Cowboy builders: 13 telltale signs so you can avoid them

A cowboy builder is easy to spot – and that's even before they've begun. Here's how to avoid one so you don't end up out of pocket with a poor or even unfinished job

Cowboy builder: how to know if you've hired one and how to avoid them

Cowboy builders can ruin a house extension or renovation project, making a large project with a large budget even more expensive. Of course, finding a reliable builder is key to your home project running smoothly and to achieving a result that reflects what you wanted and that will last. However (and as we all know too well) not all builders are equally conscientious and professional. If you spot any of the following signs, you may have bagged yourself a cowboy builder – a hazard to your home and your budget.

You can (hopefully) avoid all this though, by finding a reliable builder in the first place but do keep scrolling for all the telltale signs!

1. A cowboy builder has no references

The builder is cagey about referrals or brushes off requests to see work they have carried out previously. Past jobs are a builder’s CV and satisfied customers are their best reference, so a reliable professional will be more than willing to show off their best work. 

 2. A cowboy builder knocks and asks for work

Have they just turned up on the door step offering to do a quick fix of something they’ve spotted while passing? Or are they spinning a story about having completed some work in the area and have some extra materials they could use for your house. Boy scouts used to come round and ask for a bob a job. This approach by ‘builders’ could result in a bodged job. 

 3. A cowboy builder's estimates are invitingly low

If something sounds too good to be true, it generally is. Always source at least three different quotes so you get a good idea of what a job should cost. You don’t want anything collapsing because someone has skimped on the proper materials.

Find out how to compare quotes from tradespeople to get the right one.

 4. A cowboy builder works off the books 

If they are asking for cash for the whole job, don’t want to pay VAT and don’t want to give you a proper quote, just how professional an operation are they running? Legitimate businesses don’t operate this way. If they are willing to try and fleece the tax man, they might not hesitate to do the same to you.

At least if you pay by credit card, you may be able to claim some of your money back from the credit card company if you do get ripped off. If you prefer to pay cash at any point, get a signed receipt.

 5. A cowboy builder doesn't want a contract 

Paper is a surprisingly solid foundation when it comes to building work. Always get things in writing. You want estimates of how much the work will cost and how long it will take, and a legally binding contract when you decide to hire them, otherwise they could end up charging you more, spinning out a job, or denying that they ever agreed to do things. 

6. A cowboy builder asks to be paid up front 

Would you go into a restaurant and pay the whole price up front for a meal that you are planning on booking the following week? Thought not. An established and reliable builder should be able to buy materials and be happy to be paid on completion (and when you are satisfied with the job), or in stages as work progresses. 

unfinished job by cowboy builder

 7. A cowboy builder doesn't have a registered business address

If it appears to be out of the back of their van, they are not the builder for you. You want a registered business address, not a licence plate, so always check their back story and ask for proof that their business is fully registered. Plus, if they claim to be a member of a trade association, do your due diligence and check that they do actually belong to it.

8. There's an ever-changing workforce 

They’ve got a rota of mates who are coming along to help them with the job, but you’re expecting experienced professionals or apprentices who are being trained up to do a good job. Subbies who are casually drafted in for the day to do the main contractor a favour may not know their footings from a hole in the ground. If in doubt about who’s on site, ask. 

 9. A cowboy builder's timekeeping is poor

It is not unusual for builders to juggle multiple jobs, but if your hired professional is disappearing for hours or days at a time – saying they’re going to be a few minutes and then don’t turn up until lunchtime, or they are constantly knocking off early – be wary. Question whether this is the start of a pattern that ends in them never turning up again and your new extension left only half-done. 

unsafe work environment cowboy builder

 10. A cowboy builder keeps finding extra jobs 

Unexpected problems can happen, that is what contingency budgets are for, but be suspicious if your builder keeps coming to you with extra issues and offers to fix as a favour while they are on site… for a fee. This could not only stretch your patience too far, but your budget, too. 

11. A cowboy builder's workmanship is shoddy

Nails sticking out everywhere? Doors and gates hung the wrong way? Screws missing and an untidy site? You don’t want to spend time mending work you’ve paid to have done, so regular checks on progress and the quality of work are essential. If something isn’t quite right, ask the builder to fix it. 

12. A cowboy builder never rings you back

We've all been there with a cowboy builder: they get into the job then go AWOL. Or, they promise at the beginning to always have at least three labourers on the job but there's only ever one who doesn't seem to know what he/she is doing. Why doesn't your builder ring you back? It's likely they're on another job, are disorganised, just don't want to be hassled by you. Our advice? Lure them into a meeting and see if things improve.

13. A cowboy builder has a reckless disregard for health and safety 

A cavalier approach and lack of any suitable precautions could lead to a risk of injury to them or you. And as the homeowner, you could be liable for anyone who injures them themselves while working on your home. You might also question what else they don’t know when it comes to best building practices. 

Find out the health and safety responsibilities if you're renovating or extending a house.

Cowboy builders are, thankfully a rare breed, and if you follow our guidelines, it should be easy to avoid them and find a reputable tradesperson who can create the house of your dreams.

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Lucy Searle
Lucy Searle

Lucy is Editor-in-Chief of, having worked on numerous interiors and property titles. She was founding Editor of Channel 4’s 4Homes magazine, was Associate Editor at Ideal Home. She has also written for Huffington Post, AOL, UKTV, MSN, House Beautiful, Good Homes, and many women’s titles. Find her writing about everything from buying and selling property, self build, DIY, design and consumer issues to gardening.