Keeping building risk free on the home front

19th July 2021

Many construction workers are now Covid 19 test and trace self-isolating, adding to the existing pressures within the building sector arising from the turbulence in the supply of building materials and labour.

As a result, the potential tripwires for those undertaking domestic building works have never been more important to understand.

The HCR Hewitsons’ construction lawyer team has had many years’ experience of advising individuals on building disputes relating to works to their own homes, as well as counselling domestic building companies faced with arguments about payments for works or defects.  For some individual clients the world of construction will be a previously unknown environment. While fortunately there are many examples of fantastically successful home building projects, what can both the individual customer, as well as domestic works builders, do to minimise the risk of falling out?

A starting point for potential customers is to seek out a domestic builder with a reputation for quality workmanship in regard to the type of project in question (the structural requirements of a loft extension for example differ from a house rewiring), particularly if one can be found within a regional locality where previous projects can be checked out and where news of a bad job will have more impact.

One reality right now is that the best quality builders are in high demand.  The pandemic put many home building projects on hold, at least initially. While the Covid 19 emergency legislation never actually prevented building works from proceeding, the requirements to comply with social distancing and greater attention to health and safety on any site, particularly within a domestic setting, resulted in a slow up in progress.

Now though the best builders are booked up well in advance.  It could well be better to wait until one of the right companies is available, using the time to check out experience and compliance with quality standards.  Trade bodies such as the Federation of Master Builders can be useful in this regard as is taking up references with your Architect.

Consider retaining a construction professional to guide you through the project including to, coordinate the activities of your builder, the preparation of designs and specifications and the making of payments.  This will be an additional expense, but buying in what will often be a much greater knowledge of how the building sector works is usually a sound investment for the uninitiated.

Clarity as to the key features of the building contract between the customer and builder is essential. Of particular importance is to clearly define what the scope of the required works is and what is to be paid for those works.  Off the shelf template domestic building contracts are readily available containing all the key terms to be agreed, including as published by the Royal Institute of British Architects.  Proceeding based on an unwritten agreement, relying on the initial goodwill about a project, is a recipe for disaster if a lack of clarity about just what the responsibilities are arises later.

Payment arrangements for building works need particular attention.  Prioritising the short-term attraction of negotiating the lowest price over quality may well not be the most pragmatic long-term position to take.  Otherwise, minimise what is to be paid up front for building services. The model of most building contracts is to pay in arrears for works properly completed in stages.  Also, seek agreement to be able to retain a percentage of the sums otherwise due.  These retention sums can be used to incentivise the completion of any outstanding or minor work, with the final retention payment not paid over until all has been fully completed.

With the volatility relating to the price of building materials there may well be a requirement for some up-front payments to secure necessary supplies.  Agreements known as vesting arrangements can be put in place alongside a building contract, with the effect of transferring ownership of materials to the customer ahead of them being sent to the site in exchange for early payment. These can provide additional security but will involve the customer verifying the identify and location of the materials in question usually, with the manufacturer or intermediary supplier.

With all of us having spent more time at home during the pandemic considering our domestic environments, added to the need to maintain and improve the country’s often aged housing stock, this has resulted in the demand for home building projects now being off the scale.  In such circumstances, while most projects will have a successful outcome the scope for differences and disputes in some cases can only increase.  Taking some of the measures outlined in this article should at least put both customer and builder in a better place to avoid protracted legal arguments.

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