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Choosing a builder tips & advice

March 2017

Listen to Alex Goldstein’s chat with James Tiffany of Roger Tiffany Limited, who reveals some amazing builder tips, including what to look for when choosing a builder, and what to avoid. They also talk through the process of a building project from planning and design stage right through to completion, including how to deal with common problems.

Amazing Builder Tips

Alex: We are honored, indeed, to have James Tiffany here in the studio. Now, you’ve been in the business a long time, haven’t you?

James: Yes. I did construction management at university, then I worked for some national contractors for 12 years before moving back to the family business about 10 years ago.

Alex: Back to the family, there you go, there you go. And it’s quite interesting. I mean, you look out in the sort of the general sort of property marketplaces, strikes me, there are lots of builders out there. And they’ve all got their vans, and they’ve all got their logos, but if you’re just Joe Public like me, what do you actually need to look for in a good quality builder?

James: I think you need to go for someone who has been in business for a number of years. Longevity is a quality, obviously, because it’s important you get a builder who is good at business, as well as good at building, because if somebody goes bust or can’t finish your project, then even if the quality’s good, that gives you a big problem. Somebody who has been around, somebody who can provide references, somebody who’s recommended by an architect or somebody else in the industry is obviously a good reference, and somebody who would be happy to sign up to a building contract because that means many things. It means they’re happy to work and get paid monthly. They’re not asking for money up front. They’re happy to have a retention deducted from the work, Alex. That gives you the comfort that they’ll come back at the end to put things right.

Alex: Yeah, no, absolutely. People often say, “Well, if my builder can start straightaway, then he’s obviously no good because his diary’s completely empty.” Is that also another point to go by, or am I just clutching at straws there?

James: I think that can be a little bit unfair.

Alex: Obviously, the odd free space does crop up.

James: Yes, it does, and especially in winter when things are a bit quieter. But, I think, if you’ve looked at the other points, you’ve taken references, and you’ve spoken to an architect, then it may be you just dropped lucky.

Alex: Yeah. I mean, one of the, I suppose, jargon phrases is this sort of ‘procurement process’. Just talk everyone through, what does that actually mean. What does that actually entail, again, if I’m a homeowner and I’m looking to get you on board?

James: Well, the traditional procurement route, Alex, is that if a homeowner’s looking to get some work done, they will tend to approach the architect in the first instance because the architect will guide them through the planning process. He will tailor a brief, he will provide them with some options, develop their brief so that they’re happy with it. Today, there’s more and more regulations to get through. The planning process is more complicated, especially if you’re in a conservation area or a national park. There’s more energy efficiency regulations. You have to have a SAP calculation done before you do any work. The architect, once he’s got the drawings through the planning process and to a building regulations stage, can then invite tenders from building contractors on behalf of the client, and that really is the way to do it. Employing the architect, then, to monitor the works throughout, to check the quality, is definitely the way to go.

Alex: And so the tendering process, as you mentioned, what does that entail? What does that take?

James: So a builder will take the architect’s drawings, schedule of work, specification, and he will price to that. We’re normally given sort of three to four weeks to put a price in with others. Everybody gets the same amount of time and the same information, to keep things fair. And then, if it’s been set out properly, then the client and his team can analyze that price when it comes in to make sure that everything’s been covered. Or, if things haven’t been covered, then at least everybody [inaudible 00:03:07].

Alex: Surely, on that sort of basis, it just comes down to price, surely. Is it down to being the cheapest, on those tender processes?

James: Well, theoretically, it could come down to price, but sometimes on a tender, the client asks for a methodology. You know, “Please explain how you’re going to build this, how you’re going to do it without affecting the neighbors, how you’re going to do it without knocking down something that you’re driving past every day.” And also, program, “Is it going to take three months, four months, or six months?” So there’s other things that can matter, as well, but as long as the builders know at the outset, then that’s the fair tendering process.

Alex: Got you, got you. And how does a homeowner know that they’re going to get the best price? How can you sort of reduce that risk at the end of the day?

James: Well, getting several quotes obviously helps them.

Alex: And that’s through the architect again, is it?

James: It would tend to be, yes. Yeah, that would be the best way to do it. Having a good design with a lot of details helps because, as a builder, then I’m clear, what I’m pricing. It’s when we get ambiguities or things we’ve not met before that the price starts going up because there’s a little bit of risk and that gives us a worry. So the more things that are drawn, the better. If the client schedules things out that they want, you know, the specification of the kitchen, the pottery, the floor coverings, the more detail we get, the better price we can give, Alex.

Alex: The more accurate?

James: Exactly, yes.

Alex: I’ve got you. And there’s a bit of a buzz at the moment, and there has been for the last few years, about this sort of energy efficiency, and certainly, when you’re looking to extend or, certainly, if you’re building sort of a brand new property from the sort of foundations up, this technology is always sort of advancing and evolving. What are the key things that a lot of clients are coming to you for at the moment? What should people keep an eye on?

James: Well, people want things increasingly energy efficient, Alex, as you’ve said, and that’s driven by the building regulations, as well as by the client. We get a lot of renewable technologies these days because there are grants available, and clients want things like air source heat pumps which take the energy from outside and use that for heating. It’s free heating. Solar panels on the roof provide free electricity that goes back into the grid, and a client can actually receive an income back from the power company. Underfloor heating is obviously very common.

Alex: At the moment, everyone is a property developer, everyone’s an expert. You’ve got all these wonderful programs out there and they make it look so easy. I, personally, don’t feel it’s really the case, but when you, say, come to extend a property or indeed build a new one, that’s very much the trend at the moment. What are the issues that, with your experience, people sort of come across and need to be, I suppose, aware of? Because it’s not a case of one of those sort of property hammer programs you buy for \$50,000, and you spend \$10,000, and all of a sudden it’s worth \$150,000. I don’t think it’s as straightforward as that.

James: It always seems very easy, doesn’t it, on the program?

Alex: It does. It’s easy in a sentence sense.

James: The things to look out for are to get some advice on price up front. It’s amazing, the amount of clients we go to who’ve not been given any advice on how much a job will cost, so we often price it and they can’t afford it. So, speak to a builder early on, perhaps before you’ve even employed an architect. It will certainly give you an approximate estimate of the cost, within 15%, 20% accuracy, and that will help in your decision making. So, we definitely do that because that avoids wasted cost and time. Things like speaking to your neighbors, people forget to do, especially if you’re living in close proximity to them. Again, we turn up on site, it’s the first time the neighbor knew there was going to be a building project, and we get all sorts of issues. Things like trees and hedges can be problems, especially if you’re digging near them. Again, people overlook them. Conifer hedges, leylandii, big trees can all give problems to your new extension that’s encroaching on them, so things like that. Disruption to your own house. If you’re knocking through the kitchen into the dining room, you’re going to get a lot of dust. You might not have considered that it means changing the heating system, or that your hallway and your entranceway are then going to need decorating. The builder can obviously damage your driveway because he needs a compound and he’s bringing diggers in, and he needs to take down your hedges and your fences at the back of the house, and people, perhaps, forget that they then need putting back. The drive may need repaving or re-tarmacking. These are all costs that people forget about.

Alex: Indeed, but those are things that you’d sort of say, in advance, “Just so you’re aware, to get access, we need to do…”

James: Exactly. A good builder would flag that up. But, again, if that’s in the tender documentation, then everybody’s pricing that.

Alex: Absolutely. So it’s not as easy as I thought. You look, on TV, and it’s not as easy as making all that sort of money from one of those auction programs, is it?

James: No, it isn’t, definitely not, definitely not.

Alex: Right. The other issue that people often come up against is damp, damp appearing in the property or, indeed, sort of rising damp where it sort of comes up the brickwork. How can you sort of get around that? What are the options?

James: In a new property, obviously, you shouldn’t have any damp, Alex, and that’s alarming. You should always look for the damp proof course in the brickwork. In an old property, it’s more complicated because houses weren’t built to current standards, obviously. Things to do, that you can do is to check the roof to make sure you don’t have any broken slates, that your gutters aren’t blocked. Cleaning out your gutters every year after the autumn is something to do. But old houses can just be damp. The solid walls, modern living, means we’re putting a lot of moisture into houses. With washing machines being increasingly airtight, plastic windows don’t help really, so you must ventilate your own homes. Keep the heating on, keep trying to get the moisture out of the buildings. Sometimes, in an old property, you can’t avoid some levels of damp, but it may be that you don’t have a damp course, so you can inject a damp course. There’s easy ways to do it. It can be disruptive because you’ve got to knock the plaster off the walls. Or, you might have external ground levels that are higher than inside, so that might mean that you have to tank, and tanking isn’t easy when it’s done afterwards, but it is possible. There are experts out there that can advise on that.

Alex: And just picking up on that point, what is the difference between, say, a damp proof course and tanking?

James: Well, if your outside levels are higher than inside, then a damp proof course won’t work because the damp can still strike through from outside, so you must tank that wall above the height of the external ground levels to stop the water coming in. Alternatively, you let the water come in and you have an internal drain and an internal lining wall, and then you just drain the water away. So, often, in a basement, you’ve just got to accept that that water will get in, and you put a pump in and you get rid of the water.

Alex: Really heard it all there, fantastic stuff. And I’m sure, surely, in your career, you’ve had some amusing stories that you may have come across, botched DIY jobs, possibly, that you’ve had to help out with. Anything springs to mind there?

James: Well, we’ve got to be careful what we say, Alex, really, but yeah, we’ve come across those. We’ve come across… We’ve been caught in the middle of a crossfire of arguments between husband and wife, which can always be a little bit embarrassing.

Alex: Yeah, it can be difficult.

James: I’ve heard of builders that might have knocked expensive vases off furniture before, and now, Alex, have to glue them back together.

Alex: Obviously, nothing to do with yourself.

James: No. And yes, with the onset of Google, it does amuse us when we have a client who can’t answer a question on a Friday afternoon, but by Monday morning, he’s an expert on the subject and puts us on the back foot. So, all things that are difficult at the time, but quite amusing afterwards, Alex.

Alex: Absolutely, absolutely. And we’ve had some great sort of inside information there, James. If someone wants to sort of talk through anything with you, whether it’s energy efficiency, or extending, or damp proofing, what’s the best way for people to get in touch?

James: Yeah, happy to help, obviously. Phone us or visit to our website, rogertiffany.co.uk. Our phone number is 0-1756-793-734.

Alex: Fantastic, James. Thank you so much, indeed, for coming on the show. Really appreciate it.

James: Thank you, Alex.