Frustrations dealing with tradesmen in the UK

by Mars
dealing with tradesmen

Since moving into Home Farm, we’ve found that dealing with tradesmen (carpenters, plumbers, builders, etc.) has generally been a stressful and draining experience.

Internationally, the UK is renowned for the quality, training and expertise of its tradesmen, but the one missing constant, from our multiple experiences, has been professionalism and reliability.

Whenever we’ve contacted tradesmen in the UK they are always fully booked, and the size of the job, big or small, doesn’t appear to be a factor.

This is not a criticism. It’s an observation. When we’ve spoken to neighbours and friends, we’re not alone and it’s something people in the UK have become conditioned to.

This lack of reliability and professionalism has been a huge driving factor for me to improve my DIY skills. We’ve purchased essential tools, and are happy to take on the work ourselves. To avoid the drama, it was one of the major reasons I gutted our old master bathroom.

There are, however, still many gaps in our various skillsets so we have to get professional assistance in areas we know little about, so as not to bodge things.

An example of unreliability

Let’s take our master bathroom refit project as our most recent example. This is a medium-size project that should be bread and butter for most plumbers and bathroom fitters, and involves about 6-7 days.

At the outset, we contacted six plumbers and bathroom fitters in our area. They were word of mouth recommendations from neighbours and our hardware store. Three came out to quote us. The other three said they could squeeze us in in 4-5 month’s time and declined quoting us.

Of the three that visited us, only one submitted a quotation. The other two were never to be heard from again, despite several follow ups.

I understand that these tradesmen are in demand and they can cherry pick the jobs they want, but the lack of professionalism and courtesy is disrespectful.

So we appointed the plumber that did quote us. He is very good and has done work for us before, and he commenced with the first work in early December. We needed to buy the sanitary-ware over December, which we did, and the plan was for the work to recommence in early January, 2020.

We tried contacting him by text message and phone calls – complete radio silence. Eventually, by mid January, he responded to us, apologising for the delay and informed us that he could start on the last Saturday of January.

I was going to detail how much we’ve been messed around, but this post would be too long. We have been scheduled and rescheduled time and again. We finally received his assurance and guarantee that he would see us through to completion. No distractions, he promised.

From the end of January to mid-February, he’s been on a site a total of two days. That’s us being his priority. He just hops from one short (emergency) lucrative job to the next and we’ve become the back-burner project.

This behaviour is incredibly distracting and not conducive to an efficient outcome of any project, and I can understand why there are so many horror stories in the UK of projects just dragging on endlessly. It’s also unnecessarily stressful for the paying customer.

Informal quotations

Our other bugbear is quotations. Getting formal quotations has been like pulling teeth. Nothing is ever itemised, and if we’re lucky, we’ll get a PDF or Word document with the quote. In most of our cases it’s a text or WhatsApp message with a one line scope of work and a price: “replace ridge tiles. £1,000”.

We’ve even had instances where we’ve sent our requirements to tradesmen and they’ve replied, in a text message or email, with a price. Nothing more, and it’s up to us to telepathically know whether they will do everything we need.

Given that some of the work we’ve had done has cost thousands of pounds, we need formal quotes and invoices for insurance purposes. Even getting invoices after a project is finished is a challenge, and most arrive in a garbled, typo-strewn text messages.

Given this practice, we now understand how projects can spiral out of financial control because no parameters or scope of work is ever set before the project commences. Again, this seems to be common practice in the UK.

We spoke to a friend recently that lives one village over from us, and their budgeted £10,000 bathroom project ended up costing over £22,500 because of non-existent quotations and an open-ended scope of work that the builders took full advantage of.

When we have asked for detailed paperwork we’ve on occasion received our own wording slapped into an invoice or better still a reply saying we can just have insurers or future buyers call them about the work they’ve carried it.

A quotation request gem

My favorite quotation example of late was when we requested a quotation on a Monday, and followed up with the contractor on Wednesday to see when the quote would be ready. His response via WhatsApp was: “I told you I’m working on it!! If you want to a faster quotation, go find someone else and use them. I am very busy”.

It’s mind blowing to think that this is a rational way of running a profitable business. It honestly is.

Walking off with materials we’ve paid for

I find this more outrageous than frustrating. When we’ve commenced with largish jobs that require building materials such as wood, nails, bricks, glue, etc. the tradesmen almost always arrive with brand new boxes of screws, unopened glue containers and wood that’s been pre-cut from large sheets.

When the job’s done, the boxes of screws, wood offcuts, bricks and other unfinished materials always make their way back into their van. In most cases, I know that we’ve paid for those materials and they try to make off with them.

This happened to us very recently when we had our chimney rebuilt. There were 100 bricks left over, and when the crew started cleaning up after themselves, they started loading the bricks into their trailer.

When we called them out on this, they said we’d only paid for the bricks used in the chimney. We approached the supervisor and business owner with this, and he crumbled not knowing how to reply, eventually admitting that we had paid for the full pallet of bricks and sheepishly got his workmen to unload them.

At £1 brick, that was £100 worth of building material, which we had paid for, that they were going to make off with. Perhaps they thought it was a tip for a job well done. That’s 100 bricks I could use to build our pizza oven or extend our well.

It’s just not right.

Sharkishness

Just when you think that walking off site with our stuff was bad enough, certain tradesmen pull another trick. They offer to take your offcuts and unused materials to the skip/dump, but at a fee because they’ll get charged for it.

This, we’ve learnt, is absolute nonsense. They’re just making extra money, and they’ll use those offcuts and other materials on another job. It’s taken us a while, but we’re onto these tricks now, and we’re not having any of it.

Dealing with tradesmen

I don’t fully understand why tradesmen in the UK have opted to operate in this unprofessional manner, and this has been the basis of our frustration when dealing with tradesmen. Good old-fashioned customer service and reliability seem to have also been chucked out the window.

We’re still very courteous to tradesmen, but our tolerance has waned and we have no issue taking what we’ve paid for and putting it in the garage when the project has been completed. If there’s rubbish, we clear it ourselves and take it to the local dump.

7 comments

Luffy 18 February 2020 - 07:06

Oh I can not wait until we’re in the same territory with our builders … 😬

Reply
Home Farm 18 February 2020 - 07:10

I think you’ll be in a far better position of ‘power’ when building from scratch. But I never appreciated just how much work and effort it takes to coordinate and watch these guys. It’s a full time job.

Reply
We want our bedroom back » My Home Farm 24 February 2020 - 07:01

[…] project should have been finished weeks ago, but our plumber has constantly scheduled, unscheduled and rescheduled us since the beginning of this year. It’s been […]

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Moz 8 July 2020 - 22:00

It’s great reading about your journey, thank you for sharing!

I’m sorry to read that your having problems with your local trades people. In my experience good trades people are hard to find and word of mouth is the best way. The really good trades people are often booked up months in advance, many are one-person-operations or perhaps with one apprentice, most will be doing their “back office” work late in the evening after a hard days work. A good trades person is skilled at their craft but not necessarily at diary management or book keeping. Of all the trades people I know there are only a very small few that are willfully malicious, overcharge, cherry pick or profiteer. By asking around you will find out who these people are. In a rural location, it just doesn’t make for good business if you rip people off, because everyone knows everyone else. Most trades people I know will do their best to please, sometimes this is a trap, as it is easy to respond to the person who shouts the loudest or say “yes” to things that are better said “no” to…. this happens in all walks of life, not just the construction industry.

A tradesman not getting back to you with a quote is not necessarily rude or snubbing you, it may be that they are busy, overwhelmed or perhaps not that well organised because the organising of things is done when fatigued after a full day of work. Show me a recruitment company that gets back to everyone who submits a CV! Or an IT or utility company that you don’t spend at least 45mins on hold or going around an automated phone menu system to get to a real human.

The construction industry suffers from poor kudos and an education system and society that values academic achievement over practical skills. Good trades people find it hard to pass on their skills and knowledge eg through apprentices because trades are not seen as aspirational or valued careers, so kids just don’t want to learn a trade. In additional the much touted “apprenticeship funding” from the government exists as a £500 annual cheque for an apprentice that the trades person is expected to pay and take time to train with no lock-in to serve after the apprenticeship and of course the customer doesn’t want to pay for a trainee so skills are lost rather than developed. But, political rant over, and back to your renovation project.

Renovation projects in particular require a tradesman who is good at creative problem solving as well as hand-skills. Much more so than bashing in a standard bathroom, heating system or door frame to a new build. Ask around your area, identify the real artisan tradespeople and give them as much notice as possible. Do not buy on price. A good trades person will be fair, not the cheapest and not the most expensive. Build a good relationship with your tradespeople and they will be loyal in return. Once your project is completed it will still need maintenance, taps will need replacing after a while, your boiler will need servicing etc etc

Good luck! If you were local to me I would share my listed of trades people. I hope you find some great trades people to work with.

Reply
Mars 12 July 2020 - 07:01

Thank you for the great, detailed reply, and for casting light on what happens on the contractor side of things.

You have raised some excellent points, and you’re spot on that other industries are poor at answering phones or replying to emails.

Being rural, we are reliant on out of town tradesmen and we have been slowly getting recommendations about potential good tradesmen going forward. As you’ve pointed out though, they are booked months in advance, so you’re left in a tight spot if a project is urgent, which is why I’m trying to learn and am doing as many things as I can myself.

Thanks again for the helpful insights and advice. It really has been greatly appreciated.

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The Re-Farmer 28 July 2020 - 20:59

Wow! I can’t imagine having that level of unprofessionalism – and then not having any choice but to use them, because there’s nothing else!

When we got an estimate done for our roof, I called several companies, but only 2 came out to look at our roof. Both left very detailed estimates, which included leaving extra shingles for any future patching (such as for storm damage). And that was knowing that it would be at least 2 years before we could come up with the money to get the work done.

The arborists that took down trees from our roof and power line are a very busy company; I see them everywhere. They still manage to find time to come out and do estimates for us. When they did work for us, then even took down a couple extra problem trees they identified, at no extra cost! Our plumber had gone out of his way to come here to replace our hot water tank, because he knew we had no hot water at all and didn’t want us to be without for any longer. Everyone has been so professional!

I do wish more people went into trades. I don’t know if it’s the same for you in the UK, but in Canada and the US, the push has been to get kids going to university for some white collar career, while trades were looked down on. I think there is finally starting to be a shift in that attitude. Maybe because all those white collar workers are having a hard time finding jobs, with incredible amounts of debt, while tradespeople remain in high demand. It’s a huge sign of how bad the economy has gotten during downturns, when tradespeople start having to sell of their tools.

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Rebecca 29 August 2020 - 10:10

I lived in a small Scottish town and needed emergency window repairs on a weekend and a new planned central heating system. On some occasions I used workers recommended by the local hardware store owner and they were great. We did have drift in the central heating budget though, and I’ll never know if the old rads were recycled / scrapped as agreed, but in a small town these guys know their local traders. Mine told me who was “a bit pricey” or away for the weekend on a fire volunteers training course. Really recommend a good relationship with smaller hardware store owners. But also recognise all the problems above and like you make all trades leave all the materials I’ve bought. Chancers!

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