Builder Dispute - What to do? in the UK
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Builder Dispute - What to do? in the UK

Builder Dispute - What to do? in the UK


Builders’ disputes are among the most stressful you will suffer in your lifetime because they affect your home, the very place that provides you shelter, and because they often involve vast sums of money. Because of the very nature of building projects, the relationship between customer and contractor very often ends up in acrimony. Many things can go wrong such as: poor work, poor installation, dangerous work, under-delivering or even failing to deliver, not delivering what was agreed, work taking too long, and over-charging.

If you find yourself in dispute with your builder, or a tradesman, then these are the options for the different courses of action you can take.


1. Prepare your case.

Like any dispute, it always good to have all the facts and figures ready to hand, so create a file and:

  • Gather all the documentation and paperwork you have in one place. These could include  a quotation, an estimate, a proposal, a contract, letters, email correspondence, text messages, invoices, statements or work etc.
  • Produce a time line of the key events that took place, such as date of first contact , date of the quotation, date of commencement of works, dates of all correspondence
  • Take photographs of the works, and gather photos of before the works if you have any. Write down what is wrong with the works.


2. Know your rights

When you gave the go-ahead to the builder, you technically made a contract with each other - even if there is no formal contract in writing. If the builder has not done what was agreed, the builder has broken (“‘breached”) the contract and you can ask them to put things right.

By law, the builder/trader should have done the work with ‘reasonable care and skill’. This means they should have done a good job that’s worth the amount they’re charging you. If they haven’t done this then you are legally entitled to ask them to fix the problem or give you a partial refund.

If the builder is trying to charge you more than you agreed then, your position depends on whether you were given a quote or an estimate.

  • If you have quote: 
    • The trader cannot charge more than was quoted, unless there’s a good reason such as: 
      • you were informed that extra work was needed, and you agreed to pay more
      • it was obvious that the price in the quote was a mistake. Note that there is no legal definition of “obvious”,  but the test is whether most people would have known it was a mistake
    • If the mistake was not obvious when you got the quote, you have a legal right to get the work done for the price in the quote.
    • They cannot charge you more if their costs have gone up since they did the quote.
    • If they can’t give you a good reason for raising the price, tell them that you’ll only pay what was quoted (put it in writing). Don’t let them push you into paying more.
  • If you were given an estimate:
    • The final price should be ‘reasonable’. The law doesn’t say what counts as “reasonable” so you should consider:
      • any project specification changes since the estimate, and why they happened
      • anything that happened that was beyond the control of the builder, like unforeseen delays, or the price of materials going up
    • If you need help to assess the price increase:
      • ask another trader for an estimate for the same work
      • find out if the trader’s a member of a trade association and contact them for advice
      • get an expert opinion, though you’ll probably have to pay for it


    3. Talk to the Builder


    Before you consider involving any thirds parties such as arbitration services, lawyers or courts, you must first attempt to resolve the dispute directly with the Builder (this is a requirement for dispute resolution services and going to court). Try to keep things amicable and civil.

    Remind them what was agreed and make it clear why you think they are at fault. It sometimes help to quote the law, for example you could say:

    “The Consumer Rights Act 2015 says that reasonable care and skill must be used while working. In my opinion, [you did not use reasonable care and skill when you carried out this work] / [you have breached your contract with me by not doing the work as we agreed]. I want you to fix the problem/get a refund and stop doing the work.”; or

    “The Consumer Rights Act 2015 says that goods must be correctly installed, if installing them was part of the contract. In my opinion, you did not install them correctly when you carried out this work. I want you to fix the problem/get a refund and stop doing the work.”

    If they can’t or won’t fix the problem, you can ask for a partial or full refund - depending on the severity of the problem is. You’ll have to come to an agreement with them about how much you should get. Once you’ve agreed on the amount with the trader/builder, you should get your refund within 14 days, according to the law.

    You could try asking for money off, for example 5%, for the inconvenience caused. They will probably refuse, but it is worth trying.


    4. Start a formal complaints procedure

    If resolving things amicably hasn't worked, ask for the trader or company's complaints procedure. Larger companies will have one.  If they don't have one, find out whether they are a member of a trade association, as there may be a dispute resolution scheme that you can use. 

    Here is a list of associations and ombudsmen that may help with a dispute resolution service:


    Ideally you have chosen a contractor who is a member of one the above associations. If not then this option won’t be available to you.


    5. Use an Alternative Dispute Resolution (“ADR”) scheme

    Traders and businesses are not required to be part of an ADR scheme, or even to use one for the purposes of your disagreement, but traders and businesses are legally obliged to point you in the direction of an accredited scheme, and specify whether or not they're willing to use one. 

    There are different types of ADR: 

    • Conciliation and mediation services try to help you and the trader come to an amicable solution by talking through the issues. These are voluntary, usually free, and can be initiated by you or the trader. They are trained to be impartial.
    • Adjudication and arbitration involve an independent expert in that field examining paper evidence from you and the trader. The decision of the arbiter is usually legally binding, and you won’t be able to go to court afterwards if you don’t like the decision. Arbitration services often charge a fee.  
    • Ombudsman services are free for consumers, but not traders. An ombudsman's decision is usually binding on the trader, but only if the trader is part of the scheme. You can go to court if you’re not happy with the decision.


    To find a resolution service (there are many), try searching google for one that has facilities near you. Some Resolution services provide an online service.


    6. Try to recover the costs

    If your builder is not willing to use an ADR scheme, then you might be able to recover your money if you paid by credit or debit card:

    • credit card: it’s worth looking at whether you could recover the money using Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act. If the job cost more than £100 and less than £30,000, your credit card company is jointly liable if something goes wrong. There is a 120-day time limit from noticing the issue to making a claim.
    • debit or prepaid card, or the cost was outside the limits for Section 75, making a chargeback claim is another option. There is also a 120-day time limit from noticing the issue to making a claim.
    • PayPal or a finance agreement, you might be able to complain and get your money back through the Financial Ombudsman Service (https://www.financial-ombudsman.org.uk/), but not that this is a service for disputes between you and your payment provider not the builder.


    7. File a Dispute on disputesregister.org

    An alternative solution to resolving your dispute with your builder is to make your dispute public by registering the details on the Business Disputes Register (https://www.disputesregister.org). The negative publicity is likely to cause embarrassment to your builder. Make sure your description of the dispute is totally fair and accurate. The fee is £20 to file the dispute. Once file, your builder will be automatically contacted by the Business Disputes Register notifying that the dispute has been published. You builder may have been avoiding your calls up to this date, but now they are more likely to contact you to have the dispute removed from the Register.

    You can remove the dispute from the register at any time, which you should do once you have resolved the dispute with the builder. 

    If the dispute still does not get resolved, then at least you have committed a public service by helping to warn off other potential customers from using a disreputable trader.


    8. Contact Trading Standards

    If you're concerned that the builder/trader might not be acting lawfully, you can report the issue to your local Trading Standards. Some local Trading Standards offices also offer conciliation services. You'll usually have to report your concerns through Citizens Advice (https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/).

    Reporting a dispute doesn't automatically guarantee a follow up. Trader disputes are looked at in among other crimes, so depending on its severity and available resources, your dispute may just be logged for reference.


    9. Go to the small claims court

    Small claims are for simple cases that don’t involve large amounts of money or complicated issues. They’re often used to get compensation or your money back if something’s gone wrong. Small claims are never usually for more than £10,000. You can use a Small Claims Court if you receive a poor service.

    The small claims court is supposedly a quick and simple way of using the courts to settle disputes - you don’t need a solicitor, though one is recommended, and the hearing itself is fairly informal. But it should only be used as a last resort. However, although it is quick and simple relative to other court proceedings, it can still be a long drawn out process that could costs thousands of pounds if you use a lawyer which is recommended and there is no guarantee that you will win,

    If you do decide to go to small claims court, you’ll be asked if you want to use the Small Claims Mediation Service first. This is free and will be provided by the court. If it doesn’t work, the case will be put forward for a hearing in court.

    See full article about going to small claims court here.