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Advice Column: How to spot a cowboy builder

Top tips on how to spot a cowboy builder

When you employ a builder, it’s sometimes very hard to tell at first if they are trustworthy and reliable.

But there are some tell-tale signs which can help you spot the difference between a cowboy builder and the genuine thing.

Be very careful about taking on a builder who:

  • offers very cheap quotes or estimates – this could mean they are a cowboy, or could not be experienced enough to give accurate figures
  • is unwilling to put a quote or estimate in writing – this could mean they don’t intend to stick to it
  • is unwilling to offer references
  • is too keen to start the job straight away– cowboy builders often do lots of work in one area before moving out of the area altogether. They often leave very poor or unfinished work behind and are impossible to track down
  • is unwilling to offer you details about their business – for example an address or landline number
  • claims to be in a trade association when they are not – you should always check if the builder does belong to the trade association. If they don’t, it means they’re dishonest and probably committing a criminal offence
  • claims to work for a company with a good reputation when they don’t– check they work for who they say they do. If they don’t, this means they’re dishonest and you’d be better off not using them
  • doesn’t offer you a contract, or doesn’t sign the one you give them
  • asks for money up front -a reliable builder won’t ask you to do this, not even if they need materials. If they run a business, they should have enough money to cover these costs themselves and only ask for payment once they’ve completed the job, or done a reasonable amount of work
  • gives a detailed quote and schedule of work but then not follow it
  • doesn’t charge VAT when they should – if they are a small or new trader, they may not need to register or pay VAT. It depends on how much work they do in a year. If they should be registered, they could be avoiding paying it, to save money and charge less than others. This is dishonest and against the law
  • only accepts cash -if a builder only offers to accept a cash payment, they could be acting dishonestly by not paying VAT

Reporting a problem to Trading Standards

Trading Standards deal with complex consumer problems and potential criminal activities.

If you want to report a problem to Trading Standards, you should contact the Citizens Advice consumer service, who share information reported to them with Trading Standards.

Citizens Advice consumer helpline: 03454 04 05 06
Textphone: 18001 03454 04 05 06
Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm
Closed on bank holidays

Calls to the helpline cost up to 9p per minute from a landline. If you’re calling from a mobile, it’ll cost between 3p and 40p per minute – if you have inclusive minutes, it’s the same as calling a landline. Find out more about call charges on GOV.UK.

An adviser will answer your call as soon as possible, usually within a few minutes. Once you’re speaking to an adviser your call should take an average of 8 to 10 minutes.

Use an online form

You can also contact the consumer service online.

An adviser will get back to you within 5 working days.


How to find a trustworthy trader:

  • find a trader through word of mouth if you can or from a recommendation through a website that rates traders
  • use the TrustMark scheme to find a trader in your area. TrustMark is the Government endorsed quality mark that signposts people to reputable local traders in the repair, maintenance and improvement sectors. All firms’ technical skills have been independently checked through on-site inspections to ensure a high quality of workmanship and trading practices.
  • find a trader in the Trading Standards Institute Consumer Codes Approval Scheme (CCAS). Traders in this scheme display the TSI approved code logo. When you see the logo it means that the trader has agreed to provide good standards of service including clear information before a contract is signed, a clear complaints procedure and access to alternative dispute resolution (ADR) scheme for settling out of court
  • find a trader through the Trading Standards Buy with Confidencescheme, if it exists in your area
  • find a trader through the Local Authority Assured Trader Scheme Network. This links together schemes run by different local authorities to attract small businesses
  • find a trader who is a member of a trade association. Trade associations have codes of practice and schemes that can help resolve problems. If a trader says they’re a member of a trade association, you should check this is true
  • if you’re doing major structural building work, you may need planning permission or have to meet building regulations. For example, you may need the help of a surveyor, architect or quantity surveyor, to draw up plans to submit to the local authority. You can get advice on employing specialists from the Chartered Surveyor’s Voluntary Scheme run by the Royal Institute for Chartered Surveyors, or from other organisations representing surveyors and architects
  • the Green Deal allows you to get energy efficiency improvements to your property without having to pay up front. Find out more about the Green Dealon GOV.UK.
  • if you’re looking for a digital installation or service engineer you can search for members of the Registered Digital Institute on their getmedigital website, at For example, you can find engineers to install a satellite dish or cable or fix your TV, to get an alarm fitted or broadband fixed, or to get renewable energy services.


There are also organisations that can assist when you have building work done. You can look on for trade associations to help you find a trader or deal with a dispute.

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