Builders Shaking Hands

How to choose the right builder for your renovation?

| | 5 minute read

Adam Hobill has some advice for renovators trying to select the best builder for their job – get your own house in order first. The award-winning building designer and author has seen countless examples of homeowners failing to provide enough detailed information to builders, who then struggle to know what is wanted to deliver an accurate quote.

“Renovating is a once-in-a-lifetime thing for many people, and they just don’t know what they don’t know,” says Hobill, a director of building advisory company buildingquote.com.au. “An easy example is a room like a kitchen or bathroom, where a lot of fittings and fixtures are needed. Unless you give instructions to a builder to make certain allowances, what you’ll get is a potentially huge disparity and a lot of inconsistency between quotes.”

Pre-quote homework

Hobill says renovators need to take the time to complete an inclusions schedule, or “specification”, before contacting builders. Also called a “building estimation sheet” or “quote template”, they are found online as free basic Excel documents. “Pro” versions are also available, such as the ProSpex product available through buildingquote.com.au for $55.

“The inclusions schedule, as part of a set of accurate and professional building quoting documents, lets you choose a builder based on criteria other than cost alone,” he says. “It sets out the dozens of items that aren’t adequately detailed in the plans so the builder is clear on your expectations and doesn’t need to guess what allowances to make.” These might include the desired quality of floor tiles or bathroom fittings, and what you’re expecting to pay for them.

Hobill, who wrote Nail It! Take Control of Your Building Project and Save Thousands, says an inclusions schedule makes it easier to find “outliers” – builders quoting far too much or far too little. “The reality is that there’s not much more than a 20% or 25% margin in profit in these projects, so disparities of that magnitude are concerning,” he says.

Before any contracts are signed, Hobill says it’s important for renovators to understand the meaning of “provisional sums”. These are allowances made for materials and labour where the final selection hasn’t been confirmed (such as installing structural steel), and might eventually cost you far more than expected.

He also says they need to ask questions about potentially pricey additions such as excavation costs or if anything has been excluded from the quote, such as government fees or asbestos removal charges. It’s also worth asking if they will pass on trade discounts for materials bought for your job, and if this is reflected in the quote.

Why price isn’t the only consideration

Hobill says it’s natural to choose builders based on cost but you shouldn’t fall into the trap of routinely selecting the cheapest quote. “For most people, it’s not necessarily about choosing the cheapest price, but it’s very much about getting value for money,” he says. “It’s a big investment. You want to make sure you get the right outcome.”

So how do you find the right one for your job? Of course, it’s important that your choice of builder is fully accredited with the Master Builders Association or the Housing Industry Association, and the subcontractors used on your job are properly licensed. Recommendations from friends and relatives are powerful, as are endorsements from websites such as hipages.com.au and tradebusters.com.au, which help you find builders and other tradespeople with a good reputation in your area.

It’s also important to know who will be doing the work. Is the person you’re negotiating with a sales manager, project manager or the person manning the circular saw? Does the company have any experience doing renovations in your area, or on heritage-listed properties (if this is what you have)?

To start narrowing the field, Hobill suggests testing the waters when you’re getting your quotes. “Use that process to see how [builders] communicate, how responsive they are,” he says. “Are they going to respond within 24 hours or will I have to wait a week and give them a phone call? Are they on email or are they a phone-only kind of builder? All those things need to be tested at the early stages as best you can.

“Personalities are important. It can be a quite intimate relationship. There are a lot of dealings, sometimes day to day let alone week to week, so you need to feel comfortable communicating with that person.”

So what if the choice is between someone whose work you like and someone who you like more? “It just comes down to a gut-feel in the end,” Hobill says. “If the strengths and weaknesses are quite different, you need to start prioritising which criteria are more important to you and who’s coming out on top in more of those.”

Top tips

  • Complete a full inclusions schedule to limit the number of renovation “unknowns”. It will make it easier to choose the right builder and keep costs under control.
  • Ask many questions of your builder, and be sure that you’re certain of what is (and what isn’t) included in any contract.
  • You need to feel comfortable working with your builder – you’ll get to know each other very well during the renovation.

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Peter Gearin is a writer and former senior editor at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Sun-Herald. Now director of Top to Tale Media, he writes for unohomeloans.com.au.

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