Contractor Disputes: What to do when something goes wrong

Having home improvement work done is stressful at the best of times, but what can you do when things go wrong?

For accidental damage or losses you may end up pursuing an insurance claim (which you can read more about here), but delays, disputes and uninsured damages will still need to be handled between you and your contractor.

Read on below for guidelines and tips on how to handle disputes with contractors and what happens when an agreement can’t be reached.

Tables of Contents

When something goes wrong

With the best will in the world, accidents still happen. Whilst you should take every precaution listed below, try to give your contractor the benefit of the doubt and allow them a chance to make things right before moving on to the latter options below.

Gathering evidence to support a claim

When something goes wrong, whatever it might be, make sure that you take pictures and record as much as possible about the circumstances which led to the problem. Do this as soon as you are able so that you have evidence of the problem as you found it, before any further changes or interventions by your contractor or anyone else.

Make sure you record dates, times, additional costs or emergency measures taken by you, and other information which might support a claim or complaint later on. These aren’t to be used as a threat against your contractor- they are a form of security or insurance just in case things don’t work out.

Should I try to arrive at a friendly resolution with my contractor?

Yes, absolutely, if something goes wrong or you are dissatisfied for any reason, contact your contractor as a matter of urgency and try to arrive at a solution between the two of you. If you catch any issues early and can discuss them it’s possible you can avoid any issues later on. Most contractors are happy to explain themselves and work towards a solution; you are paying their bills after all!

If you are struggling or unable to arrive at a solution directly with your contractor, there are several alternatives available for different issues, listed below:

Am I protected under the Consumer Rights Act

Yes, in most cases you can refer to the consumer rights act (CRA) under Chapter 4: Services for any disputes which fall into the categories below. Consider these provisions as tools for helping you negotiate fixes for any problems which arise during the work:

Poor workmanship

Poor workmanship is covered under the CRA which states that ‘reasonable care and skill’ need to be used when undertaking work. You can use this wording when requesting that your contractor fixes the problem or when requesting a refund or discount.

Not doing what was agreed/breach of contract

The CRA states that anything said or written to you (the consumer) by a contractor which relates to the work forms part of the contract between the two of you. This is why it is so important to keep records of estimates, quotes, agreements and changes as the work continues, as you can then point to these documents when requesting that your contractor fixes the problem, or asking for a refund or discount.


What to do about overcharging depends on whether you have a quote or estimate (see ‘Estimates vs. Quotes above). Unless there’s clearly a mistake on the quote, a contractor can’t charge more than their quote states. If they push for more you can call citizens advice to see what your options are from this point.

For estimates, if the final price is greater than the estimate you can argue that it’s not ‘reasonable’ as defined by the consumer rights act, and negotiate for a reduction from there. Unfortunately if you have agreed to changes mid-project then a contractor has a right to include the cost of these in the final bill. You can ask that any changes or increases to the final bill be justified in writing by the contractor with explanations as to why greater costs were incurred.

In extreme cases you can ask another expert to look over the bill and advise you on the differences between it and the estimate, but be prepared to pay for their advice. You can also contact your contractor’s trade association if they are a member of one, and request assistance.

What if the work is delayed / not finished in time?

If you made it clear that the work needed to be complete by a certain date, and have confirmation in writing from the contractor that they understood this, you may be able to negotiate a discount, refund or other solution at this point (e.g. that they stop working and you take on another contractor to finish the work).

If you had no specific deadline it’s better to discuss with your contractor and try to establish a new firm deadline, and give them a chance to meet this before taking further action, this time keeping a record of agreements and correspondences to refer back to if delays continue.

Incorrect installation

You can once again refer to the consumer rights act, which states that installation services must be carried out as agreed when you first hired the contractor.

You can then request a refund of some or the entire fee you paid for installation, or that the contractor should return and fix the problem. As with all cases your chances are significantly improved if you have written agreements/estimates you can point to which state what service is being offered.

Dangerous or unsafe work

For any work which you think is dangerous or unsafe you should take action as soon as possible:

  • Appliances should be switched off and unplugged if possible. For anything to do with gas you can call the national gas emergency service for advice.
  • Buildings or Structures should be reported to your local council immediately. If you believe that your own building is unsafe you should leave it immediately.
  • Tradespersons should be reported to citizens advice for carrying out unsafe practices. You’ll be asked a series of questions related to the work they are doing and citizens advice may give you advice or report the person to trading standards.
Remember that dangerous or unsafe work can have significant consequences including injuries or death to yourself or others, so it’s very important that you take steps immediately if you notice something wrong.

Should I ask about formal complaints processes?

Yes, if you are having trouble reaching a satisfactory resolution with your contractor you should ask them if they have any formal complaints or dispute resolution process in place. One man bands/sole traders are less likely to have these, but there are other options:

Credit card refunds

If you paid with a credit card and you believe you are owed some or all your money back you can often contact your card provider to request that they refund the payment under section 75 of the consumer credit act. Consider this option if your contractor goes into liquidation or ceases trading, as it’s the card company which refunds you, not the contractor.

Trade organisations / associations

Electricians are often members of the NICEIC, Surveyors can be members of the RICS, Plumbers or heating engineers may belong to CIPHE, and the gas safe register allows you to report concerns about gas work carried out by registered businesses or engineers.

Whoever has worked for you will likely belong to some form of trade association which has an internal complaints handling procedure. If you aren’t able to agree a solution with your contractor, these organisations may be able to help, either by enforcing best practice with your contractor, or through their own or other dispute resolution processes.

Alternate dispute resolution

The dispute resolution ombudsman are one option for arranging some form of impartial dispute resolution service, but you can also request a referral from your local citizens advice bureau for local mediators.

It’s worth asking your contractor to refer you to an approved dispute resolution organisation; if you are both unable to find a solution they may be just as eager as you to resolve matters peacefully.

Yes, you can usually contact solicitors for free advice on whether you are in a position to make a claim, or what your next steps should be. Check your home insurance documentation, as if you have legal coverage under the policy you may be entitled to free legal consultations and even have some of the costs of legal action covered by the policy.

Any legal advisor will likely want to know what has happened and see whatever evidence you have gathered to date regarding your dispute. Just because you are seeking legal advice does not mean you have to proceed with legal action; you can see what your rights are before attempting to resolve issues with your contractor, but do take note of any legal professional who advises you otherwise for whatever reason.

Small claims court

If you believe you are owed a refund then small claims court is an option for amounts under £10,000. Depending on the amount you are claiming for there will be a relatively small fee, although this route should only be used if your contractor is still trading. Citizens advice provides details on how to make a small claim yourself.

Should I hire a solicitor?

If all else fails in fee disputes, or in the event of serious damage or injury, you may need to hire a solicitor in order to pursue claims against your contractor. As we’ve mentioned you can often receive short consultations with solicitors for free before choosing whether to proceed or not.

Consider making use of this to approach a few legal firms, and pick the one which you feel best understands your issue and can represent your interests the best, rather than whichever states they can obtain the highest compensation.

Check terms and conditions including fee agreements, and as with contractors make sure you have records of all agreements and requests between you and your chosen solicitor.


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