top of page

How to Find a COWBOY BUILDER in 10 Easy Steps

Updated: Feb 25

In the UK and Ireland we have a special word to describe the worst kind of building contractors. Cowboys.

A few years ago I helped a client get permission to convert their attic to a bedroom. The property was in an historic neighbourhood of Edinburgh, so the job wasn’t simple.

It's the kind of thing I specialise in. The clients budget was tight and, to save on my fees, they opted to find and manage a builder themselves. I would not be involved during construction. Nothing wrong with that, it's perfectly reasonable. I gave them the details of a few builders I who knew would do a good job and let the client get on with it. I did my bit and the client took it from there. A couple of months later the client called me to say the work was a disaster. They hadn’t gone with any of the contractors I recommend, instead they hired a builder they found on Facebook. They paid him a large deposit up front, his guys had torn their property apart and then walked off site. The builder emailed them to say he was winding up his company. Very sorry, but he wouldn’t be coming back to finish the job. My client was literally crying down the phone. Their property was so badly damaged they couldn't live in it. They didn’t think they had enough money left to finish the project, so they asked me to inspect what had been done and advise them on the best way to make their property habitable again.

What I saw shocked me. The builder had cut through the attic joists in such a way that the roof was no longer secure. The property was four storeys above a busy street and if the roof shifted suddenly, slates could rain down on the people and cars below.

It's the only time in my career I had to contact the local council to advise them of a potently dangerous structure. I got an engineer to advise on how to secure the timbers and called in a favour from a builder who could make it safe at very short notice.


owboy builders cause distress to homeowners and give the construction industry a bad name. Like most of my clients these people were educated professionals, in other areas of their lives they were highly skilled, competent peopled. But they had no experience of construction, they had never hired a builder before and didn't know what to look out for.

Ask yourself, would you be able to spot a cowboy before they ruined your life? Ive been around the construction industry my whole adult life. And I’ve seen a few horror shows. These are 10 warning signs that you are dealing with a cowboy. Let's be clear, most of the signs on my list are not illegal. And one or two of the signs on their own does not mean your builder is a cowboy. But the more of these signs you notice, the more likely you are dealing with a builder who will break your heart.

1. Not VAT registered.

First on the list is Value Added Tax. Any business in the UK with a turnover of more than £85,000 must register for VAT. And since VAT is payable on alterations, extensions and refurbishment to private homes, it adds 20% to the cost of the project.

That is a massive incentive for cowboys to cheat the system.

If you think about it, £85,000 does no buy you a lot of building material or skilled tradespeople these days. Even a one-man-band should be turning over more that that in any 12 month period.

It's possible that the builder only just formed their company and therefore doesn’t yet have to register for VAT. Maybe you are their first customer and will benefit from a VAT holiday until they hit the £85k threshold.

Don't be fooled. This is a big warning sign that you are dealing with a cowboy builder, especially if they make a big deal of how much money you will save by hiring them. Which brings me to the next warning sign.

2. Very low prices.

This is a classic giveaway. If you get three of four firms to submit prices for your job, and those firms are all about the same size, then their prices should be very similar. A variation of 10-15% up or down between builders prices is normal.

If one of the firms are 20 or 30% cheaper than the others, either they didn't price the job correctly or they are doing what is called “buying the job”.

This is a tactic used by unscrupulous or desperate builders. They knowingly under price a job during the initial tender, in the hope of dramatically increasing costs once they start work.

If you are getting quotes from different firms make sure they are all of a similar size, give them the same drawings to price and if one firm undercuts the others ask them to double check.

Ive seen plenty of big firms forget elements of the job or misunderstand a specifications, we are only human and mistakes happen. This could be an innocent mistake but if the builder refuses to budge, it's a massive warning sign.

But it's not the only tactic Cowboy builders use to entice unwary customers. They also also offer

3. Fixed price deals.

Let's get one thing clear, you might have heard about fixed price construction contracts in the news but these only work if the project is a multi million pound infrastructure job or a brand new hospital.

At the small end of the construction industry, building house extensions and attic conversions, fixed price construction does not work. I could do a whole video on why this is the case but please just take it from me, if a builder is offering to do the work for a fixed price it's just a tactic to get you to hire them. And you soon as you do, the next thing they ask for is.

4. A deposits up front.

Ive been running my own architecture practice for 14 years and Ive done over 220 projects. In all that time Ive only been involved with two jobs where we had to pay a deposit up front.

In both cases it was to purchase unusual materials, with long lead-in times. I strongly urge anyone doing regular work to their home, if a builder asks for a deposit up front to buy materials on day one its a terrible sign. And it's usually caused by the next the next sign.

5. Does not have an account at the builders merchant.

Any well run building firm will have a credit account at a builders merchants. They may have accounts at several local and national merchants, as well as kitchen and bathroom suppliers.

The merchants will allow reputable builders to purchase materials and pay for them later, on credit. This helps a builders cash flow, because they may not get paid for the work for weeks or even months.

Ask yourself, if the builders merchants wont give a builder credit, why should you?

This is why cowboys ask for deposits, or at least this is the excuse they give. In some cases cowboys just take the money and run.

If you are being asked to pay a deposit, challenge the builder to give you the list of materials and say your will buy them from the merchant yourself. If they agree to this, make sure the materials are delivered to your home, because once they are on site they are legally your property.

In construction, reputable firms stick together. Like the sponsors of todays video, Sunflex UK design and manufacture aluminium windows and doors. I made this video showing how their products enhanced this project of mine.

Sunflex doors and windows are only available though their network of approved installers, so you are always in good hands. Ive put a link in the description and up here. Check them out, I honesty believe Sunflex UK offer a great balance between cost and quality.

The next big sign that you are dealing with a Cowboy builder is that they want paid in

6. Cash only.

This is a classic, and I debated whether it should be further up the list. Because It's connected to the first point, about not being VAT registered.

If a builder tells you they can do the work for less, but only if you pay cash, you are definitely in cowboy territory.

The other signs on my list could be explained away if they happened on their own, maybe a firm is new and doesn’t have any cash in the bak or a credit record. We all have to start somewhere. But asking to be paid in cash, specifically to avoid VAT is THE classic.

Keep in mind, it's impossible to avoid VAT on materials. So the only way a cowboy builder can offer you a saving by using cash is by not paying his workers properly.

Which brings up the next sign of a cowboy builder

7. No employees.

It's not uncommon for building contractors to use agency workers. But even small building firms will have a core staff. Usually a joiner or Brickie, perhaps a labourer or two, maybe an apprentice.

If your builder has no employees, and instead relies on casual labour, it can be a warning sign you are dealing with a cowboy. This is especially true if they are being paid some, or all, of their wages in cash.

If I am working with a builder for the first time I make a point of discretely asking the tradesmen how long they have been with the firm. This leads to the next sign

8. No references.

If a builder cannot, or will not, provide references from past clients, it's can be a massive red flag. It might be understandable if you are their first client but the odds of that are small.

I ask builders to name architects they have worked with previously and I always check to see what those Architects think of the firm.

You should always ask for references and always check them. Do not be fooled by positive posts on social media, these can be faked.

It turned out that is what happened to my client. The builder they hired had lots of positive posts on Facebook but closer inspection revealed they were fake.

If a builder says they have a well established business a better way to check this in the UK is to use

9. Companies House

This is the UK government register of limited companies and their owners. If your builder runs a limited company always check them out here, I’ve put a link in the description.

If they own money, haven’t paid taxes or not filed accounts, it's all in here.

If the owner had multiple failed businesses in the past, those will be listed too.

Another thing to check is if a well established companies has changed owners recently. This might not be cowboy territory but it can be a clue that those references you so carefully checked might not apply anymore.

If the company is in new hands, ask the staff how they feel about this. If they have been with the company for years and see a bright future under the new owner, that’s one thing.

If the staff are disgruntled or, even worse, are all brand new agency workers with no track record of working for the builder, its a sure sign you are in trouble.

Speaking of signs, the last sign is when a builder.

10. Wont sign a contract

Even for building work that is simple in nature there should be a written contract. You don't even need to draw this up yourself or hire a lawyer, there are ready made contractor for exactly this situation, I’ve put a link in the description.

If your builder wont agree to sign a contract its bad news. If they wont commit to a clear deadline, ie a calendar date when the work will be finished, just walk away. This guy is a cowboy.

So there you have it.Remember what I said earlier, the more of these signs you see, the more likely your builder is a cowboy. Ive seen the damage cowboy builder do to peoples homes and their lives. If you are thinking of altering, extending or refurbishing your home these are then signs to look for when hiring a builder.


bottom of page