Contracting the best builder to carry out your renovation work can be the one of the most nerve-wracking choices you make in life.
You’ll not only be spending a considerable amount of time seeing, communicating and working with this company and their staff, you are entrusting them with your greatest asset and investment, your home.
It is vital that you know they have the experience, ability and honesty to complete the work as planned, on time, to budget and without any nasty surprises.
How best to make that choice?
Asking – and getting good answers to – these direct questions should help give you peace-of-mind before signing that all-important contract.
1. How many renovations have they completed?
This is the obvious and most important question to start with.
Not only are you looking for an experienced builder, you want to make sure they have plenty of direct expertise in the exact type of project you are planning.
You may be thinking, isn’t all home building work the same? To be blunt, no!
There are plenty of important aspects to certain types of renovation that not every builder will know about and be able to find the best solution for.
If you think you will be adding a second storey to your semi-detached home, for example, it makes sense to be sure that the builders you shortlist have specific experience, knowing the rules around shared boundaries and common walls, and more besides.
Don’t be taken in by a knock-down-rebuild specialist who wants to branch out into renovating.
And by “plenty of experience” we mean several years, in depth, and a track record showing that the builder has been consistently busy in recent years.
2. Can they provide testimonials from a range of recent clients?
A good builder should have a wide range of glowing references from past clients.
You should also ensure that the mix of referees include some recent clients to be certain the company has been maintaining a high standard throughout its history, especially in the past few years.
Preferably, you should ask to speak with some clients to hear directly from them to confirm what has been written.
Again, asking for references from former clients who had a similar building project to the one you are undertaking would be an advantage.
3. Can they show you proof of a current builder’s licence?
For residential building work in NSW valued at more than $5,000 (including GST) the tradespeople and builders carrying out that work must be licensed by NSW Fair Trading. You can check their licence on the NSW Fair Trading website or call NSW Fair Trading on 13 32 20.
The NSW builder’s licence will preferably have an expiry date well in advance of when you think the building work on your home will be finished.
Check that there aren’t any unresolved disputes or restrictions on the licence, and check they are licenced for the type of work you require.
For further details read our article “Know Your Rights — NSW Building Laws in a Nutshell“.
4. Can they show you proof their insurance is up to date?
Check if the builder and allied trades have a range of different insurance policies before you sign any contract or pay a deposit.
If they don’t, you may be liable in a number of situations. For example, if someone enters your home and is injured due to the building work, or if one of your builders or tradespeople is hurt in an onsite accident.
They should show you proof of their cover for public liability insurance and workers compensation insurance.
You should also check if the builder has access to the Home Building Compensation (HBC) Cover.
HBC cover protects you if the builder cannot complete building work or honour their warranty obligations.
Never deal with a builder who asks you to take out an owner builder’s permit as this is the often used to avoid HBC Cover.
For further details read our article “Insurance and Home Renovations“.
5. Do they offer a fixed price contract?
A fixed price contract means that you know the cost of the building work up front and won’t get any nasty surprises.
However, you should note that even fixed price contracts include some items that are adjusted at the end of the contract depending on the actual cost of those items.
These “Provisional Sums” are allowances for labour and materials that cannot be reasonably fixed where the owner has a final choice on their selection, and where that selection affects both material cost and labour.
A good example is wall and floor tiling. The cost of the tile itself is obviously variable, but the size of the tile also affects the laying price because it may take more or less time than originally estimated.
Also, this doesn’t mean that you are locked in to exactly the building work you were quoted for – you can request changes in case you have a change of heart (as we explore in question 6) or because of unforeseen circumstances.
6. What happens if the scope of work changes during the building?
Changes happen, not through lack of planning, but because of unforeseeable circumstances.
The builders you shortlist should offer a clear process for making any changes to the previously agreed plans to ensure that there are no surprise costs nor other shocks:
- Firstly, they should explain to you clearly the right lines of communication so you know who to approach to discuss the changes with, and how.
- Secondly, the builder should guarantee that no work will commence until you have agreed to the cost of the proposed changes.
- Thirdly, they should provide the details of the change and a precise cost in writing, usually by email so you have a paper trail. These changes are usually referred to in the industry (and in your contract) as a ‘variation’.
- Fourthly, they should ask you to formally sign off on the changes and will only commence the work once that has been done.
Variations should be covered in your building contract so the above process is locked in and agreed to up front.
7. Do they help homeowners stay living at home during the renovations?
One of the significant non-building costs related to renovations is the cost of renting whilst the building work is carried out.
However, in many circumstances, it is possible for the homeowner to stay put.
Some builders are experienced in creating the best possible environment to ensure that this isn’t a living hell, sealing off the remaining living section and advising on how to minimise disruption and dust.
Other builders prefer not to have to work around the people living there.
It must be said that with some renovations, it just isn’t possible, but choosing a builder that will genuinely try to facilitate this can save a considerable amount in rent.
8. What other services do they offer?
Some renovation builders offer ‘concept-to-completion’ services. This means they not only carry out the building work, they also create designs, draft plans and manage the Development Application process.
This can have significant advantages, saving time, money and potential frustration.
You may prefer to employ an architect, but it is worth knowing that the plans they create may have to be redrawn as building plans.
If you work with a design and build company, the design and building plans are one and the same.
It is also worth noting that as an architect doesn’t need to build what they design, their estimation of construction costs may be unrealistic. There may need to be considerable design changes and potential Council delays in order to reduce the actual costs to meet budget.
You may only carry out one renovation in your lifetime, so you are unlikely to have any experience managing the Development Application process.
The process of having home alterations approved can be a minefield for the uninitiated. Aside from State requirements, every Local Council has its own rules and regulations, and every neighbour is different too.
It is therefore a good idea to find a company that knows how to successfully get the required approvals through council, and also has plenty of experience with the different Sydney councils.
9. How do they communicate with clients before, during and after the work?
One of the most common points of friction during a building project is when the homeowner doesn’t feel that they are being kept informed about the progress of the work, or doesn’t find it easy to contact the builder.
This can be especially frustrating if they need to contact someone after hours in case of an emergency.
It is therefore important that you clearly understand who you can talk to and when.
Ask prospective builders:
- Will you be working with a Building Supervisor once the building commences?
- Is there an office you can call to find out the progress of everything from the readiness of the plans, the progress of the development application, to the likely schedule of tradespeople working at your home?
It is worth understanding the role of the Building Supervisor, what they can or can’t do, as well as reading our guide to how you might work with a designer if using a concept-to-completion builder.
You should also be confident that the builder has all the right guarantees in place to ensure that if an issue occurs after the work is completed, you have a clear path to communicate and rectify the problem.
10. What happens if something goes wrong?
No one wants to think that something might go wrong, but even the best builders can make mistakes, though with good builders they are usually rare and minor.
It is important that your builder can explain exactly what happens if this occurs as well as how you are protected to ensure that you are not without recourse.
Your contract should ideally be a NSW Office of Fair Trading Home Building Contract which clearly shows the length of the Structural Warranty and Maintenance Warranty. The legal requirement for the former is 7 years and the latter is 3 months, but a good builder will offer a longer period for both.
For more information
With over forty years of experience specifically building major renovations involving home additions and extensions, Addbuild has seen the results of many good and bad operators in the building trade.
We want to empower homeowners with the knowledge to make their building project a resounding success, so we have published monthly blog articles like this one for over 7 years, and we have also compiled much of the key advice into our ‘Consumer Guide to Home Improvement‘.
And if you are already well down the path to choosing a builder, we hope that you’ll include us as one of the companies to consider. Call our office now on (02) 8765 1555 or send us a message using our contact form if outside of office hours.