What I wish I had known – Entry 2. Sandy Mitchell continues the confessional diary from his building site

—8th August 2019

Sandy’s library (left) before the builders started work, and after the builders stripped out the room (right)

Sitting next to me at a business lunch in London was a glamorous partner in a City law firm, a veteran of her profession. She was chirpy and entertaining, though I suspected advising private clients on building contracts for houses in London or the country did not provide her with many daily laughs.

This lunch was back in April, just after my wife and I had signed the contract with our builders to enlarge our country house and when the looming cost of the works throbbed in my head like a migraine.

I told my delightful neighbour at table that I was myself starting an ambitious project, and asked her the question uppermost in my mind: ‘What is a sensible contingency for a building project do you think?’ She reflected for a second or so then said decisively, ‘50%.’

I reached for a glass of wine and emptied it in two glugs. Could she really mean that whatever the figure you agree with your builders at the start of a project you will end up paying them that much and half again by the end? ‘That is my experience,’ she replied firmly. 

With the wine loosening my tongue, I admitted our contingency is just 6.5%. She hooted with laughter. She actually thought I was joking.

Now, three months since the builders started on site and with at least six months to go until they are done—only the basement dig has been completed thus far—a worm of worry squirms in my belly on wakeful nights. We have burned through the ‘fat’ in our budget already, I suspect.  

Before (left) and after (right). Sandy hopes it will all be worth it. 

How so this early in our programme of works?

It is confession time. My wife and I have broken the first commandment of building projects: thou shalt not change your plans after signing the builders’ contract. Yet we have gone and tweaked some of the designs, although to be fair to myself the changes amount to little more than improving some cupboard detailing, re-shaping the handrail on a new staircase, and re-routing some underfloor heating. Each change seemed an irresistibly good idea. 

(My initial idea of headlining this regular column ‘Confessions from a building site’ was vetoed by colleagues at RedBook who feared it attracting a readership that might be disappointed by advice on building projects, however expert.)

Much as I might like to blame our project manager for suggesting that we set our contingency at 6.5% of the overall budget, he warned me the gravest risk lay in the changing of minds.

He explained: ‘Builders are keen to give you a good price when they are bidding for work because they are competing with other firms, but as soon as you sign a contract for a fixed sum they know they have got you and are not under pressure to keep costs low.’ Painful as it is to remember, especially since I warn clients myself against changing their minds mid-project,  he also advised sternly that changes made post-contract not only directly affect the builders’ timeline for completing work, but give them a let out when it comes to accounting for delays. And extra time on site means further unplanned cost. 

The rules of building projects once workmen start on site are truly black and white: you add, you pay big time.

I thought back to my lunch partner. Perhaps I was mistaken about her work being tedious. Perhaps it is the true source of her good humour and it is the ever-optimistic naivety of her clients when it comes to budgets that provides her with a gushing fountain of merriment.

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