Finding a Good Builder

#7 ~ How to Find a Good Builder

We know from the comments on our YouTube channel that many of you find it hard to track down a good builder for your extension projects and general building work. In this episode, we offer some solutions beyond the usual first port of call for most people which are the trades recommendation websites.

If you prefer to find your builder, plumber or electrician online, try some of these trade finding websites.

Checkatrade –

TrustATrader –

Rated People –

MyBuilder –

My Job Quote –

FindaTrade –


Roger: Hello, this is Roger Bisby from Skill Builder and they’re back with podcast number seven.

Robin: One of the comments or one of the ones that reoccurs is people say it’s all very well as listening to you guys and reading the other comments from professional builders. How do we find professional builders? How do we find good tradespeople, people to work for us? So this is from the general public’s point of view. So we thought it would be quite useful to tell what we think is a good way of finding a good builder or tradesmen.

Roger: Well, we’ll just have a discussion about it. We might not come up with the definitive answer because I think depending on where you are, this is going to be different. Some places you go, you live in a village, you got a little local guy, he does everything for everybody, might have been the undertaker as well because that used to be a common thing didn’t it? A builder/undertaker.

Robin: If you’re living in the urban jungle, if you’re living somewhere where it’s dog eat dog, if you like, then you might have to just take your chances a bit more or you’ve drawn a blank so you’re making phone calls and no one’s coming back to you or you’re looking at the the directory or nowadays on the Internet and you don’t even know what to search for. You think you need a bit of work done in the garden, do I need a landscape gardener? Do I need a general builder? And it’s having this kind of like knowledge and packaging it up. So straight away people might direct you towards these branded Internet type operations.

Roger: What the bigger companies?

Robin: Recommendation portals, for example, you might go to a recommendation portal, put in your job, put in your budget, and then they’ll sell those leads onto builders who are paying them a commission. So basically that’s one way and a lot of people do find builders like that, but I want to try to steer my opinion away from that because I’m not a lover of that approach, I’ve never personally done it but I’ve seen the quality of work of some people who claim to be in these organizations and I think to myself, my goodness me, I mean, it’s being qualified by the client. The client hasn’t got a clue that they’ve just had a terribly paved drive down. I know that it’s not a good drive, but anyway, I will give you a little anecdote about a bit of advice I gave to one of my good friends yesterday. She phoned me and asked if I had a painter to paint some eggshell handmade cupboards and straight away I said to her, Sandra, I have some really good painters who worked with me on a subcontract basis or recommendation basis, but they’re so busy at the moment that are definitely not going to recommend them to you because they might come to you before they come to me. I said, so, I can’t help you in the short term, but what I can do is if I’m stuck and I need to find a new tradesman or someone like that, let’s say I’m working out of area and I need to find a bricklayer, or I need to find a ground worker or someone like that. There are lots of ways I go about that. So I might go into the local builders, merchants in the town, and say I’m in the area, I’m going to be here for six or eight weeks doing a project. Can you tell me if there are any really good local bricklayers who come in here who I might be able to contact? So that’s a really good place to start. So in Sandra’s case, go to the local paint and decorator shop and say, do you know any guys who really like doing this kind of work? They give you a number, you can then find them and say, Steve from the painting shop gave me your number. So there’s a little bit of a connection there already because it’s actually quite hard to get people through the door in the first place at the moment, especially down south.

Roger: Yeah, if they’re busy, if they’re not busy she should be worried. If they are busy then you’ve got to join the queue.

Robin: I mean it worked for me. I did a big job in Henley-on-Thames and none of my team really wanted to go over there. I took it because I was desperate for work, it was a big job. And I went up there and I spent a whole day doing a recce and I saw a new house being built and a beautiful fence being put around it. I went and had a chat with the guy doing the fence and he said to me, if you want to groundwork you need to speak to so and so and the guy came on the same day to meet me on site to look at the work cause he was passing and he introduced me to a fabulous bricklayer, a guy called Ian who introduced me to a scaffolder and all of a sudden I had an amazing little network of fantastic tradesmen, but I’m lucky enough to know the standard that I like and be able to talk that builder’s language. I think this is another problem for the general public, if you’re trying to find a builder, you want to speak their language and not feeling intimidated by what you need to say. So if you’ve got an architect’s drawing, that’s a good start because that kind of is going to be speaking their language. You can table that and say, I need a price for this. Or sometimes if you’ve put planning in, you might already have builders writing to you, which is quite popular in the southeast of England, you might get 10 letters and it’s just a marketing tactic. Some of those companies are fantastic as well and they need to do that to grow their businesses. So it’s worth talking to those guys and looking at their websites and seeing what they’ve done or even going around and looking at some of the work. So the obvious one is a recommendation. Roger, we talk about recommendation a lot.

Roger: As you get more and more relevant recommendations, bit like Trip Advisor, the same sort of idea. And they’ve got these things where you rate somebody, and they go up the scale. So somebody ends up being highly rated and sometimes that’s gained. Look at somebody like Checkatrade for example. Now Checkatrade has obviously got a big high profile out there. It’s a good idea. They’re doing a good job as far as they go but I’m not sure that they pursue the people that are just fakes. In other words, they’re not even members of Checkatrade, they’re just driving around with a Checkatrade sticker on the side of their van pretending to be a member to get the work.

What has become more and more prevalent, is fantastic sign-written vans with vinyl displays wrapped around, they might have a lovely patio on it and beautiful looking house and it says landscaped gardeners and all the rest, I’d run a mile from it. Especially if all they’ve got is a mobile phone number because it seems to me that anybody can go out and buy some vinyl now and get a pretty picture on the side of the van, it doesn’t mean a thing. You know, they’re not necessarily a good company and they run around getting work like that, so beware. If they’ve got Checkatrade written on the side of their van, don’t take their word for it, check with Checkatrade.

Whether they are actually a member, find out where they live. You really need an address, you can’t just work on a phone number and you’ve really got to start doing a little bit of homework because you get these guys in there and it goes wrong. They are nasty people to have anything to do with, people say “oh my goodness” I never knew this. You know this is a nightmare, this person is intimidating me, they’ve turned really nasty on me and they just want to be a thousand miles away from it. Years ago, it happened to me. I was doing a plumbing job and done this emergency call. The leak had brought the artex ceiling down, they tend to hold the water for quite a long time until they go and then when they go, they bring a big area down. So I said to this plumber, do you know what patching artex is very, very hard. I said, you’re probably looking at boarding the whole thing down, you’re probably better off getting new board and having it plastered through. So he said, “do you know a plasterer?” I said “well, I know a few but they’re all busy”. I got this phone call from the customer and he said: “your plasterer has turned up”.

I said, “hang on, my plasterer?”. He said, “yeah he was recommended by you, you know. And he’s taken a 500 quid cash deposit for the materials from me”. He went off and he’s got a few bits and pieces, materials etc. Now the police have come and they’ve just taken him away in a police car. I said, “I don’t understand this. I never put a plasterer on to you”. It turns out it was my plumber mate had met this guy in the pub and this guy said to him “I’m a plasterer” he said “we’ve got a job for you” and given him this blokes contact details. So this guy is completely unknown to me, I went down to the local police station and I said to the policeman, “have you got a plasterer here?”.

The policeman stood there and folded his arms. He said, what do you want to know? and was really hostile towards me. I said “look mate, he’s taken 500 quid from this customer, from MY customer, you’ve taken him away and I don’t know what he’s done wrong”. I wanted the 500 quid back and obviously, I didn’t want him back. The policeman said he’s a good plasterer! And he said, “yeah he did my front room”. You’re kidding me I said, so what have you got him in for if I can ask that?

He said, “oh, he just nicked a car”. So this guy had got a day of work as a plasterer and gone and stolen a car from a neighbour to use as transport to get to work and get his materials on site. I said I didn’t want this guy back he’s just useless, and he said no no, he will be just fine, honestly, you’ll see his work is good, he’ll be out in about another hour or so. I waited outside the police station and this guy came out and I nabbed him, got him in the van and said right, you are coming back to this job and I’m going to stand there and watch you do it until it’s finished!

I thought never again, I just fell into that nightmare situation. I did explain to the customer that it was a bit of a risk, but yeah, he did actually do a good job in the end. So I’m really, really nervous about having anything to do with tradesmen if I don’t know them well.

Robin: So the other way of finding people is if you see people working in your street, you can sometimes go and chat to them informally and see how you get along and see the work that’s being done and you liked the look of it or the way that people are dealing with the customer and it’s nice and tidy.

That’s also another good way of doing it. But quite often, trade associations are a good place to look and just go on Google now and you can search for a carpenter or carpentry trade association and you might look at the Institute of Carpenters who only have about three and a half thousand members. Considering there’s about 70,000 carpenters in the southeast, it’s not a very big representation. The Guild of Master Craftsman is another one, which is a broad brush covering all kinds of disciplines. So you can go to these trade associations as well, but you still have to go through the same process of calling the people, trying to get them through the door because it’s just a nightmare trying to get anyone to come and look them up.

Roger: I was in the Institute of Plumbing for years and that was a great source of recommendation. It’s now become the Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering, but the same idea, it was a tiny number of people that run it. If you think of all the promises out there, the number of guys who were willing to put themselves through that kind of jumping through the hoops, be assessed to get themselves on that register and keep up their continual professional development, go on courses and so on. It’s an onerous thing, isn’t it? And actually, if you’re getting loads to work, why would you want to put yourself through that and join one of these federations? It’s a bit of a shame in a way, because in certain countries were tradesmen have a much higher status, everybody is in those associations and a member of something and they have to be in order to work. I hesitate to say that because we have it with Gas Safe and it doesn’t necessarily achieve what you wanted to achieve.

Robin: Another interesting point is that people say they want to find a ‘builder’, well actually you can’t go and get qualified as a ‘builder’. The only building qualifications are probably the next level up from the domestic market is for where you might become a chartered builder for example. So someone who goes to university and learns all things building from project management and all the rest of it, but they don’t tend to delve back into the domestic market. If they do, it’s more at the higher end and because of the way they are schooled, they’re not necessarily tradesmen, but a lot of builders, the smaller builders were tradesmen to start with. So, they might be strong on carpentry because the founder was a carpenter or equally, they might be strong on brickwork and foundations because the founder was a brick worker or it could be a ground worker that’s expanded into doing the whole job for people.

And most of the building companies or tradespeople out there work on a sort of cooperative basis with other tradesmen. So you’ll find that they can scale up and scale down to suit your job. So it’s not unusual to get in a building company and you say, how many employees have you got? it’s not unusual for them to say, well actually I don’t have any employees, but what I do have his subcontractors and that’s totally normal, so you don’t really need to go out looking at hiring a company with all their own employees. There are some companies, with all their own employees, but not many.

Quite a lot of small domestic building operations and sole traders, for the sake of economy, can take on some big work because they have a good network and manage a cooperative of talented people under an umbrella of ground workers, scaffolders, brick layers and so on, which is quite normal, so don’t get put off by that. Sometimes people think, oh he’s got all his own painters, but generally speaking it’s group, it’s a cooperative and that’s how we operate. I do a lot of project management and I can do that on just a day work basis and then I can introduce people as well. It’s quite nice and easy like that.

Roger: I know some good building firms who have about half a dozen vans, keep about half a dozen guys on the books, different trades and they do work very, very well like that and have enough work to put those guys on the cards and keep it going, they do fantastic work and I’d recommend them to anybody, they’re in and out in no time. They specialize in actually just getting that job done and being finished and out the door, which for a lot of people you were talking about, you know, in one of our previous podcasts, that six week period, people started to have a nervous breakdown. They want to see the builder’s gone and they get that job done as fast as they possibly can. And that is to do with a lot of having good people on tap with really good organization. And it’s not just about the skills, it’s about having somebody who is organized who can carry the job through.

Robin: Managing lead times, because every extension seems to have a set of bi-folds now, here are some manufacturers who can turn them around in three days because you need to physically build, measure the aperture, work out your floor level, so there’s some complications. Try to preorder those and work the building out around them, so with the right organization and ingredients on the project you’re all good.

Roger: I’ve got a job at the moment, just to digress, which is just exactly that. I’ve got the guys to do the measurements for some bi-folds based on my marks and hadn’t got the screed in and I put the screed on my marks, then when the door’s were fitted… too low! and there’s not enough room on the lintel and now I’m going to have an argument with these guys and there’s no way around it, now that’s the mark where I wanted it, but I just think, ah! I’ve fallen into it again. Every time you get somebody else to do it, like you say, the way to do it was to finish the floor level and then just say, right, stick your doors in. But you know, they’re doing it all day long and you think they’d get it right. But now the only solution I can think of is to either scrap those doors or lift the lintel and I think I’m going to lift the lintel now, it’s only got to go up by 30 millimetres, but that 30 millimeters is the step that I didn’t want. I wanted a level threshold going all the way through and it just bugs the life out of me. But, a stupid little thing this digression, but years and years in the trade and you still fall into these traps.

Robin: It must be really daunting for the general public to actually build relationships with people. And I know that once people do build a relationship with you, they tend to stick with you as well. So it works well for the trade as well if you’re a builder reading this or a tradesman. Generally speaking, once you do form these relationships with people, these are lifelong relationships in a lot of cases and you might be working for them now, then you might work for their children in the future and grow old with your customers.

Roger: Best way isn’t it? We hear from guys saying, we’re watching the channel and they say things like, I’m a small builder, I’ve got about a dozen clients, customers, and that’s enough for me. And then it might be a question of actually coming in and doing every single job themselves on a bill, which is fantastic. I love all that.

Robin: Quite a lot of the time when you’re looking for people as well, you imagine if they’re busy, they’re good. If they’re not busy, they’re not good. But that’s not actually the case because a lot of craftspeople and builders, that’s what they are, craftsmen and artisans, and that comes before marketing that comes before sales and the rest of it. So they tend to never know what they’ve got going on next week but they’re always busy. It just sort of flows along. So there will be times where you can get a recommendation and they might be able to start in two weeks’ time. It’s just because that’s the way they operate it. So it’s sort of a just in time basis. It just seems to be how they operate. So don’t be put off. If you’ve got someone who can start pretty quickly as well, because I know that some people are put off.

Roger: I am generally, I’m always a little bit suspicious, put it that way. If they said they could turn up the next morning, I thought, why is it you’ve got no work. So I’ll probably ask and they might say a job’s fallen through or the bi-folds hadn’t arrived. So I’ve got a couple of spare weeks where I can come in and do your job. I fully understand that, but I want to hear it. If we were talking about finding a good tradesman, and we’re not talking about just builders, but plumbers, electricians, whatever it is you’re trying to find, the recommendation from somebody else who’s used them has got to be the best way. But if you live in a town, a city like London, you don’t even know your neighbour, you don’t know anybody locally and let’s face it, the concept of local builders in London, really they’re all coming in from outside, perhaps Essex or trying to afford to live in central London. So there you’ve got a disconnect straight away, haven’t you? You don’t have your local person that is known to the village and does everybody’s work.

Robin: And obviously the Internet is our friend now so you can search people out and you can look at their web site and see pictures of previous works as well, which is quite useful. When I get people contacting me via the Internet, they’ve looked at my work and they’ve looked at every single picture and they say, I saw your work and I think that’s fantastic. So it’s worth it, for builders too to invest in a simple web page, something which works on the mobile devices as well. It’s not majorly expensive.

Roger: I would recommend anyone that’s creating a website, we’re going back to tradesman, get the spelling right, if it’s not your forte, then get somebody else to do it because there’s nothing worse than seeing a badly put together website misspelt and everything’s wrong with it. So if you’re going to do it, invest a little bit of time and money and get a good job done. But equally from the customer’s point of view, they’re more persuaded if they see somebody that’s got a professional image.

Robin: We will definitely be touching on this. If you’re a builder watching this and you’re thinking about e-commerce and a website and what you need to do? I love marketing and I’m definitely going to do something on that in the future.

Roger: Okay so there’s no magic solution to finding a good tradesman, but I would say don’t just be fooled by all those trade finding portal websites out there with so-called approved trades because some of them are just a complete scam. So ask around. I’ll tell you what I’d like to see. I’d like to see a television program like the ones where people find a partner, but they find a builder, a dating show for builders and clients.

Robin: Thanks very much for visiting and come back again soon. We’ve got more subjects to cover and more interesting things on our YouTube channel coming up. So whether you want practical instruction or advice or just a bit of company, thanks very much.

About Dylan Garton

Dylan Garton is a co-founder, video producer and editor for the Skill Builder social media platforms.

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