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Consumer Rights.

Updated: 10 Feb 2022

How to complain if you're unhappy with building work

Are you unhappy with the standard of the building work you've received? Our step-by-step guide explains your rights and helps you resolve a trader dispute.
Which?Editorial team
How to complain if you're unhappy with building work

1 Talk to your trader

Under the Consumer Rights Act, which came into force on 1 October 2015, consumers who enter into a contract for goods and services can expect these to be supplied with reasonable care and skill.

Remember this applies to all traders, including builders, plumbers, decorators and electricians. 

It includes materials, too. They should be of satisfactory quality, as described and fit for purpose.

Whatever your situation is, if you can communicate with the trader or company, then do so.

When you communicate with them, explain the problem, how they can resolve it, and give them a realistic timescale within which to do it.

Legal tips

How to avoid a tradesperson dispute

Peter Litchman, Which? Legal Solicitor says: 'It’s essential before you do anything to check if you need planning permission or building regulations approval for the work you want done.

'And always get a written contract from your chosen contractor, setting out what you have agreed. 

'It should include things like the start and end dates, late completion penalties or discounts, how and when payments are to be made, tidying at the end of each day and resolution of disputes. Try and pay for at least some of the work by credit card to get extra financial protection and pay as little as you can up front. 

'For bigger and more expensive work you can agree to make payments in stages as the work progresses.

'If things do go wrong and you have followed the above steps, problems will be easier to fix.'

Step by step advice from Which? Legal

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Keep a record

If you talk to the trader or installer face-to-face or on the phone, get it in writing as well. 

But don’t talk about a dispute via text or WhatsApp - use email so you have an official record of the dispute.

Set a final deadline date

Agree a date by which they need to complete the work. 

If they don't turn up for that, contact them again to agree a final date by which all the work needs to be done. 

Make it clear that if they fail to meet that deadline, you'll ask someone else to do it and you'll be claiming back the costs from them.

Remember that when a trader only guarantees their work for a set period of time, that guarantee does not affect your legal right to have the work done with reasonable care and skill.

A trader cannot claim that you can't get a repair on work after your guarantee period is over, if you've discovered that the work was not done to a reasonable standard.

Get estimates from other traders

If you can, when you're requesting that a trader fixes their work, include estimates from other traders for the job. 

This gives the trader a clear indication of how much you will claim from them if they don't put the problem right. 

If they're not cooperative, warn the trader that you'll take them to court if necessary.

You should also find out whether the trader or company has an official complaints procedure you should follow. 

Unfortunately, most sole traders don’t have one, although all Which? Trusted Traders must have one in place in order to be endorsed by us. 

Check your home insurance

Look at your home insurance policy to see whether it covers you for legal expenses for issues with traders or builders. 

Look carefully at what is included and also what is excluded.

Major renovation complaints

Major renovations can be more complex, especially if architects, project managers and subcontractors are all working a project together. 

If you're complaining about work during a major renovation, you should make your complaint to the main contractor. 


Should I withhold money?

In some situations, withholding money might help with negotiations – but we wouldn’t recommend it. 

Not only could it have the opposite effect and put you in a deadlock situation, it could also put you in breach of your contract. 

This could enable a trader to take legal action against you and would put you in a weaker position if you wanted to go to court. 

If you used the trader or company’s finance option, withholding money could also affect your credit score.

2 Start a formal complaints procedure

If resolving things amicably hasn't worked, ask for the trader or company's complaints procedure.

If they don't have one, find out whether they are a member of a trade association, as there may be a dispute resolution scheme that you can use. 

To use any resolution scheme, you’ll need to show that you’ve tried to resolve the issue with the trader first.

If they have a complaints procedure, you'll need to prove that you've used it and have come to a deadlock situation - you can use our 'letter of deadlock' template to help.

3 Use an Alternative Dispute Resolution scheme

Traders and businesses aren’t required to be part of an ADR scheme, or even to use one for the purposes of your disagreement. 

But traders and businesses are legally obliged to point you in the direction of an accredited scheme, and specify whether or not they're willing to use one. 

There are different types of ADR: 

  • Conciliation and mediation services try to help you and the trader come to an amicable solution by talking through the issues. These are voluntary, usually free, and can be initiated by you or the trader. They are trained to be impartial.
  • Adjudication and arbitration involve an independent expert in that field examining paper evidence from you and the trader. The decision of the arbiter is usually legally binding, and you won’t be able to go to court afterwards if you don’t like the decision. Arbitration services often charge a fee.  
  • Ombudsman services are free for consumers, but not traders. An ombudsman's decision is usually binding on the trader, but only if the trader is part of the scheme. You can go to court if you’re not happy with the decision.

The Consumer Ombudsman deals with complaints about home maintenance and improvement, but you can also visit the Ombudsman Association to find another home-improvement related one.

Which? Trusted Traders is partnered with the Dispute Resolution Ombudsman, so all of our traders automatically agree to use this service should you need it.

Read our full guide to ombudsman services to understand how an ombudsman can help, what they cover, how to get in touch and what to expect from a ruling.

4 Try to recover the costs

If a trader or company isn't willing to use an ADR scheme, there are a few other ways in which you can try to recover any money you have lost.

Section 75

If you used a credit card, it’s worth looking at whether you could recover the money using Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act

If the job cost more than £100 and less than £30,000, your credit card company is jointly liable if something goes wrong. 


If you paid on a debit or prepaid card, or the cost was outside the limits for Section 75, making a chargeback claim is another option. 

It isn’t a legal obligation, so banks have to agree liability, but it's worth looking into. There is a 120-day time limit from noticing the issue to making a claim.

Financial Ombudsman Service

If you made a payment using PayPal or a finance agreement, you might be able to complain and get your money back through the Financial Ombudsman Service. 

Our guide to the Financial Ombudsman Service gives a full run down of how to make a complaint.

5 Contact Trading Standards

If you're concerned that the trader might not be acting lawfully, you could report the issue to your local Trading Standards.

Some local Trading Standards offices also offer conciliation services.

While a few local Trading Standards allow you to report issues directly, for most you'll usually have to report your concerns through Citizens Advice.

National Trading Standards collates data from local branches across the UK and works with the police and Action Fraud to help spot and deal with emerging threats.

Reporting a dispute doesn't automatically guarantee a follow up. Trader disputes are looked at in among other crimes, so depending on its severity and available resources, your dispute may just be logged for reference.

6 Collect evidence and claim costs

If none of this works, it may be time to seek a resolution through legal action.

The Ministry of Justice Practice Direction on Pre-action Conduct sets out the steps the involved parties must take before going to court. 

Think about the evidence you will need to prove your claim if you go to court. This may include photographs of the poor workmanship.

You may need to get an independent report on the work. Try to reach an agreement with the builder as to who should provide this report. 

Wherever possible, this should be someone you both agree has the expertise to assess the issues and advise on what steps are necessary to put them right.

If a new trader has completed the work, write to the original trader claiming back the money you've had to spend and detailing exactly what work was done.

7 Go to the small claims court

If they don't pay up, you'll have to start court proceedings to claim the money back. 

If the amount involved is less than the limit of £10,000 in England and Wales, £5,000 in Scotland and £3,000 in Northern Ireland, you'll be able to use the small claims court.

The small claims court is a quick and simple way of using the courts to settle disputes - you don’t need a solicitor, and the hearing itself is fairly informal. But it should only be used as a last resort.

If you do decide to go to small claims court, you’ll be asked if you want to use the Small Claims Mediation Service first. 

This is free and will be provided by the court. If it doesn’t work, the case will be put forward for a hearing in court.

Find a trusted trader near you

You can use Which? Trusted Traders to find a vetted, checked and assessed tradesman near you. All of our traders have been vetted by ex Trading Standard professionals to ensure you hire a reliable tradesperson. 

You don't have to be a Which? member to use Which? Trusted Traders. Follow the links or use our trader search tool below.