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Building disputes – a complete guide for homeowners

24 June 2024

Our experienced solicitors help homeowners to resolve all kinds of building disputes, which typically arise from construction projects.

Whether your case involves an extension, loft conversion, landscaping, internal structural alterations, redecorating your home or business premises, this guide explains how we can help to resolve building disputes in a cost-effective and timely manner.

Our building disputes solicitors understand that carrying out work, no matter how large or small, can be disruptive and stressful. Our expertise and guidance will help to reduce that stress and maximise your chance of successfully resolving the dispute, whether through negotiations with your builder or by obtaining an order from the court.

Frequently asked questions:

Click on the links below to jump to the different questions.

 

How do I complain if I’m unhappy with building work?

How do i complain if i'm unhappy with building work?

In our experience, it’s always best to maintain a line of communication with your builder. If you can, try to work through any issues which arise throughout the project, without instructing solicitors.

In doing so, you should explain the problem to your builder, set out how they can resolve it and give them a realistic timescale in which to do so. If you have engaged an architect or designer as a project manager, you may wish to use them as a go-between to help resolve matters.

If you’re unable to deal directly with the builder, then depending upon the nature of the contractor, i.e. whether they are a limited company or a sole trader, you could raise a complaint under that company’s complaints procedure or with your local trading standards office.

Where you have cause to make a complaint, we recommend that you always ensure the complaint is made in writing; this means that you have an official record of the dispute. We also suggest that you use email to raise your complaint, rather than sending a text message or WhatsApp message to your builder.

 

What do I do if I end up in a dispute with my builder?

What do I do if i end up in a dispute wiht my builder?

In our experience, building disputes tend to be resolved in favour of the party who can provide the most evidence for their claim. For the homeowner, this evidence could include copies of any documents relating to the building works, such as the contract, quotations and invoices, structural drawings or calculations, correspondence between themselves and builders, photographs showing poor workmanship, estimates from new builders to complete the works or remedy any defective works, and perhaps most importantly, a report prepared by a suitably qualified expert.

Once instructed as your solicitors, we would review any evidence you have and provide you with an initial opinion on your prospects of successfully bringing a claim against the builder and on what basis. Subject to that assessment, we would draft a letter to send to the builder, prepared in accordance with the Pre-action Protocol for Construction and Engineering disputes.

This protocol governs the parties’ conduct before proceedings are issued with the aim being to encourage both parties to set out their respective cases and exchange sufficient information so that they understand each other’s position. In turn, this should allow the parties to narrow the issues in dispute, make an informed decision about the potential for a settlement or how they might seek to resolve the matter without starting proceedings; for example, through the use of alternative dispute resolution (ADR).

If a party does not engage or comply with the protocol, there is a risk of costs imposed by the court later down the line – that is, having costs awarded against them for not attempting to narrow the issues or settle at the beginning of the dispute.

The pre-action protocol timeline can be summarised as follows:

  • Day 1: claimant serves pre-action protocol letter of claim
  • By day 14: defendant acknowledges receipt
  • By day 28: defendant serves letter of response
  • By day 49: claimant serves response to counterclaim

Or, if no counterclaim, parties attend a pre-action meeting, then:

  • Dispute settles or claimant issues proceedings or parties can agree to take other steps (for example, use of ADR).

This timeline is a suggestion only and the parties can agree to extensions to the deadlines between themselves. Generally, the longest time for response to a letter of claim is approximately three months for a very complex dispute.

 

What do I do if there is no written contract?

What do I do if there's no written contract?

A written contract has the benefit of providing certainty to the homeowner and builder on what each other’s obligations are. Not having a written contract doesn’t mean that there isn’t one but rather that there’s less certainty over what the terms are.

In the context of a contract for a typical building project, this would define the scope of the works, the time in which the works should be carried out, and the price. Further uncertainty can then arise if you have asked the builder to carry out additional works during the project.

Under the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982, builders are required to perform work to a reasonable care and skill, in a reasonable time, and at a reasonable price. This Act has to some extent been replaced by the Consumer Rights Act 2015, which also provides homeowners with protection if there is no written contract in place. These rights include that any goods supplied, which in the context of a construction contract may include building materials, must be of satisfactory quality, be fit for purpose and as described.

 

Who can I sue in a building dispute?

Who can I sue in a building construction dispute?

In terms of building disputes, any claim will be against the company or individual with whom you entered into the contract with.

Where there is no written agreement, it will be necessary to look at the background and other factors, such as who you have paid to carry out the work. As a rule, where a sub-contractor is appointed by a builder, ultimately the builder is responsible for any defective works carried out.

 

Is it worth suing them?

Is it worth suing my builder?

When considering whether you have the prospect of successfully pursuing a claim, a critical question to consider is whether, in the event of the claim being successful, the builder has sufficient financial means with which to settle the terms of a final judgement or ruling.

In the case of a limited company, we would make enquiries with Companies House to ascertain what the company’s financial position is. Where the contract is with a sole trader, we could consider whether they would have any assets against which the homeowner would be able to secure a judgement. In either case, we would also consider whether the builder has any form of insurance policy providing cover in the event of a claim being made.

 

Can my builder charge me extra?

Can my builder charge me extra?

Your builder will be bound by the contractually agreed price for carrying out the works. This may only be changed by agreement or where you have asked the builder to carry out additional works outside of those in the original agreement. This could be done either in writing or face-to-face.

In circumstances where you instruct the builder to carry out additional works, we suggest you carefully document these in writing, as well as the price for any additional works once agreed. In the absence of an agreement over the price, your builders will be entitled to be paid a reasonable price for their services, which may come down to fact.

 

Can I claim damages for bad workmanship?

Can I claim damages for bad workmanship in a building dispute?

In any building contract, it’s an implied term that your builder must carry out the agreed works with reasonable care and skill. If your builder is found to have acted in breach of this, you’ll be entitled to bring a claim for damages to put you in the position you ought to have been in had the work been properly carried out. In practical terms, this means that you could claim damages for the cost of any work required to remedy the defects.

 

Can I claim damages for poor quality materials?

Can I claim damages for poor quality materials?

It’s an implied term of any building contract that goods, such as building materials supplied must be of satisfactory quality, fit for purpose and as described. If it’s found that the goods are not of satisfactory quality, you’ll be entitled to bring a claim for damages to put you in the position you ought to have been in had the contract been properly carried out.

If the goods have already been installed in your property, this means that you could claim damages for the cost of the replacement goods as well as the cost of any remedial works required to install them into your property. Alternatively, if the goods have not yet been installed then you will have the right to reject these goods and have them replaced with satisfactory quality materials.

 

Do I need to allow the builder to rectify bad workmanship or defects?

Do I need to allow the builder to rectify bad workmanship?

As a rule, a builder has no rights to return to your property to rectify any defects. That being said, you have a duty to take steps to mitigate your loss. In practice, this will often mean giving the builder an opportunity to return to your property to rectify the defects at their cost.

Whether or not you should allow this will depend on the circumstances of the case. Often, this is simply not feasible when a relationship of trust and confidence has broken down between both parties.

 

Can I terminate the contract during a building dispute?

Can I terminate the contract in a building dispute?

A starting point would be to look at the clause in the contract which deals with termination. If there has been a breach – including a failure to proceed regularly, diligently or on the insolvency of your builder – this would entitle you to terminate the contract.

You may also be entitled to terminate the contract where you can show that your builder has committed a material or substantial breach which is so serious that it would be unreasonable to expect you to continue to be bound by the contract. This would be a repudiatory breach.

Once again, whether you are entitled to terminate will depend on the case and before taking any action, it’s important that you not only carefully consider whether you are entitled to terminate the contract but also what you wish to recover if you terminate.

You should also ensure that you understand that rights and obligations accrued prior to the termination date, that you understand the consequences of accepting a repudiatory breach by your builder and that you follow any notice provisions contained in the contract if you are seeking to terminate it.

 

I’m involved in a building dispute; can I get someone else to finish the work?

Can I get someone else to finish the work in a building dispute?

If the contract has been terminated and the work remains unfinished, you will be entitled to engage another builder to finish the work. Whether you will then be able to bring a claim for damages against your original builder will depend upon whether you have suffered any losses.

For example, the original contract price was £100,000 and you have paid your original builder £75,000 up to the date of termination.

If you bring a claim against your original builder, your loss would be the cost of engaging a new contractor to complete the works in accordance with the contract, less the difference between the original contractual price and amount you paid your original builder.

 

Can I refuse to pay the remaining balance until I’m happy with the works?

Can I refuse to pay in a building dispute?

If you withhold money throughout the course of the works, this may put you in breach of contract. This may result in the builder taking legal action against you.

If, after completion, you have concerns about the quality of the works or that there are defects which need to be remedied, you may withhold paying any remaining balance.

 

How much is this going to cost me?

How much is a building dispute going to cost?

In the event of an issue with a builder, which could give rise to a claim for breach of contract, you should consider whether you have any form of legal expenses insurance policy. This may provide you with an indemnity in respect of your legal costs for bringing claims against your builder.

Should you require our advice or assistance in dealing with matters, we’ll provide you with an estimate to review any documents that you send to us and thereafter to settle a letter before claim. At the same time, we’ll endeavour to provide you with an estimate of our costs if it became necessary to issue a claim and take it to trial.

 

Is there a time limit within which I need to issue a claim?

Is there a time limit within which I need to issue a claim in a building dispute?

You are required to bring any claim for a breach of contract or in negligence within six years from the date of the breach. There is an exception to this rule where a defect only becomes apparent after the initial six-year limitation period has expired. In certain circumstances, a limitation period of three years will be deemed to run from the date that the defect is noticed.

 

How can our building disputes solicitors help?

Common issues which arise in disputes between a homeowner and a builder include:

  • Disputes about poor or substandard workmanship
  • Disputes about contractual terms including delays or specification
  • Disputes about the quality of materials
  • Payment disputes
  • Negligence claims against architects’ surveyors or designers

If you are a homeowner in need of advice, please do not hesitate to contact us. Our experienced property disputes solicitors will help you to resolve your building dispute in the most efficient and cost-effective way.

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Disclaimer: Please note that this page is for guidance only and does not replace legal advice. Speak to us if you seek advice, we’d be delighted to help you resolve your dispute. 

Disclaimer: All legal information is correct at the time of publication but please be aware that laws may change over time. This article contains general legal information but should not be relied upon as legal advice. Please seek professional legal advice about your specific situation - contact us; we’d be delighted to help.
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Nick Southwell BA (Hons)
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Nick Southwell, litigator at Willans LLP
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