10 Traits to Get Rid of Cowboy Builders

Cowboy Builders

In the UK, over 80% of homeowners complain about their homes’ quality, with some agreeing that they are better protected when buying a kettle than having a construction project. The majority of UK builders are cowboy builders because of the low standard set for becoming a contractor.

Cowboy builders are like gold speculators promising you EL-Dorado and pots of gold, only to leave you high and dry. Finding a reliable contractor or builder for your construction project, either renovation or extension is key to your mental health and enjoying your dream house, and while there are honest contractors around, reports have suggested that there are over 100,000 complaints by homeowners about dealing with a cowboy builder.

The sole aim is to protect you from cowboy builders by warning signs to look out for. At the end of this post, you will be able to spot a cowboy builder from a mile away and save yourself from the headache and chaos that they leave in their trail.

Who is a Cowboy Builder?

The word “cowboy builder” originates from cowboys who were known to be reckless and unreliable. A cowboy builder is a builder that possesses no proper training or qualification and delivers low-standard projects. A cowboy builder is a person with no qualifications who competes with honest builders, provides shoddy work, charges ridiculously low (too good to be true) prices, and lacks proper business sense or etiquette.

How to Spot a Cowboy Builder – 10 Signs A Contractor is a Cowboy Builder

From our definition of a cowboy builder, you can already see four telltale signs of a cowboy builder; they have no formal or proper training so are ignorant of the relevant building regulations and standards. Also, a cowboy builder leaves clients unsatisfied with low-standard and shoddy work, charge ridiculous prices, and lastly, do not follow regular, legitimate business procedure.

These four signs are enough to help you spot and get rid of a cowboy builder, but to provide you with a well-detailed insight, here are 10 traits that show you are dealing with a cowboy builder;

Tells You About Work They’ve Done But Won’t Give You a Reference

When a builder is cagey about referrals or changes the subject anything you bring up the issue of past jobs and contact you can reach out to, that is a sign that you just met a cowboy builder. A reputable builder will be glad to furnish you with references that you can contact and a portfolio of previous work done. A builder who refuses to show you their CV or grant access to their satisfied customers is shady.

Quotes and Estimates are Invitingly Low

If a deal sounds too good to be true, it usually is (except the gospel). You want to get two to three quotes before making any commitment. However, a cowboy builder will rush you into making a decision, and will sometimes defend their low prices by telling you they just finished a project in your neighborhood and have some materials left, hence the low price.

Wants Payment Upfront

A reputable builder will receive a down payment from you and go–ahead to finish the project before asking you for full payment (usually 15% upfront) or be paid based on agreed progress and stages. If the builder asks you for full payment, and won’t let you know how long the project will take, such builder, is a con artist and has no plan to complete your project satisfactorily.

Doesn’t Want to Sign/Give You a Contract

As a general principle of business, always put everything on paper. Paper is essential in business, especially construction, where the plans are drawn on paper. Always get a contract in writing and ensure you have a legally binding contract stating everything about the agreement, from materials to quotes, duration of projects and payment terms. Where you don’t have a contract, you are at the mercy of these guys and could either end up paying more or have an incomplete project.

Doesn’t Work By the Books

If the builder insists on being paid cash, refusing to pay VAT and won’t give you a proper quote, you are in the presence of a cowboy builder. Legitimate businesses operate by the book and come to think of it, if they are willing to cheat on taxes, what makes you different. You shouldn’t pay with cash because you can’t get your money back if there is a problem, but with a credit card, you are protected to a certain extent.

You can’t find a Registered Business Address

If you can’t find a registered address or a number to call such that the builder keeps reaching you and makes it almost impossible for you to contact them, that is a red light right there. Work with reputable organisations that you can get when you have a complaint, not the one who is there until you make payment and then runs off.

Workforce Keeps Changing

If the people you see today are not the same as those you meet the next day, you are dealing with a shoddy builder. Before making any commitment, ask them what type of tradesmen will be on the site; if they are contractors or part of the team. If they are independent contractors, you need to ask who is responsible for managing the project; otherwise, you are in trouble. As a general rule, always work with a full-service building firm that doesn’t outsource any part of the project – it is for your safety both financially and mentally.

Keeps Appearing and Disappearing

In the course of the project, the builder keeps appearing and disappearing for hours, chances are they working on another project and yours. One of two things can happen. Either your project is abandoned for a period costing you more money, or they vanish into thin air completely, leaving you renovation project without a roof.

Faults and Jobs Just Keep Coming Up

Unexpected challenges will indeed pop up in a construction site, that is why legitimate builders have contingency budgets for. A cowboy builder will keep coming up with problems that need fixing and offer to get it done for a nominal fee, stretching your patience and wallet. 70% of homeowners said they overspent their budget by over 30% when carrying out a renovation.

Has No Knowledge of the Building Regulations

One of the worst accidents in the UK’s history, the Grenfell Tower fire, happened because a cowboy builder decided to reduce the quality of the building materials and the contractor in charge of the project had no knowledge of the building regulation and safety codes. Having a builder who operates with the highest standard is critical if you want a structurally sound home built to last.



Cowboy builders can destroy a house project, cost you tones of money and steal your peace and mental sanctity. Ensuring you get the hiring process right is critical and if you don’t know the kind of questions to ask a contractor before hiring them, check out our article on questions to ask my builder.