How to choose the right builder for your conversion project?

Conversions

How to choose the right builder for your conversion project?

Whether you need more space, or are simply trying to maximise the space you already have, a conversion project can have a huge impact on the feel of your home – and its value.

But whether you’re knocking down walls to create a single kitchen-diner, or renovating a garage to be an extra bedroom, it’s essential that you find the right conversion specialist to perform the work. We spoke to some of the experienced tradesmen/helpers to find out the key things you should know in order to make the right choice:

  • Find out if they’ve done similar conversion projects to yours
  • Make sure you are comfortable with them
  • Look out for experience as much as accreditations
  • Get like-for-like quotes and make sure everything is included
  • Establish a payment plan
  • Check their familiarity with planning permission and building regulations
  • Ensure the tradesman will check for snags before the job is finished

Keeping these points in mind can help you focus on what to look for when you’re meeting with tradesmen/helpers and getting quotes for the work and then hiring one to do the job. Carry on reading for more details on how to go about finding the right tradesman/helper for your job.

Find out if they’ve done similar conversions to yours

Conversions are not a simple, off-the-shelf purchase. Each one will be a different job, whether it involves turning a box room into an en-suite, or turning an unloved basement space into a high-end home cinema room.

When looking for a tradesman/helper for your conversion, it’s sensible to speak to ones who have performed similar builds to the one you have planned – if you are hoping to convert your garage, for example, find tradesman/helper who have performed plenty of similar jobs.

There are various ways of finding out if their skill-set matches your job. As well as being able to read feedback from previous clients on sites like Helpers.ie, when you meet your potential tradesmen/helpers, you can also ask to see previous examples of their work. They can either show you pictures of their past jobs, or, even better, you can arrange through the builder to visit their previous jobs – they should be happy to put you in touch with previous clients they have done work for before. 

Jordan does home improvements he says:

“Any good builder who takes pride in their work should be happy to put you in touch with old clients. When I’ve done a good job and the client is happy with it, I’ll say to them, can I ask a favour, can I use you for a reference in future, and it’s no trouble. I’d say to clients get out there and have a look at something the tradesman/helper has done in your local area – there’s nothing better than actually seeing it.”

As well as seeing the finished product, seeing a work in progress can also be invaluable, as Jordan explains:

“The other good thing to do is ask if they have a build currently on the go, and go along and see that. That way, you don’t just see a nice, tidy job, you can make sure everything behind the scenes is being done properly. It also shows you that they’re a well-thought of, active company – not a firm appearing out of nowhere with no history.”

Make sure you are comfortable with them

As well as knowing if they are familiar with your kind of job, you should simply assess how comfortable you feel with the potential tradesmen/helpers. You can do that from your first contact with them; are they polite in their reply’s, do they arrive for meetings at the scheduled time, do they ask lots of questions about the project?

Conversion projects can be expensive and time consuming – some projects may only take a few days, but others can take several weeks from start to finish – and being able to maintain good communication throughout the build is essential. You don’t have to become best friends with them, but you should be able to have a professional relationship – you must feel comfortable speaking openly about any concerns that may arise, and dealing with any issues. 

Dave Mullaney another home improvements expert says:

“Getting on with a tradesman is really important for a homeowner. If you’re going to be in their home for weeks at a time, you have to get on with them. All it takes is one miscommunication for things to turn sour, and the whole job can be an issue. If you can sit down together and have a proper chat, then everything will go more smoothly.”

Dave is right, if you do feel comfortable, you can start to consider how qualified they are for the project.

Look out for experience as much as accreditations

As well as reading feedback, seeing their previous work and seeing how you get on with them, you should also never be afraid to ask them questions – you should feel free to ask them about the qualifications they hold, their length of time in the business, and how they’ll approach your own particular job.

You can also find out if the tradesman is a member of any trade associations or accreditation schemes. Builders who work on conversion projects may belong to a variety of organisations. 

Membership of a body such as this is a good indication that a tradesman/helper is competent and working up to certain standards, however, there are many experienced tradesmen/helpers who do not belong to trading bodies – there is no obligation to be signed up, unlike membership of the RGI, a legal requirement in Ireland for tradesmen/helpers who work with gas in the home. Use your own judgement to assess a tradesman’s experience, and see accreditation as a healthy recommendation or extra seal of approval.

Dave said:

“There are some membership bodies which offer practical benefits to homeowners who hire their tradesmen/helpers, such as offering an insurance-backed guarantee, so some people like the peace of mind that brings. Others are good for tradesman/helpers when it comes to things like advertising their business or finding leads, so are less important for homeowners. If I was a homeowner looking for a tradesmen/helpers, it’s the experience I’d look for over any particular memberships.”

Get like-for-like quotes and make sure everything is included

It’s advisable to meet with, and get quotations from many tradesmen/helpers. The detail and scope of their quotation can tell you a lot about their process. It’s important to make sure that all the quotations are like-for-like – do they include materials and labour, as well as any subcontracting the tradesman/helper may do, and VAT? (their quote on helpers.ie must include VAT)

The only way to accurately compare quotations is if you are comparing like-for-like. Make sure they cover the whole scope of the job as well – if you want the conversion to have everything done, including things like skirting boards and door architraves, then the quotation should make that clear; both you and the tradesman/helper need an accurate vision of what the finished job looks like.

Taking a sample of at least three quotations can can help you spot any that seem unreasonably low – if this is the case, it could be the sign of a tradesman/helper who wants to win the job, but will make up the true value by adding on extra costs during the course of the build, or is using cheaper materials that may not be up to scratch.

Dave said:

“Getting a good quote is really important. I list everything in the quote, all separated out and itemised – what materials I’m using, what the labour costs will be. And when it’s all done, that’s the final figure you’ll be charged – there won’t be lots of extras. I have seen people get quotes from other tradesman/helper that were massively less than mine, and I’ve been asked if I’d bring mine down, but I just say ‘no’. I know they’re are lower because they won’t be using the correct materials, or they’ll try and add things on later.

As Dave points out, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Establish a payment plan

After receiving a quotation, make sure you are comfortable with their payment requirements, whether its cash on completion or they want you to pay them through Helpers.ie (if you pay through Helpers.ie your money is secured and held by Helpers.ie until the job is done and you are happy with the results)

While many builders buy materials on account from trade suppliers, and will not request money up front to cover these costs, if it’s a small firm working on a large build with high costs involved, this may be worked into the plan.

Some builders may defer payment until after the build is completed, but the most common method of payment is an installment plan that sees you paying certain percentages of the total bill after various stages of the job are completed, after Building Control has inspected the work to ensure that it has been completed to standard. Other tradesman/helper may prefer to be paid on either a monthly or weekly basis, especially over a longer time frame, in order to cover their material costs and paying subcontractors and employees.

Dave advocates that the tradesman/helper and homeowner can sign a contract, which details how payments will work, to ensure that both sides are happy with the process. He said:

“Having a written contract is the best way to operate, it means everyone knows where they stand and there won’t be any misunderstandings.”

For larger payments, it is common for tradesmen/helpers to accept cheques or bank transfers after work is done.

Check their familiarity with planning permission and building regulations

The majority of conversion projects will not require planning permission. The exceptions to this are generally if the conversion involves altering the external structure of the building, or if your home is a listed property or within a conservation area. It is always worth a phone call to your local county council planning office to check if your work is permitted.

While planning permission will typically not be needed, your conversion will need to comply with building regulations, as assessed by Building Control. Planning permission deals with the development of buildings and its impact on the wider community, for example, how an extension effects the street scene, or if an office block can be converted into flats. Building Control on the other hand, sets standards for the design and build quality of any development, ensuring the health and safety of those who will use the building, as well as providing standards on energy efficiency and requirements like disabled access.

Regardless of whether or not you need planning permission, you will need Building Control to sign off the work as it happens, with inspectors coming to monitor the progress of the build and ensure it is being done in line with legal Irish regulations.

Building regulations are likely to apply to several parts of any conversion project – if you are knocking through walls they will have to sign off on the structural soundness of the new layout, while if you are making living space from a garage, they will inspect the flooring, damp proofing, insulation and other aspects. Your local County Council Building Control office will send inspectors to view the project as it happens to sign stages off, a process that can cause delays – you can also pay for private inspection firms to sign off work, which speeds up the process, but remember this will cost extra. Building Control should be notified before any work begins, and you should arrange with the tradesman/helper as to who will contact the council. During the work, builders should take pictures of their progress which can act as evidence for Building Control, to show that the work has been done to standard and also to add on their Helpers.ie profile for their future prospective clients.

It also pays to be aware that if you are planning on removing load-bearing walls, you will need a structural engineer’s report, which can lay out what work needs to be carried out.. As with notifying local County Council Building Control, you should be comfortable liaising with your tradesmen/helpers over who will organise a report.

Make sure the tradesman/helper you choose is familiar with the planning situation in your area. Experienced builders will be knowledgeable about all the latest requirements and and how they apply to your project, and how they will be dealt with by the planning departments of local County Council Authorities – they may even know planning officers to ask for advice. Beware of any tradesman/helper who is casual about the need for planning permission or Building Control inspections – breaching regulations can lead to costly fines, and being forced to undo any work.

Dave said:

I’m very familiar with local County Council Planning Offices and all the Building Control staff. When they come on site, they say hello and shake my hand, because they know I do a good job. The whole process is easier with that experience. The only issue is if there are delays. With a lot of people choosing not to move house and instead improve their property, there are a lot of renovations and extensions happening, so inspectors can be booked up for a week – you don’t want to wait around for days to begin the next stage. That’s where private inspectors can be useful.

Ensure the tradesman will check for snags before the job is finished

With conversion projects, especially larger ones, there is a chance that there will be complications along the way. Often, these issues may not manifest themselves until after the work is notionally complete, and the tradesman/helper has moved on to other jobs. That being so, it is sensible to hire a tradesman/helper who is happy to return to the build to follow-up on their work and make right anything that may have happened since the work finished.

Some builders will put something to this effect in their initial contracts with the homeowners, while others will offer a more informal arrangement.

Some tradesman may offer a guarantee on their work, covering it for a period of time such as five or ten years. If they do, make sure this is part of a written contract. An insurance-backed guarantee will offer more protection than a general kind, which is often little more than the tradesman/helper giving his word – but if they are an established company with a long track record of happy customers, it can be nice to have

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