How to tell the good guys from cowboys

It's not easy finding the right person for the job
It's not easy finding the right person for the job
Pat and Dave Southern are celebrating thier diamond wedding annivserary ''Picture by:  Malcolm Wells (180419-1480)

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If there’s one question I get asked more than any other it’s ‘how do I find a reliable tradesman?’

But it’s often the simplest questions that are the most difficult to answer.

Trading watchdog the Office of Fair Trading says the market for domestic repairs, maintenance and improvements is worth a massive £27bn a year. So when people get ripped off it can run into hundreds if not thousands of pounds.

Consumer organisations are swamped with more than 120,000 complaints a year about cowboy tradesmen.

With the recession biting even deeper, the ‘improve, not move’ business is taking off, putting even more people at risk of being fleeced by a growing army of unqualified conmen.

If there’s no simple answer to finding reliable tradesmen, there is lots you can still do to ensure you get a good job done and send the cowboys packing.


The first thing to remember is you’re out on your own. There’s no one reliable source to turn to, and finding the genuine professional from the conman cowboy is the first hurdle.

Contrary to most advice, don’t take recommendations from friends and neighbours at face value. Unless they’re skilled tradesmen they can easily be taken in. Listen to their experience, but treat any recommendation as a guide and with caution.

Check with not-for-profit organisations like Trustmark, Which? Local, Trading Standards Square Deal or Buy with Confidence for reliable qualified and vetted tradesmen in your locality.

Professional trade bodies like the Institute of Plumbing, FENSA, and GasSafe provide lists of qualified tradesmen. Members can be located online.

Beware of commercial companies advertising reliable tradesmen. They can easily be infiltrated by rogues using bogus homeowner recommendations or qualifications.


Make sure you always...

· Get at least three quotes

· Ask for the contact details of satisfied customers and check whether they had any problems.

· Ensure you have in writing the work that needs to be done, when it is to be completed and the cost inclusive of VAT.

· Check the tradesman or firm are adequately insured in case your property is accidentally damaged or things go wrong.

· Insist on staged payments and refuse to pay the total cost up front


Send cowboy traders on their way by recognising the tell-tale signs. Beware of someone who...

· Gives an overpriced estimate then immediately offers a discount.

· Won’t give references from previous work.

· Works out of an unmarked van, seems very cheap and only advertises a mobile phone number, not a landline.

· Cold calls or ‘touts’ for business.

· Insists on money up-front.

· Is flattering and tries too hard to be nice.

· Doesn’t advertise an address.

· Dominates much of the conversation, particularly when it comes to money and is overly keen to start the job as soon as possible.

· Is eager to do a cash deal, for instance by offering a ‘discount for cash’.

· Seems too keen to tell you about all the good work they have done in the past.

· Is not a member of a trade association, won’t provide a written estimate or quote and uses a lot of jargon.

· Tries to rush you into a decision.

· Can start your job straight away.


Many trade bodies check the qualifications and competence of their members and only enrol tradesmen who are usually professional and reliable.

Most provide dispute resolution services if you are dissatisfied with their members’ work.

· Builders: Federation of Master Builders, National Federation of Builders, Federation of Plastering and Drywall Contractors.

· Plumbing and heating: Institute of Plumbers and the Association of Plumbing and Heating Contractors operate a find-a-plumber service.

· Electricians: Electrical Contractors’ Association.

· Glazing: FENSA and the Glass and Glazing Federation.

· Roofers: National Federation of Roofing Contractors.

· Painting and decorating: Painting and Decorating Association.