Secrets of a master builder – 10 ways to make sure your home improvement goes off without a hitch

Pencil And Ruler
  • Chris ‘The DIY Master’ Rice has been in the building trade for 37 years. As well as running his own business which covers everything from minor repairs and kitchen re-fits, to large scale house renovation projects, Chris teaches a home improvements course at Sutton College.

With people spending more time at home than ever before, many Brits have been in a DIY frenzy, considering how they can improve their homes.

Our research has shown that some 25% of people who were lucky enough to make savings last year intend on splashing the cash on home improvements over the coming months.[i]

Aside from being a big financial commitment, finding someone we trust enough to let into our home can seem like a daunting decision, particularly now.

To help ease the pressure and give people more confidence in finding a reputable builder ready for when restrictions ease, Shawbrook Bank spoke to DIY expert and 37-year career builder Chris Rice, to learn some tips of the trade and steps people can take to ensure their money is well spent.

  1. Plan ahead, or risk missing out

    The first piece of advice Chris gives is to plan ahead, particularly if you are looking to have work undertaken in the peak periods such as the summer months.

    “A mistake people often make is assuming a tradesperson will be available the next day, when some of us will be booked up a year in advance during peak seasons.

    “My phone typically doesn’t stop ringing after Christmas when people have spent the break looking around their living room or kitchen and thinking about things they would change, and this was before a lockdown was thrown into the mix. The same goes for summer when people call about outdoor jobs, so it’s better to call as far in advance as you can to avoid missing out.”

  2. A good builder is worth waiting for

    If you are looking to get work done quickly, don’t jump straight in with a builder who says they can start tomorrow.

    “I’d say up to six weeks is a reasonable amount of time to wait for someone to come in in off-peak periods. If someone says they can start tomorrow that should be considered a red flag – why do they not have any work on already?

    “If someone trusts you, it’s not uncommon for them to wait up to and over a year to have a particular piece of work done. Most of my clients are regulars or come by recommendation.”  

  3. Recommendations are worth their weight in gold

    Chris says it not uncommon for the best tradespeople to have decades of experience but not a single qualification. That’s why a recommendation or reviews are a good place to start.

    “If you have friends or family who rely on someone, they’ll probably be your best bet.

    “Before getting started with any new builder, it’s also worth trying to look at what they’ve done previously. I often let new clients know where they can go locally to get an idea of my work – this can be a key indicator if you aren’t able to get a recommendation.”

  4. Safety First

    Chris urges people to remain mindful of social distancing guidelines, even once lockdown restrictions have eased.

    “If you are getting someone in to help out over the next few months, then it’s of upmost importance that you and any contractor respect social distancing guidelines. Always insist that anyone coming into your home washes their hands immediately and wears a face covering.”

  5. Make sure a cheap quote isn’t a ‘foot-in-the-door price’

    If you’re considering a cheaper quote to save money, make sure it definitely covers all of the extras that may crop up. Any good builder will highlight potential risks at the outset.

    “For jobs like kitchen re-fits in particular, it can be hard to give a truly accurate estimate. For example, you may uncover a whole load of rotten plaster that needs to be redone once the old units have been torn out.

    “If a price seems too good to be true, ask your builder to provide a list of what it covers and any added extras they think may come up. This acts as a good indicator of how honest the tradesperson is and could avoid you getting into financial difficulty.”

  6. Get as many estimates as you can

    The rule of thumb is to aim for three quotes per job, but Chris says aiming for as many as possible will increase the chances of finding someone you like. With restrictions in place, you may want to consider consulting online beforehand to reduce the number of visitors to your home. Also, watch out for people who try and undercut a competitor’s price.

    “If you’re able to get a few quotes, you’ll get a much better sense of the sort of person you want to have working on your home and what a fair price looks like for a given job.

    “If a builder is happy to negotiate on costs, this could be a warning sign that they didn’t price the job up fairly in the first place.”

  7. Set a clear budget and plan for any potential overspend

    Chris says jobs rarely come in under budget but he also points out that there shouldn’t be any nasty surprises when it comes to the final cost.

    “Typically, I try to price for a ‘worst-case scenario’ and if it doesn’t come to that I can take money off. It’s very unlikely that I have to say something is going to cost extra and I know those are the words that any client hates to hear.”

    Paul Went, Managing Director, Consumer at Shawbrook Bank adds:

    “Before committing to any work it’s important to have a clear budget in mind and a plan for how any potential overspend would be paid for.

    “An honest builder should be upfront and transparent about costs which will help you to remain in control of your finances. But nonetheless you should be prepared for any unexpected costs and avoid stretching your finances to the limit by not having set aside some money to cover all eventualities.

    “If you’re thinking about borrowing money to help fund your project then explore all of your options and don’t rush into any decisions. If you want to maximise the return on your investment, it’s important to try and minimise any unnecessary costs.”

  8. Let the builder handle materials

    Chris says that most builders will get preferential rates on materials which means buying them yourself is unlikely to save you money.

    “Reputable tradespeople will have a preference on materials and tools they like to work with to achieve the best results. Anyone saying it’ll be cheaper if you buy things yourself could be looking to shift the blame from poor craftsmanship if things go wrong.

    “It’s also worth noting that some materials remain tricky to get hold of in the current climate.  While these uncertain times continue, waiting times are likely to be that bit longer and more unpredictable. If that is the case for you, unfortunately your contractor may not always be able to guarantee an end date for work.”

  9. Communicate if you’re unhappy

    “At the end of the day even reputable builders make mistakes every now and then. Always let a contractor know if you are not 100% happy with the work, as the likelihood is they will want to go straight back and have it fixed to a high standard.”

    Chris says there are of course instances of some traders who disappear after a job has been done badly.

    “The best precaution anyone can take is ensuring they have a legitimate home or office address for someone, so that they are able to find them if something goes wrong. Be careful if someone is only offering a telephone number or email address – there should be an address on all invoices and estimates.”

  10. Leave it to the experts

    Doing some internet research before getting a builder in can be a good way to stay informed and avoid being ripped off, be mindful not to try and ‘project manage’ as this can have negative consequences.

    “Though it’s important to look for red flags, you don’t want this to get in the way of the job getting done and stopping us from being able to run things efficiently.

    “The best thing you can do is find someone you get along with and trust their expertise. Having that chemistry feeds into the whole client / builder relationship – you’ll enjoy having them in your home and the builder will likely be more invested in what they are doing.”


[i] Consumer research commissioned by Shawbrook Bank and conducted by 3GEM Research & Insights between Sunday 29th November and Wednesday 2nd December 2020. The sample was 2,000 UK adults.