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Avoid a building dispute - a plea from a surveyor?

13 April 2021 17:28

I have been contacted by several private clients recently who are involved in a potential dispute with their builder. It's a conversation I have many times a year and one that I never enjoy. It's also one that in my experience doesn't need to happen if clients follow some simple steps, before entering into an expensive contract with builders.

The typical conversation goes like this:

Client: I'm afraid that I'm in a bit of difficulty. We are having an extension built and I'm not happy about the final amount of money the builder claims is owed. Also, the quality of the finish is not what we agreed and there are elements that don't seem properly built.

Me: Did you have a Surveyor or independent professional to help you specify and oversee the work?

Client: No, we were recommended to the builder and they came up with a quote that we thought was reasonable.

Me: And what contract and paperwork do you have?

Client: The Builder provided the contract and we signed that. We have made some changes to the work as well, which the builder priced verbally but we have nothing in writing to confirm those variations. Also, we had to pay a lot of money in advance and now, we don't want to pay any more because we think the work hasn't been done properly and we've already spent our budget.

Me: Has the builder kept up to date with the Building Regulation process and arranged the necessary site visits with the Building Control Officer?

Client: We're not sure. The Building Inspector did come when the foundations were being excavated but we haven't seen them since. The Builder agreed to obtain Building Regulations and we don't know any more than that.

In summary, with this scenario, which is fairly typical of the cases I come across:

  1. There is no professional oversight of the work being provided by a qualified independent surveyor, without which, the builder is at liberty to proceed as they wish.
  2. There is no detailed specification to set out the full extent of the work, which lays down the necessary British/European Standards and best practice for the builder to work to. Without details being set out and agreed of the precise type of roof or floor tiles and how they are to be laid, the builder is left with a fairly wide scope and can make their own choice to suit their budget, which is likely to differ to the client's preference.
  3. There is no detailed contract. The contract provided by the builder is heavily weighted in their favour and there is probably no provision for an agreed dispute resolution mechanism.
  4. There are no priced variations resulting from agreed changes to the project, agreed between the Contractor and the Client, that properly amend the contract sum.
  5. There is no requirement on the builder to obtain the Completion Certificate to ensure compliance with Building Regulations. This will be essential when the Client comes to sell or re-mortgage. Any purchaser of the property will expect to see this in place.

Professional Assistance

The above scenario can easily be avoided by the Client taking the appropriate steps at the outset to appoint an independent Building Surveyor who will:

  1. Carefully specify the works to include everything the client expects from the work, from foundations to the type of Kitchen worktops and paint finishes.
  2. Use an appropriate form of contract between the client and the builder that sets out the obligations of each party, including when payments are due, how contract instructions and variations are to be dealt with and how disputes are to be handled, amongst other aspects.
  3. Monitor the work periodically to ensure the specification is being followed, the Building Regulations and Planning Consent are being complied with, inspections are being made by the Building Control Officer at the appropriate stages and that a Completion Certificate is issued at the end.
  4. Be on hand to provide guidance to the client and builder where unforeseen issues arise during the works to ensure the most appropriate and reliable solution is implemented and at the appropriate cost.
  5. Ensure that any Party Wall Matters are handled in a timely way to avoid causing delays to the progress of the project.

Although the fees to employ a professional on such projects seem like adding unnecessarily to the overall cost, the benefits of having an independent professional will seem like money that would have been very well spent once you're faced with mounting legal costs and a protracted dispute with your builder, as well as an incomplete building project that could take months to resolve.

If you have found this article useful and you think it might be relevant to any of your friends, family, colleagues or clients, please feel free to share. I would prefer to have fewer of these conversations in the future.