Though the majority of the UK’s hard-working builders are competent, trustworthy and conscientious, there are a small minority of cowboy builders who operate outside the rules and prefer the Roy Rogers approach to work and payment.

Not all cowboys wear Stetsons hats. And the good guys don’t always wear white ones. So how do you go about telling the cavalry from the cavalier?

Luckily, there are a few signs that will help you identify a cowboy builder before they leave you with shoddy work, or a few thousand quid lighter in the pocket.

In no particular order, here are some Smoove Move tips that you should use if you are unsure.

Lower than a snake’s belly?

If the quote’s too good to be true, then it probably is. A very low price could mean a couple of things. That your builder wants to get the work at all costs and could be lining you up for a scam or two once they have got their foot in your door. Or that they are new to the job and just haven’t priced it up properly.

Either way, this will spell trouble once the work is underway.

As with all home improvement or repair work, try and get at least three quotes to compare. The one that’s miles lower than the rest should set the alarm bells ringing.

We don’t need insurance

You do, for your protection as well as theirs. No insurance means no thanks. Make sure they have public liability insurance to cover you and them if someone’s hurt or property is damaged, and employers’ liability insurance to cover you and their business if they’re hurt on the job.

Up front cash

There aren’t many jobs where you pay up front for work or goods before they’re received. Particularly ones that can cost hundreds or thousands of pounds. So why should building work be any different? The answer is, it shouldn’t. Anyone running a credible business will have money to cover costs up front, including materials, before you settle the final bill. What’s more, many tradespeople buy materials on account from their preferred builder’s merchant and settle the bill at the end of the month. Although it can be reasonable to pay some money up front for building materials to get the job started, be wary of any rogue traders who want large cash payments straightaway to cover costs.

Cowboy builders never seem to own a pen

Always insist on getting an estimate in writing, preferably broken down so you know precisely what you’re paying for each element of the work. Most pros will email you a quote or estimate as a matter of course, and scribble down the details on the back of an envelope at worst.

Beware if they seem reluctant to commit anything to writing, as this means you only have verbal agreements to call on if costs start to escalate.


Every good tradesperson should be able to provide references. What’s more, they should be happy to show you if they’re good ones. Who wouldn’t be? Cowboy builders, that’s who.

Don’t be scared to ask for references and if you’re not sure about them, try and contact the customer to check they are genuine.

Head to our dedicated builders page for the lowdown on which trade associations you should be checking they are registered with, so you know your builder will be trustworthy and reliable.

Quick on the draw

If your tradesperson is really keen to start the job. Like, starting straightaway that very minute keen, stop and think. This isn’t necessarily a bad sign, but rogue traders like to get a lot of work done in an area before moving quickly on to pastures new. They are often guilty of doing jobs quickly to make a quick buck, then disappearing and proving extremely elusive when it comes to putting them right.

No name, no number

This is an obvious one to look out for, and one that people still fail to make sure of before hiring a tradesperson. Always make sure you have their full name and a phone number. Preferably business name and a landline (you can pick up a mobile number and business cards for less than fifty quid). That way you can do some detective work online, and also know that you’ll be able to contact them if a job needs further work.

No need for contracts, we’re all friends

No matter how matey you are, for bigger jobs you should always make sure you receive a contract stating agreed work, costs and timescales. This is to protect both parties and should be agreed and signed by both the tradesperson and the person who’s paying for the work. If the person you’ve chosen is unwilling to produce a contract, or sign the one you’ve drawn up, make sure no work commences until they have.

No income tax, no VAT

Cowboy builders love cash. Anonymous, hard to track, accepted at every saloon and whisky joint. So if your tradesperson insists on the folding stuff as payment, make sure there’s a good reason. A cheque or bank transfer should be just as good to them. The untraceable nature of cash also means it’s preferred by those dishonest souls who would rather not pay tax or VAT.

‘Out of the Blue’ Stu

This character is definitely one of the easiest members of the posse to spot. Unsolicited callers saying your home needs urgent work should be treated with caution, however plausible they are. If you haven’t noticed a job needs doing yourself, then chances are it doesn’t need doing at all.

Health and safety. What’s that then?

Ladders balanced on top of other ladders on top of vans? Rooftop acrobatics with no safety net? Then this a sure-fire way to spot a builder who doesn’t know their trade. If you spot a tradesperson playing fast and loose with health and safety, it’s a good indication they’re an accident waiting to happen. Not only would a slip or fall injure them, but could also harm you and family, and definitely hit you where it hurts as their insurance (if they have any) probably won’t cover repair costs caused by unsafe working practices.

So there you have it. A quick round-up of the most common varmints to be found in the cowboy gang. Learn to spot these unsavoury characters and you’ll avoid your hard-earned cash being lassoed for shoddy work.

Even better, choose a local tradesperson through Smoove Move and let us do the checks so you can get the jobs done with minimum worry and be left riding high.