My experience employing tradesmen

7 May 2011
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United Kingdom
We've been having a lot of work done to renovate our house over the past 18 months and I've ended up employing a fair range of tradesmen directly – rather than going through a builder who then sub-contracts. Thought I would share a few of my observations/experiences.

(1) I found I could save a lot of money by 'managing' the overall project myself and employing specialists to do most of the actual work. But I would caution that managing the project in this way is a lot of work and can be a bit stressful. It's required me to learn quite a bit about how houses are put together and the processes involved. You have to be very focussed on the details.

(2) I've been really lucky to find some very, very good people. I found that getting recommendations from people at work has led me to a really excellent electrician and plasterer, for example. These are people who take pride in their work and really go the extra mile. They deliver more than I expected each time.

(3) Trust builds trust and saves money. When I found someone good, and I trusted them because of the great recommendation I got, I ended up paying them 'time and materials', rather than a fixed price quote for the job. In my experience I think some builders like this because it removes an element of risk for them, and tends to work out cheaper for me too because they don't have to build a safety margin into their quote. Obviously you have to be cautious if its someone you don't know or if you're not sure about them – could go horribly wrong. But I found that if you treat people well and don't constantly hassle them about cost, then they often end up giving more anyway.

(4) Beware the sidekick and non-specialist. I'm not sure if this is typical, but I noticed a trend. When things have gone wrong, it often seemed to be the sidekick of a tradesperson who was brought along to 'fill in'. Or it was a tradesman who said 'yeah I can do that too' when it was outside their specialised skill. For example, we had a very good tiler, did an excellent job tiling, but he brought along a sidekick who cut the bottom off the doors (wonky) and removed and replaced the bathroom suite after the tiling (total disaster). Similarly, we had a very good plumber/gas man who installed a new boiler, who brought along a couple of others to install the new radiators. Those guys cut corners and I had to get someone back twice to fix what they did. My hunch is that psychologically people sometimes focus on their main skill – what they're delivering – and don't care so much about the bits round the edges. The classic case is a carpet fitter who fits the carpet perfectly then trims the bottom off the door wonky. Drives me nuts!

(5) Be slightly cautious of recommendations from a recommendation. Asking friends/colleagues for advice on who to hire is a brilliant way to find good people. But in my experience when I in turn asked those tradespeople to recommend others, it hasn't always worked out so well. I'm not sure why, but I just noticed a trend. Sometimes its OK, but don't assume just because your plumber is brilliant that every contact he gives you will be just as good.

(6) Don't be afraid to get stuck in. If I had a day off work I found that the tradesmen were happy for me to help them and get stuck in. This was pretty cool because I learned a bit about what they do, and helped save time (money).

So for me, directly employing tradespeople has worked out really well. I hear a lot of stories from friends who had a single builder do everything, and things often seem seem to get frustrating. On the other hand, I know some people who have had a building company do everything and they have been really happy, but the quote has been quite expensive in the first place. Swings and roundabouts I guess, but I definitely think getting recommendations is key.
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interesting post, i know a builder who is a very good bricklayer and groundworker but will take on anything and muddle through. there are some very good tradesmen about but with work tight i think it can be tempting to say you can do this or do that. The trouble starts when problems arise or the specialist job isnt as straight forward as first envisaged and the very good bricklayer/groundworker starts getting a bad reputation due to biting off more than he can chew.

Most other trades i have brought in on my jobs have been in general exellent, with a couple of exceptions!!. which means i have a database of good trades who will do their work better than me and faster. Things can go wrong but good work generally means repeat work somewhere down the line and surely building a good honest reputation is what helps pay the bills.
Very good post. Like any relationship, it's all about trust, good communication and helping each other to achieve the best results.
If you were to do the same thing again I'm sure you'd do an even better job, as you would have learned from your first experience.
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I agree completely with this! Always worth looking at your friends/families house where the recommended tradesman has worked - some peoples idea of a 'great job' differs from mine.

And I helped out the plumber one day when re-fitting my bathroom - he actually seemed to like teaching someone how to do things!