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Carrying out domestic building or renovation work can be stressful enough for the homeowner without the added tension of a legal dispute with their building contractor resulting from unexpected bills or unfinished projects. For builders, these disputes are both frustrating and potentially disastrous, as clients refusing to pay can dramatically impact on the cash flow of the business and, therefore, their livelihood.
An incomplete building project or an unsettled bill is undesirable for all parties but, these disputes do occur and require the intervention of an Expert Witness to provide advice to the parties and ultimately to offer evidence to the court. Appointed by parties to the dispute, usually through their solicitors, often following Directions from the court, I’ve seen a marked increase over the last few years in the amount of disputes I’m called to deal with as an Expert Witness.
Many of these disputes could actually have been prevented if a Chartered Building Surveyor had been called in at an earlier stage. In one recent notable case I was involved in, the original quote for the building works was less than £11,000, then revised to £40,000, but the final bill came in at £125,000. I was able to provide an Expert Witness report and a settlement was made at £80,000 but it is a dramatic example of how, without early intervention, costs can spiral out of control.
Most disagreements, I believe, are caused by poor communication between the home owner and the builder and these could be avoided by the involvement of a Chartered Building Surveyor (CBS) earlier in the process. Home owners often need to be guided to specify and fully itemise exactly what they want from the work so there is no confusion.
For example, a discussion about “fitting some sockets” probably isn’t going to be detailed enough. The discussion should include particulars of what type of sockets, what material the socket covers will be made out of, whether they will be double or single, how many, where they will be positioned, whether there will be aerial points added and so on.
These minute decisions may seem inconsequential – and may even seem premature to be making before a single brick has been laid – but these details need to be agreed at the drawing stage. It’s very easy to change a line on a piece of paper, but much harder to move a wall. Disputes often originate because these finer points aren’t agreed, in writing, before the contractors start work.
If a professional building surveyor is employed at the start of the project, they can ensure these details are agreed in advance. Their experience in this field means that they are more aware of which areas need to be agreed at earlier stages than the average homeowner.
They are also able to keep the project on track and make sure the work is completed to the homeowner’s satisfaction at each phase of the build instead of waiting until things escalate at the end of the project to the point where legal action is the only option.
A CBS acting as a Contract Administrator will ensure the homeowner isn’t pressured into paying upfront but makes sure the builder receives regular payments to cover work that has actually been done. Many homeowners feel pressured by their builder into paying too early in the project which then gives them very little power if things aren’t completed on time or to a high enough standard.
If a builder is requesting money upfront, there needs to be a valid reason as to why he needs this and using a professional surveyor to handle the contracts gives homeowners the confidence to question whether payment upfront is appropriate. Involvement of a surveyor before the start of a build is sometimes seen as an unnecessary expense but, in my experience, the costs of an Expert Witness being called in once the case is preparing to reach court are increasing and this is a costly way to resolve what could have been a preventable problem.
An Expert Witness is required to assess work which has already been done and try to understand how the dispute has come about before presenting their report but this is both time consuming and more complicated.
Disputes can become incredibly convoluted and it’s rare to come across a situation where there is a clear-cut right or wrong. By the time an Expert Witness is called in there are likely to have been a number of faults on each side and dissecting the situation to assist the court in finding favour of one side or the other is complex.
Having seen the number of building projects that end in disagreement, I believe the decision not to involve a surveyor early on is a false economy. Tensions run high when building projects result in dispute both for the builder who needs the issue resolved to free up cash flow for his next job and for the homeowner who has to live with the unwanted effects of the incomplete building work on a day to day basis. Taking a dispute to court is unpleasant for all concerned and can get very combative so it’s in everybody’s interest to prevent the disagreement from occurring in the first place.
Naturally, there will be instances where the involvement of an Expert Witness is unavoidable. It would be unrealistic to assume that all building projects can progress smoothly with no issues at all, but for the majority of cases which do reach the courts, the earlier involvement of a Surveyor could have prevented misunderstandings, improved communication and made the process easier and less stressful for everyone.
Michael Carr, Chartered Building Surveyor and RICS Registered Valuer and co-founder of Kempton Carr Croft, has built up considerable experience as an advisor and Expert Witness relating to Valuation, Landlord & Tenant, Construction, Boundary and Party Wall disputes as well as dealing with reports upon issues of professional negligence