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How to spot a dodgy builder

You’ve started your building project and everything is going great. Or is it? You have a sneaking suspicion that your builder might not quite be up to scratch.

Perhaps they’ve turned up late or not at all, or you’ve seen them using some unusual building techniques and you’re beginning to think you’ve actually chosen a dodgy builder.

Or maybe it’s not until the job is done that you realise that the building work is less than perfect. But by now, the dodgy builder has packed up his tools and moved on.

You don’t want to be the next ‘Dodgy Builder’ story on a Current Affair. You don’t want to be left with a property that’s riddled with problems. So how can you tackle your dodgy builder head on?

In this post, I’ll give you some tips around making the best of a bad building situation.

Step 1: Getting real

The first step is to fixing the problem is to admit you have a problem.  If you’re not feeling happy about how your building work is going, then it’s important to step back and think about getting a second opinion.

Seek out some independent advice from another builder, who is experienced in remedial and waterproofing works (if possible someone who has come highly recommended). And don’t worry, you don’t need to tell the current builder you’re doing this.

I often find no one wants to accept the reality that they have problems either on, as they’re fearful of the costs involved to fix things. But this head in the sand (or cement) approach doesn’t work!

The truth is that the longer you leave the problem the more difficult it is going to be to get it fixed. Often the builder may have gone broke, or disappeared, and the damage could get worse.

Step 2: Ask (yourself) the tough questions

Consider whether you have a major building defect or a small issue. To give you some idea of what this may be:

  • A small hairline crack in a plasterboard wall is not a major defect.
  • Large cracks or rust marks appearing concrete is a major defect.
  • A leaking balcony (or any leak into a building from an outdoor area) is a major defect.

It’s important to have a sense of perspective on your problem before you contact your builder.

Step 3: Keep a good relationship with your builder

Ideally it’s a good idea to try to maintain a good working relationship with your builder. Refusing to pay a $20k bill because there’s a damaged floor tile or loose door handle isn’t fair.

Generally, in our experience if you maintain a good attitude and remain polite when dealing with your builder, you’ll get a better result in the long run.

Step 4: Give your builder a chance

If there’s a major defect always give your original builder the chance to fix things. There are often teething troubles with building work and a good builder will always be happy to return and fix problems.

Step 5: Create a paper trail

It’s vital to document everything and keep records. Start a diary of your correspondence, and write short and simple entries covering the latest developments.
Some examples could include:

  • <DATE>: I contacted <Builder name> by phone / email on site to ask about leaking window frames in bedroom two.
  • <DATE>: Two men came on site today at <TIME> and spent <NUMBER> hours working on the window frames.
  • <DATE>: Heavy rainstorm, more leaks in window.

Where possible try to correspond with your builder via email, text or letter, and keep copies of all digital messages.

When you contact them about your problem, ask them to document (in written form) what the problem is and the steps they plan to take to fix it.

I also recommend to taking photos of all affected areas, to provide as much detail as possible.

Step 6: Don’t be tempted to fix yourself

I can’t stress enough how important it is NOT to fix the problem yourself. As soon as you start working on the issue, you essentially let the builder off the hook.
They can then claim that YOU created the problem, or made it worst.

Of course it’s fine to implement simple emergency measures, like putting a tarpaulin over a leaky balcony or blocking off a dodgy balustrade.

But don’t do anything such as trying to seal tiles, or pulling up a tile to fix a leak. You’ll void the warranty and be in an even bigger mess.

Step 7: Check your warranty

I always recommend that customers insist on a written 10-year manufacturer’s warranty from a major long-term supplier for all waterproofing works. This is a simple, but effective, way to strain out the cowboy builders and waterproofers.

Step 8: Seek legal advice

I highly recommend seeking advice from a legal firm experienced in building matters. If you’re having trouble contacting your builder or they’re failing to fix the issue, you next step should be to get expert guidance. (I recommend Bannermans Laywers in North Sydney).

Most good building lawyers will work hard to limit your out-of-pocket costs and avoid a protracted legal dispute.

Step 9: Contact Fair Trading

Check with your state’s fair trading organisation, most of whom offer a quick cost-free dispute resolution service for building issues.

Step 10: Knowing when to give up

Although it can be tempting to persist with the builder or developer as they work through a number of half-baked fixes, it’s important to realise when enough is enough.

Set a time limit for dealing with the issue, say 6 months, and if at that state you haven’t got anywhere. Contact your lawyer and contact a professional builder experienced in remedial works. This is seldom a regular builder, but rather someone who has specialised in this area.

Peter’s story

I was recently asked to project manage some remedial works on in Sydney’s Inner West. It was a townhouse project and after my initial inspection I found that:

  • There was extensive water penetration in the townhouses themselves, the planter boxes and the underground carpark.
  • There was extensive cracking in the masonry walls and retaining walls.
  • The roof and roof flashings were defective resulting in extensive leaking.
Townhouse project retaining walls

Townhouse project retaining walls

Unfortunately, I had to refuse the project, as I felt the proposed works would have been substandard.

I provided a list of alternative solutions, that would lead to a small cost increase of less than 10% and a better result both in terms of quality and aesthetic. Sadly, the owners ignored my advice, then worked directly with the dodgy repairer and the insurance company were then totally off the hook.

On another project, after inspecting leaking balconies on a fairly new unit building, I saw that the external balustrades were non-compliant and dangerous. I had a duty of care to inform the strata manager and a decision was made to have them inspected by an independent engineer.

Unfortunately, the balconies were found to be defective and had to be replaced on the entire building.

Upon further investigation I found that no inspections had been done on the building by the certifier, a serious breach of the building regulations. These owners have now engaged me to oversee the rectification process.

The dodgy falling apart roof area on the fairly new unit building

The dodgy falling apart roof area on the fairly new unit building

The ultimate goal

Although dealing with dodgy builders and poor building work can be stressful, it’s important to keep your cool. Remember, the ultimate goal is to get the original builder to fix or pay for their defective work, with as little cost to you as possible.

Additional information

If you’d like to learn more about dodgy builders, check out these links and resources:

Over to you

Have you had an issue with a dodgy builder? How did you handle your situation? We’d love to hear, so please comment below.

Got a question?

If you would like us to take a look a building issue with your property, give Peter a call on 0412 355 887, or contact us for an obligation-free initial site visit.


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