If your chosen self-build route is to use a main contractor, the next big decision is to actually pick one.

Much like finding an architect choosing a main contractor (builder) is one of the most pivotal decisions when building your own home. When narrowing down your choice, it’s good to remember:

  • Word of mouth is a great way to narrow down your shortlist - there’s no substitute for a personal recommendation from someone you know and trust.
  • Ensure the builder has relevant and recent experience for your type of build, including similar structure, materials and timescale
  • Ask at least three main contractors for a quote. Provide them with your plans and specifications so they can prepare this. Once you’ve received your quotes you can compare them and make a considered decision.

Once you have your shortlist, here’s some important questions to ask a builder before you sign on the dotted line.

Are you accredited?

Ask your builder if they are a member of a trade body to ensure you’re dealing with a legitimate company. Look for the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) or The National Federation of Builders (NFB).

These organisations have a code of practice and stringent membership criteria, including solvency and safety, so membership is a good indication you’re picking a reliable and trustworthy professional. Make sure you check that the builders’ membership is legitimate and current.

Can I see some completed projects?

While credentials are important, the proof is the pudding! Ask the builder to show you examples of completed projects, ideally similar to the one you’re planning. A quality builder will have plenty of case studies to show you. You can also ask the builder if they have any local projects in progress. Driving by for a look at a live building site can give you a good indication of how the company operates - such as how tidy they are.

roofing contractor installing VELUX STUDIO roof window

Do you have references?

As well as seeing photos of previous works or visiting finished builds, direct client references are also very helpful to get a full picture. A good builder will be happy to put you in touch with previous clients.

“It’s always a good idea to speak to previous clients,” says Lisa Rayne of architect firm Pride Rd. of Manchester. “Ask them about their whole experience with the builder, from timescales to communication to the quality of the build. Was the work delivered in a reasonable time to a reasonable budget? Were you treated well?”

Are you insured?

Builders are legally required to have at least public liability insurance. Many of them display this on their website or marketing materials, but all professional builders will be happy to show you their certificates. Make sure that the insurance covers them against property damage as well as personal and public liability.

Do you use subcontractors?

Many builders regularly employ subcontractors and should be able to give you a list of those they use. It’s a good idea to check references for them as well for your peace of mind.

How will I pay for your services?

A reputable builder will never ask for payment up front. That’s a warning sign that your builder is struggling to manage cash flow or not the most reputable business.

Instead, good builders agree terms of payment in writing before the build begins. The most common form is a schedule of staged payments as various stages of the build are completed to a satisfactory standard, such after groundworks, or once the build is watertight (roof on).

The staged payment model gives the builder an incentive to get the job done. You can also plan to align these payment stages with any structural warranty inspections, and stage release points for your self-build mortgage. This will help make sure the project progresses smoothly on both a building quality and financial front.

contractor with clipboard

How will we communicate throughout the build?

Clear and regular communication is a hugely important part of the self build process. Make sure the builder clearly explains:

  • How often they will update you on progress
  • Who your point of contact would be
  • How soon you can expect a response to queries
  • How any arising issues will be communicated and actioned
  • What the process is for making any upgrades or changes during the build

Make sure all processes are also documented in writing.

How long will the build take?

The duration of your build will depend on the current workload and popularity of the contractor. While it’s tempting to choose the builder who can start the soonest or build the quickest, it may be a sign that they’re not really in demand, whereas a long wait may mean they’re overscheduled. To avoid any headaches, thoroughly check references and make sure your quote includes a detailed schedule. The best builder may not be the one who can begin the soonest, but rather one who can give you a realistic, deliverable finish date and thorough breakdown of the project timelines.


Ready to take on the challenge?  Here’s our guide on  six steps to consider before building your own home