - meaning that they must be fit for purpose and meet the 'reasonable expectations' of a consumer. This requirement covers the safety and durability of items, as well as their appearance and finish. It also covers normal use of the goods and materials, and any specific use which the customer has pointed out to the contractor as part of the agreed job
Should the worst happen, where do I stand?
Incomplete or unsatisfactory works
If you had an agreement that the building work would commence by a certain date, and you have paid a deposit but the work has not started by that date, you may be entitled to a refund. If the work has commenced but is unsatisfactory, and you do not wish the contractor to return to rectify the problem, you need to justify this (for example, if the work has been left in a dangerous state).
Faulty goods or materials
If goods are faulty or were not properly installed, and you bought them from the contractor who installed them, you can ask the contractor to replace or repair them.
You may be entitled to a full or partial refund in the following situations:
- should it not prove possible to replace or repair the goods
- if doing so would incur 'unreasonable' costs for the contractor
- if the contractor fails to replace them within a reasonable time
- if the goods worked for a while before going wrong
If any of the following factors apply, you may be entitled to compensation:
- the contractor has not carried out their work with reasonable care and skill, or within a reasonable timeframe
- the contractor has been negligent in their work
- a repair carried out is unsatisfactory
- you have incurred additional expenses or suffered inconvenience because of a breach of contract
- someone has suffered a personal injury as a result of unsafe goods or services
Where an injury has occurred, or you suspect that a criminal offence may have taken place, you should seek professional advice before allowing the contractor to rectify any problems.
If the work has been carried out under guarantee, the customer may have additional rights (in addition to their statutory rights). If payment has been made by credit card or via a finance agreement arranged by the contractor, the credit company may be jointly liable for a breach of contract (subject to the cost of the work falling within specified limits).
In some cases, the customer may have cancellation rights. If they signed a credit agreement in the presence of the contractor, and away from the contractor's business premises, there is a set period of time in which they can cancel the agreement. They may also have cancellation rights if they signed a contract on the contractor's business premises, or signed a contract at home and did not have a credit agreement. In either case, there is only a small window of opportunity for cancellation, so it is important to act quickly and make sure that everything is put in writing.
If it is necessary to take action against the contractor, the first step is to gather all of the relevant documents together, including the quotation, contract, guarantee, any relevant photographic evidence and any other agreements you have entered into with the contractor. Armed with these, you should contact the contractorand outline your grievances, making it clear what you would like the outcome to be. It is also advisable to set a timeframe within which you expect the problem to be resolved.
Keep records of all correspondence, and details of any discussions which take place. If you follow the above steps and the matter is not resolved, contact the contractor (it is a good idea to send letters by recorded delivery) and give them 14 days to rectify the situation, threatening legal action if they fail to respond.
If the contractor fails to resolve the situation to your satisfaction, there are a number of alternative routes that you can take. If the contractor belongs to a trade association, you may be able to make use of any conciliation, mediation or arbitration services which are available. However, you should be aware that arbitration is often chargeable, and any decision reached via this method will rule out the possibility of taking court action in the future (except to enforce a compensation award).
You may also be able to obtain advice from a relevant regulatory watchdog, or an Ombudsman.
Remember, it is up to you whether you decide to accept any offer the contractor may make to you, but you should make sure that any costs you incur remain in proportion to the value of the dispute.
As a final resort, should you fail to get the required response from the contractor you may wish to take court action in the county court or the High Court, depending on the nature of the claim. If you intend to take court action you should consult a legal professional for advice.
How Can We Help?
Our experienced lawyers can offer advice on all aspects of building-related disputes. Please contact us for further assistance.
For information of users: This material is published for the information of clients. It provides only an overview of the regulations in force at the date of publication, and no action should be taken without consulting the detailed legislation or seeking professional advice. Therefore no responsibility for loss occasioned by any person acting or refraining from action as a result of the material can be accepted by the authors or the firm.