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'CHEAP' - the scenario

The client has a good idea of what s/he wants; and it’s ‘normal’, not that cleverness which causes such drama on Grand Designs. S/he recognises that technically (including insulation etc) it will have to comply with regulations; but no more. Whether feature-filled or really basic, it’s an imaginative idea much inspired by things from magazines or seen locally – it’s what local builders seem to do.

So the client’s first call is to one or three locally recommended builders. They come freshly showered after work and seem experienced, reassuring, can-do. In discussion, the client’s idea may be ‘made practical’, to suit the builder’s preferred routines. He talks budget, but before he can quote …

The builder recommends his favourite low-cost architect/surveyor/other plan-drawer, as necessary for Planning and/or Building Regs. Or the client may start direct with the low-cost plan-drawer. Either way, such ‘Cheap’ drawings are the minimum required by officialdom, expressing the result of a short initial discussion, definitely not any kind of deeper look. The drawings are intended to leave to the builder as much wiggle-room as possible.

A bit of background: in a boom-bust economy, time and again building industry workload collapses, established firms close, tradesmen leave the industry. When workload recovers, in the post-2008 gig economy, surviving firms become ‘lean’ employers of young freelance tradesmen who can make a good living only by working fast and knowing they can walk off to another job if client or employer gets tricky.

No one can afford to spend more than an evening and a day, max, on quoting to build a typical householder’s dream, especially if he’s up against two other builders quoting. Long gone are the days when the architect would drive round delivering tender documentation to six – yes, six – respectful well established local builders, and get six carefully priced valid tenders back on the deadline day! Since the 2008 bust, traditional ethical tendering no longer works for projects of less than – oo – half a million; there are no takers.

Sometimes the client may have just invited eight quotes from names out of the local paper, intending to interview the cheapest few. Knowing that’s the game (the grapevine, via the builder’s merchants etc), the builder just guesses a ‘for a laugh’ quote figure and negotiates from there, should the client bite.

That anyway is the mainstream situation, within which ‘Cheap’ operates. To instead do ‘Economical’, things have to be set up differently.

So nowadays in the ‘Cheap’ scenario, the builder(s) employ his (or his builder’s merchant’s) favourite low-cost Builder’s Estimator to price the job. Although the information is sketchy, the estimator’s skill is to spend a day or less to arrive at a price that the builder can plus-and-minus around and come out ahead. The builder adds his overheads and profit, depending how competitive he’s feeling, and makes his quote.

The client either simply accepts a quote, or typically the one-sided NFBTE (National Federation of Building Trades Employers) form of contract is signed. Then the fun begins.

‘Cheap’ means no one has spent time/money to fully investigate the site and/or existing building before work begins, so ‘unexpected problems’ abound. The builder makes ad hoc alterations and/or extra-cost works as he goes along.

‘Cheap’ means no one has spent time/money to make sure the client really understands what it’s going to look like and feel like, so disappointing shortcomings only become evident during construction. The client either puts up with it or orders ‘extras’ - extra-cost work - to make it tolerable.

The client discovers too late that what s/he thought was a full, agreed description of the work to be done for the accepted quote, is in fact very sketchy. The builder is free to omit things or do them cheaply as he goes along. Again, the client either puts up with it or orders ‘extras’ - extra-cost features - to make it tolerable.

Another alternative is that client is happy enough because s/he can't tell the difference; but that's unlikely to be the case for any potential client who's read this far.

In all the above, the client is disempowered, with little recourse, for two reasons:

Firstly, the typical one-sided NFBTE form of contract – or no contract at all;

Secondly, when the description of the work to be done for the accepted quote is so sketchy, who can say and enforce what the builder contracted to do for the money?​

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