8 May 2006

No cash upfront — unless the builder is Polish

Prices quoted for an extension in Edinburgh.
• £30,000
• £57,000
• £65,000
• £80,000

Which one would you go for? I was posed this question at the Homebuilding & Renovating show this weekend in Glasgow. David Snell and I had just been dispensing “unmissable” advice on how to run building jobs. One of the pearls to fall from our collective lips was “Never pay upfront.” But the lady from Edinburgh who approached us afterwards with her dilemma explained that the £30,000 quote came with a sting in the tail. She and her husband had been asked to pay a deposit of 50% upfront if she wanted the job done for £30,000.

Instinctively, one smells a rat. Why should a builder want a deposit of any kind, let alone 50%? They buy materials on credit, they pay their subcontractors in arrears, if they can’t float a building job for two or three weeks without a cash injection, there must be something fishy going on here.

But after asking her a few more questions, a more complex picture of what was happening began to emerge. For starters, the guy offering this very low price was Polish and was newly arrived on our shores. He was offering access to Polish labour at Polish rates and, additionally, he was constantly ferrying building materials across from Poland where they are very much cheaper than the UK. What is more, he has already done jobs successfully for one of her friends and also a cousin: he comes highly recommended. He had also impressed with his Can Do attitude. The other builders had sucked their teeth when they saw that the house to be extended was set up a flight of steps, which will necessitate hand-balling all the materials up and over. The Polish builder hadn’t even mentioned it as a problem.

The clinching point was a connection with the Baptist church. Now, I don’t know much about Baptists but I can imagine that, as well as being a religion, it’s also a support network and this Polish builder had become a member of the Baptist congregation that the woman and her husband belong to. It seems his workload is mostly coming from the congregation.

Her husband was inclined to take the Polish Baptist builder at his word, to trust him with £15,000 and let him get on with the job. The wife was obviously a bit more cautious by nature and had taken the time to come and see what David and I had to say about the matter.

In the end, I came around to her husband’s point of view. Ultimately, there are no hard and fast rules about how to select a builder. There are guidelines-a-plenty but the final decision comes down to your own judgement and that’s all about who you choose to put your trust in. The many Polish builders currently setting up shop in the UK seem to enjoy an enviable reputation for honesty and hard work, to say nothing of dramatically undercutting the prices of the locals. Whether this will last, only time will tell. Doubtless there will be a few Polish rip-off merchants and quite a few useless Polish builders, just as there are with all ethnic groups in all walks of life. But at the moment, the nation’s homebuilders and extenders seem to be in thrall with Poland and all the fit young builders they are currently exporting to us.

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