Taking on any home improvement comes with stresses, but what should you do when things (inevitably) go wrong with your chosen project team? Andréa Childs reveals her tips for success
How to overcome problems with trades working on your project
Embarking on a building project is like organising a wedding. There are the months of planning and saving, the endless scouting trips for wedding dresses/bathroom taps and the joy when you find
‘the one’, booking the professionals (vicar/electrician) and even planning the reception/kitchen-warming party. The big difference? When you get married, everyone understands the emotional investment; they expect you to go a bit Bridezilla and have a meltdown about your second cousin twice removed upstaging you in a white dress. Getting a loft extension or a new kitchen, though, is all about cold, hard cash, adding value to your property and saving the cost of a house move. Except it isn’t, is it? Most of us have dreams stirred into the mortar and hopes tangled up in the rewiring. The physical changes we make to a property might be about creating room for a growing family, having the space to launch a business from home, or simply making life a little bit easier and a lot more joyful. Which is why when things go wrong – or just not as smoothly as expected – it can be a soul-sapping experience.
‘We bought our house to be our “forever home” but it also needed a huge amount of work as it had been treated so poorly by previous owners,’ says Laura Marshall, who lives in a four-bedroom 1890s property with her partner Katy and their now five-year-old daughter, Millie. ‘We needed a building firm who would understand our emotional investment in the property. We met and got quotes from a lot of companies and went with the ones who really tried to understand how we live and what we needed the house to be – a safe place with a wonderful garden for our daughter, a welcome space for extended family to stay, and somewhere I can work without feeling my job is intruding on our home life.’
Laura’s renovation project was pretty straightforward. ‘Constant communication and clear boundaries were key. We made sure we were around at the beginning and end of each day, so we could make decisions and discuss how the work was progressing,’ she says. But even a shipshape setup like this had its issues. ‘We asked the builders not to work under Millie’s room at nap time but we had a few problems with noisy power tools. I came home one day to find Katy sobbing because Millie hadn’t slept and they were both exhausted,’ Laura admits. ‘And because we were working on both the house and garden, there were times when it felt never-ending. When we felt we were being buried in mud and dust, we’d ask the decorators to show us paint colours, or look at the gardener’s planting schemes; the fun stuff helped to remind us why we were doing it and kept us going.’
Establishing a rapport with tradespeople can be the difference between having a team that’s engaged and enthusiastic about your project, and one that skips off to other jobs at a moment’s notice, leaving you wondering when – if ever – the work will continue. ‘I’m self-employed so I recognise that tradespeople need to look out for themselves,’
says Penny Alexander, who lives in the Peak District and recently refurbished a 1960s caravan to rent out on Airbnb. ‘Our joiner took immense pride in the work because it was a unique project, but he also had to balance keeping regular clients happy. We learnt to respect each other’s goals.’ She’s a better woman than me. I remember feeling jealous when ‘my’ builders left to work on another bigger, more lucrative job at the end of the street. Wasn’t my house good enough for them? Should I provide better biscuits? I realised that while I’d tried to appear friendly, they’d seen a pushover. When I had a new roof put on my next house, I’d learnt not to treat the builders like mates and agreed a time frame for the job at the start.
Talking to people for this article, it soon became clear that winging it doesn’t work when it comes to house projects. It sounds contradictory, but if you want to keep life even relatively relaxed, you need to find your inner control freak. ‘I’ve done three huge renovations and the secret to success is all in the paperwork,’ says Toni Summers Hargis, who lives in Surrey. ‘Don’t leave anything unspecified, make sure the builders and tradespeople know exactly what you want, and insist they get any changes down on paper. Don’t take quotes that don’t split labour and materials and itemise everything. If you accept a fuzzy estimate it will have tons of contingencies
‘I hate it when people give builders separate mugs and rent a Portaloo so they don’t use their house’s toilet. It’s like saying they’re not good enough to be in their house; not cool’
built into it. For a big project, agree payment in portions. Keep a balance back until the very end and don’t cave in to demands for payment if you’re not happy with the work. Yes, it pays to be nice, but if it starts going pear-shaped, don’t take any BS.’
Making sure the builders know your ground rules is key, because they’re different for us all. ‘We asked the team to take their shoes off when walking through parts of the house, so they didn’t tramp dust everywhere,’ says Laura Marshall. ‘We had two pre-schoolers at home, so had a no “power tools left unattended” rule, plus everything needed to be left tidy at the end of the day,’ says Olivia Vandyk from Hertfordshire. In return, show them you appreciate their efforts to keep the work on track and you happy. ‘I had a team of Polish builders, so I bought them Polish beer every Friday,’ says Julia Crouch from Brighton. Bridget Monahan, from Liverpool, agrees with the benefits of being hospitable. ‘I hate it when people give builders separate mugs and rent a Portaloo so they don’t use their house’s toilet,’ she says. ‘It’s like saying they’re not good enough to be in their house; not cool.’
When your builders become your enemies, not the angels helping you construct your dream house, the fallout goes far beyond recriminations and follow-up repairs. ‘We had such a bad building experience (and successfully had the building firm prosecuted by trading standards) that I actually can’t think about it without getting very stressed,’ says Jo Denver from Sidcup. ‘I’d say it’s over but it still upsets me two and a half years after they started. Part of me wants to sell up and move on but I don’t want to feel the builders have taken my home away from me.’
Most of us will be able to resolve issues before they get that far. If planning and communication doesn’t do it, then the ability to compromise should keep you out of court. ‘I brought in the builders to reconfigure my flat, giving it an extra bedroom and installing a new bathroom and kitchen, funded through remortgaging and saving hard,’ says Jenny Greene from London. ‘I didn’t keep track of additional spending as each was just a small amount each time, but it added up. When I received the final bill, I had this sickening sense of shock. I could just about afford it, but it would wipe out all my emergency funds. Fortunately, my builder agreed he could have been clearer about the costs and agreed to meet me halfway on the amount.’
Embarking on building work is about customising our home for our ideal lifestyle. Each job, large or small, is a dream project because it’s about our hopes and desires. Which is why the team we choose to create that vision, and our relationship with them, is so important. So here’s my recipe for the ultimate build. Overshare like crazy at the beginning – bring out moodboards, family photos, sketches, whatever it takes to convey your passion and motivation for the project. When you’ve found the experts you believe can deliver that, it’s time to get to the nitty gritty. Ask questions, make lists, check invoices and never feel you’re being a nag. This is a huge emotional and financial investment, so you need to know the true costs. When it all gets too much, remember you’re a person, not just a project manager, and do something to treat yourself. A bubble bath, prosecco, it’s up to you. Finally, when the last builder has gone and the dust has settled, put the pain behind you and enjoy your new home. ‘Extending into our basement was like childbirth,’ says Julia Crouch. ‘Excruciating at times, but ultimately worth it for what it brought us.’