Home improvement gone wrong: How to deal with a cowboy builder

Have you fallen foul to a cowboy builder? Read our guide on the steps you need to take if you’ve been ripped off.

Home maintenance

9 March 2022

Cowboy builders can turn your home into a living nightmare, leaving you out of pocket and left with poor quality work.

Avoiding cowboy builders is easy once you know what to look for. And, if you’ve recently found yourself a victim of a cowboy builder, then following our advice should help you know what to do next:

Protecting yourself from a cowboy builder

The best way to stop yourself from falling foul to a cowboy builder, is to look for warning signs before parting with any money. These include:

  • Asking for payment upfront in cash, even before any work has started – this may be to avoid VAT so it’s rare a good business will operate in this way. It could also prevent you from being able to claim any money back.
  • Not offering a contract – if they don’t want to sign a contract, that’s a big red flag!
  • Not providing written estimates and costs – being able to accurately price and provide a timeline for the job is another mark of a great builder.
  • Someone asking for work on your doorstep – saying they’ve noticed issues with roofing or windows that they can fix.
  • Having no references – if they don’t have glowing references from previous clients then they might not be all they seem. Ask them for references or look on sites such as checkatrade.com for trusted reviews.
  • Having no premises – they should have verifiable premises and a landline phone number.
  • Not being a member of a trade group – although these documents can be faked, you should be able to verify them by contacting the relevant organisation.

If you spot any of these red flags, then it’s best to steer clear. And remember, the cheapest job doesn’t always work out to be the most cost effective in the end, so doing your research is key! Going with recommendations through friends or family, is a good way of knowing that the person completing the work can be trusted.

Try to always use a credit card to pay for jobs between £100 and £30,000, as this means you can claim money back under the Consumer Credit Act. Also look into using the Home Improvement Guarantee Scheme (HOG), a service that independently holds the money, and both parties must be satisfied with the job before the money’s released to the builder.

What to do if you’re a victim of a cowboy builder

If you’ve found yourself a victim of a cowboy builder then there are a few things you need to do.

Firstly, you should report them to the police, although the lines between what is criminal and what's just bad practice can be blurred, it could constitute fraud so it’s worth reporting. Make sure you provide them with as much information as possible, such as what the problem is, who the person was, any paperwork, photos or videos, any notes of conversations between you and the builder.

Contact Trading Standards, as they may be able to help you negotiate a settlement. They can also give you advice on what to do next. Trading Standards may also recommend you contact your local Citizens Advice centre, as they might have similar experiences from other households in your area. They’ll then pass over your complaints to your local authority Trading Standards service.

If you can track your builder down, you can also take them to the small claims court if they refuse to refund your money. However, the small claims court can only cover jobs up to £10,000. This is also why having a contract in place is important. If you do need to take legal action, you’ll be in a better position to fight your case with physical evidence of an agreement between you both.

Does home insurance cover building work?

Typically, most standard home insurance policies don’t cover significant building work. So, it’s important that you’re dealing with a reputable builder, as their liability insurance will normally cover any work that’s done. Cowboy builders usually don’t have this type of insurance. They can leave customers in difficult situations if they perform a shoddy job, and the home becomes dangerous, or there’s damage to a neighbour’s property.

To check whether you’d be covered for any building work, check your policy wording, or call your home insurance provider to ask.


Doing your research is vital to make sure you don’t become a victim of a rogue trader. And remember, if it seems too good to be true, it usually is!

If you’re having work done to your home, it’s important to keep your insurer informed of any renovations, as this will ensure that your property is properly covered by your home insurance policy.