Choosing the ideal person to build your dream extension is essential for a successful outcome. Here’s what you need to consider...
Discover how to find the right builder to ensure a successful outcome
The majority of extension and remodelling projects rely on a main contractor for most of the work. Some extension projects are managed by the owner (so you would be the main contractor in this instance) but a significant proportion will rely on a professional to arrange everything. As the central point for the project – the person who is responsible for co-ordinating the tradespeople and the materials – having a good relationship with your main contractor is the most important influence on the success of the project.
What’s a main contractor?
To be clear, a main contractor is the professional that you have the main building contract with. They might employ their own subcontractors (e.g. plumbers, plasterers) or, if they are a bigger operation, have their own salaried staff members in those fields, but the principle is the same. You pay the main contractor, and they pay the trades. Many main contractors refer to themselves as builders, and vice versa, and while it’s usually considered to be the same thing, some builders might have a narrower definition of the services they offer – for example, bricklaying specialists. It’s worth clarifying exactly what services your professional will offer (and what you need) at an early stage.
Defining the contract
As every main contractor needs a contract to manage, it’s important to very clearly define the scope and scale of the project early on in your conversations. For instance, does ➤
the main contractor want to do a complete package of works, not just in scale (from foundations through to flooring) but in scope; do they insist on providing all the materials themselves, or are they happy to let you organise the things that really matter to you? This will give everyone involved a clear sense of what’s expected and what the main contractor can then price for.
When to make contact
Main contractors are absolutely integral to the success of the project and can often advise on practical solutions to design and building problems (e.g. positioning of beams and posts) that professional house designers might not to be able to engage with on plan. As a result, it’s usually best to try and put the main contractor at the forefront of the project – so get them in at the very early stages. Most will happily spare you the time it takes to drink a cup of tea to talk through the project and give you some very useful building advice. Critically, they can help you define the scope of the project to make it practically deliverable within your proposed budget – something that house designers occasionally struggle with. Also, on that point, good main contractors will be able to recommend experienced house designers that they like to work with, and whose plans have been clear and practical. Essentially, the earlier you make contact, the better – you may find they’re able to help with the early planning stages more than you think.
How to find a good main contractor
A major worry for many home extenders and remodellers is the infamous ‘cowboy builder’. In truth, the phenomenon has been massively overhyped, and the occasional instances of main contractors not delivering get magnified through media coverage – although when it does happen it can, of course, be disastrous. Most relationships end very smoothly, and for those very few that don’t, placing blame isn’t easy: the fault often lies somewhere between the main contractor, the designer and the homeowner.
Finding someone you can trust with your beloved home (not to mention a lot of money) is a mix of art and science, of instinct and fact. Asking for recommendations from friends and family remains the best way to source a contractor on the whole, while asking designers and even a friendly local building control inspector to point you in the right direction is also a good option. You should use the trade associations, such as Plentific, Checkatrade and the Federation of Master Builders, as well. Lastly, look for projects that’ve been done locally – particularly if you’re new to an area – and knock on doors and ask. All of these things will help you in producing a longlist of around 10 professionals to talk to. Call all of them (most main contractors are not voracious emailers), explain the project and see if they’re willing to talk to you.
That’s when the art/instinct bit kicks in. When you meet them, how do you get on? Do they listen to you, and ask you questions? Or are they telling you what they think you should do? Be wary of people over-selling themselves. It really is in many ways like that all-important first date. Do you think you could bear to be around this person for the next six months? Do they talk too much? Do they listen well? Do you ‘click’? Would you feel comfortable talking about difficult things like money and expectations? All of these things are very important, and you need to get a sense of being able to trust them.
Once you’ve narrowed your list down to two to three, proceed through the design process and get fixed price quotes from them. Meanwhile, contact their previous clients (most will happily put you in touch) to talk with them about the main contractor; and do any financial checks you can to see prior trading history. If all of that works out, and the price is within your budget, you can feel confident that you’ve hired the right person.
The earlier you make contact with a contractor, the better – you may find they’re able to help with the early stages of the project