Managing Disputes with Building Contractors


If you find yourself bogged down with a disagreement that can’t be resolved, you may have a genuine dispute on your hands. This means an independent third party will need to be appointed as adjudicator.

Exactly who this nominated person should be must be jointly agreed in the contract at the outset. It’s normally an experienced chartered surveyor. Never appoint the person who designed your extension, since it may turn out that some problems are due to bad design.

Disputes should always be dealt with promptly, as they’ll only get worse if ignored. If the problem is due to building work that’s below par, and the builder has refused to rectify it, then a good first course of action is to ask the Building Control Officer’s opinion (although officially they may only be at liberty to point out any contraventions of the Building Regulations).

Otherwise, arrange for an inspection by the nominated independent surveyor, who should be able to produce a list of defects. A site meeting will need to be held to discuss it.

If both sides regard an issue as ‘a matter of principle’ it usually means they feel bloody-minded enough to waste time trying to teach the other side a lesson. At this point calm down! It’s silly to fritter away time and money and to spoil a relationship for the sake of being proved right about a few minor issues.


Mediation and litigation


Of course shoddy workmanship, continually broken promises and matters of dishonesty need to be directly addressed. The usual solution is mediation, where a third party with expertise in the field attempts to get both parties to agree a solution, making a judgement after listening to both sides in turn.

If the builder still refuses to co-operate, you may be forced to resort to legal advice to enforce the terms of the contract. Consumer legislation designed to protect customers from unfair treatment may sometimes be appropriate. If formal court proceedings are required, it helps to retain signed photographs of the defects in question.

It is important legally that you’re seen to have given the builder every opportunity to rectify the problem.

With a possible court appearance in mind, try to keep a cool head and always be reasonably civil. Reported episodes of ‘site-rage’ won’t reflect well on you in court, regardless of extreme provocation.

Alternatively, you may find that a solicitor’s letter threatening action has the effect of a warning shot, saving both parties from having to go to court, ultimately allowing the matter to be settled more amicably.



Terminating the contractor’s employment


This is the weapon of last resort. As with the unsavoury prospect of going to court, the mere threat to end the contractor’s employment can sometimes be a sufficient wake-up call to him to get his ass into gear.

Termination is a major step, and only advisable if you’re stuck with an impossible situation (and you haven’t paid them in advance).

But you only have the right to terminate if you can prove a serious breach has been committed by the contractor, and that he has failed to put matters right after being notified. For example:-

  • Failure to start work or to deliver any materials for a considerable time after the agreed start date. This doesn’t apply if he’s just a bit late starting.
  • Poor quality workmanship, if much of the work is of exceptionally poor quality and he has failed to make reasonable attempts to put it right after being formally requested to do so.
  •  Poor progress, if the project falls way behind schedule, with many days of absenteeism on site, and it looks like the contract will have to be significantly extended. He then fails to improve productivity despite formal requests to do so.


Other serious breaches might include the contractor going bankrupt, or extremely aggressive or abusive behaviour.

Don’t fall into the trap of being provoked into spouting a lot of abuse back!

No matter how much you think they deserve it, a threatening attitude on your part not only escalates the tension but could also expose you to a builder’s claim for loss of profit. All subcontracted work is automatically cancelled when the main contractor is terminated.

This is Big Potatoes, and legal advice will be needed. Once the dust has settled you’ll need to appoint another builder to finish the job, for which they may well charge a premium.