12 tips to help you avoid cowboy builders

Andy Stevens / 09 April 2015 ( 17 March 2021 )

Here are 12 tips to help you spot a potential cowboy builder and make sure your building work at home is completed by reputable and professional builders.



Spotting a cowboy builder before deciding not to offer them the job is the best scenario, of course. After all, prevention is better than cure. These 12 warning signs will make it easier to spot the rogues.

1. The builder is in a rush to do the job

While you don't want a builder who deliberately takes a long time to complete a job, neither do you want a builder who is keen to get the job done in a hurry, or who regularly knocks off early during the project. These red flags might indicate that they aren't really taking proper care during the project and might end up cutting corners, causing problems later down the line. Read our guide to finding out what to do if you've been ripped off by a cowboy builder.

2. The builder insists on cash payment

Insisting on cash payments is a big no-no because it gives you little comeback should the builder fail to complete the work or do an inadequate job. Having a solid paper trail makes it easier if you need to take any issues to Trading Standards later down the line.

3. The builder insists on cash up front

Don't pay for the project up front, this risks giving cowboy builders the chance to pocket your cash and vanish. You should only pay for services once the job is satisfactorily completed, or in instalments at every stage of the project if agreed in advance - and in writing. Builders are likely to have accounts with regular suppliers so you shouldn't even need to pay for materials up front.

4. The builder gives you a dirt-cheap quote

Beware of anything that seems too good to be true. What may at first seem a tempting, money-saving offer could have a sting in the tale, either with shoddy work or hidden costs further down the line. Remember: you have to pay for quality, and paying a cheap price for shoddy work will end up costing you in the future.

5. The builder fails to offer you a written estimate

Not being provided with a written estimate is another red flag. When you're spending a significant amount of money, you want to know exactly what you're paying for. And also it gives you the option to shop around for different quotes from other builders.

6. The builder refuses to sign a contract agreement

The builder refusing to sign a contract agreement or produce any paperwork is another bad sign, which gives you no hard copies to fall back on, while leaving you in a weak position legally if things go wrong.

7. The builder refuses to agree or discuss timescale for completion

A builder refusing to discuss timescale for completion of the required building work is a warning sign. A trustworthy professional will have enough experience to know within reason how long a job will take - and share that information with you. If problems surface during the build your builder should be quick to update you on what impact that will have on the project.

8. The builder is not VAT registered

Not being VAT registered is another alarm bell - no building company would operate in this way. Sole traders may not be VAT registered if their work does not take them above the threshold for compulsory VAT, but it is unlikely any company taking on large building projects would not be.

9. The builder cannot provide written references

The builder not having any references is a red flag. Ask yourself: do they have the necessary professional experience? Or what have they got to hide?

10. The builder has no landline telephone or registered business address

Landlines are less of an issue in this mobile age, but a builder with a registered business address gives you somewhere to contact should things go wrong.

11. The builder is unknown in your area

Should you suspect a cowboy builder, ask around - and ask if anyone has had any work done by the builder, and was it completed to their satisfaction. Local Facebook groups are a good place to ask around.

12. The builder is ill-prepared for the job

Do you get the impression your builder doesn't really know what they're doing? Professional builders will have all the necessary tools and materials to complete their work. A cowboy builder may intend to muddle through with inadequate equipment - so be on your guard.

Looking for a builder? Read our tips for finding a reliable builder

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.