How to avoid disputes during building projects

Harrison Clarke are leading chartered surveyors in the Hampshire area. We are regularly called upon to act as an expert witness, or to provide other reports to help resolve construction disputes.

However, disputes can be stressful and costly.

In this article, we look at the common themes that cause disputes, giving you useful advice on how you can do your best to avoid them in the first place.

Finding a good contractor

A very common area for dispute is where building work is deemed to be below an acceptable standard, it is delayed, or it feels like no real progress is being made on site. 

To try and minimise the risk of this happening to you, you can ask around for recommendations of a good contractor from people who have had similar works done. 

However, be mindful that, if you use a friend or neighbour’s recommendation, or you appoint their company to undertake your works, this could put a strain on relationships if things go wrong. So, we always recommend that you seek comparative quotes and explore other options as well. 

Depending on the size of your project, it is good practice to request examples of your proposed contractor’s work or ask for references from their previous clients. Keep in mind, though, that contractors are unlikely to give you examples where their customers have had a bad experience. 

It is a good start to select a contractor who is a member of a recognised trade association, like the Federation of Master Builders. These kinds of organisation may also provide a dispute resolution service in the event that things go wrong. If the contractor claims to be a member of a recognised body, always check their membership on the organisation’s website. 

Websites which provide validated reviews of contractors and tradespeople can be a good source of information to help you choose which one could be right for you, although we do not recommend relying on these in isolation. 

Check the dates of the reviews as they may not be recent and therefore not an accurate representation of the contractor’s current standard. 

Be wary of small companies offering many different types of work. It could mean that a lot of the work is carried out by multiple subcontractors, making it tricky to know who will actually be working on your project and whether their standard of work is going to be consistent. 

Undertaking simple checks on publicly available documents from Companies House can be useful, depending on the size of your project. These checks can give an indication of the contractor’s solvency and can also tell you how long they have been trading for. 

We also recommend that you ensure the contractor has sufficient insurance cover – before you appoint a contractor, ask to see copies of their insurance to ensure they have suitable arrangements in place. A reputable contractor will be happy to share this documentation with you. 

Finally, we always recommend that you obtain at least three quotes to ensure that you have a benchmark for them being competitive and realistic. 


The importance of clear and accurate quotes

Disputes we have been brought in to help with have often stemmed from insufficient or unclear contract documentation. 

The parties may have had different expectations over what has been agreed, or what is included within the contractor’s quote. Invariably, when a dispute arises, one of our first priorities is to establish what has been agreed between the parties. To do this, clear written documentation is essential. 

When you are asking for quotes, be very clear about what you are asking for so you can ensure that all items of work are fully included, and that your expectations are known at the outset. 

Even if you have drawings and plans of your work, in isolation these can be interpreted in different ways, particularly when it comes to the exact finishes. 

If you are unsure about what you need, we would always recommend that you commission an architect or a surveyor to prepare a detailed specification or a schedule of works, including drawings, to avoid ambiguity. 

This process may require input from a specialist such as a structural engineer, and/or an electrical or heating engineer. A surveyor or architect can manage this process for you and, because the contractors will all be pricing from the same document, this will ensure that the quotes are all comparable from a like for like perspective. 

It is important to know whether the contractor’s price is an estimate, which could be subject to change, or a fixed price quotation. If it is an estimate, the final cost could vary substantially. 

Also, make sure you understand any terms that are provided with the quotes and that you read the small print thoroughly. 

Unless you agree otherwise, these terms will normally form the basis of the contract. If the parties agree to any changes to those terms, or to the quotation provided, make sure that it is recorded in writing and agreed with the other party. 


Using formal construction documents for larger projects

If you are undertaking a larger building project, we always recommend that you use a formal construction contract document. There are various options available, though we tend to use the Joint Contracts Tribunal (JCT) suite.

Their suite of contracts ranges from homeowner contracts through to those where you have appointed professionals to administrate the contract, and/or undertake design work. Their website has a helpful guide to choose the most appropriate form. 

The contract document should set out clear obligations for each party. We recommend that a signed copy is retained by each party. At the minimum, the contract should include the name of the parties to the contract, the works which have been agreed, the start date and completion date, the contract sum, when payments will be due and also the responsibilities for insurance. 

If you are unsure about the terms of the contract document given to you by a contractor, you should obtain qualified legal advice. Where complex or significant projects are undertaken, it is normally beneficial to employ someone with experience with contract administration, such as an experienced surveyor or an architect. The administrator will normally certify when the works have been completed and value those completed works for payment. Whoever you choose should have the relevant skills and experience to undertake this work. 


Confirming payment terms

Payment is a common ground for dispute, either where the contractor is not being paid, or where there is a dispute over the final costs. 

In some cases, the value of payments does not appear to correspond with the completed works on site.

It is common, in construction contracts, for payments to be made in stages. In this instance, you should agree at the outset when those payments will be due. 

For example, you might agree to make a payment when the foundations and groundworks are completed, then a further payment when the walls have been constructed, and so on. 

Alternatively, you may agree payments on a monthly or another regular basis. Those payments should be for works which have been completed up to that date. 

Under the JCT suite of contracts, it is common for the employer to retain a percentage of the sums due until the completion of the works. 

We do not recommend payments of significant sums as a deposit. However, smaller contractors may require payment when materials are ordered in order to assist with their cashflow. 


Compliance with building regulations

We recommend that you find out whether your works are subject to any building regulations, whether they require planning consent or are subject to any other statutory legislation such as the Party Wall Act. On our website, we have a series of videos and articles that give you a wealth of information and advice on this area.

It is your responsibility to ensure that you understand the requirements and that your contractor has agreed to comply with any requirements. 

If your works are subject to building regulations, for example, you should agree who will be responsible for paying fees and arranging inspections. Some contractors are members of self-certification schemes, like The National Federation of Roofing Contractors, and can self-certify that their work meets the requirements of the building regulations. 

You should have discussed responsibilities before your works start, and make sure that you obtain certification when the works are complete. 


Making changes to your planned building works

It’s very common for the scope of work to change during the construction process. You should monitor the progress of your works very carefully, keep detailed records throughout and make sure that any changes are documented and agreed in writing. 

This is especially important when the changes will have an impact on the construction period, the quality of the works or the final cost of the project. 

You should agree any costs before you instruct additional works or make any changes to your agreement. 



Delays are a frequent cause of dispute. There may be a host of issues which can affect completion works, including adverse weather, materials or labour shortages.

In some cases, delays may be caused by the employer failing to provide information to the contractor when they need it.

It is important to agree how any such delays will be managed, and anticipate the likelihood of this happening at the start of the contract.


Unforeseen disputes

Even when you have hired a reputable contractor, taken and followed expert advice and planned everything as efficiently as possible, there is always the chance that a dispute will arise. This could be due to the fault of either party or it could be circumstances beyond anyone’s control.

If a dispute does arise, it is important to manage these situations together, as early as possible, as a  minor dispute can quickly become a significant issue, particularly if neither party is willing to move from an entrenched position. 

If you find that you are unhappy with the quality of the works or the time that they are taking, you should raise your concerns as soon as possible with the contractor, which will allow any issues to be addressed at an early stage. 

It is important to keep calm, clearly explaining what you are unhappy with and how you would like it to be resolved. 

Disputes can be costly and time consuming. The cost of litigation is significant and can often be disproportionate to the dispute. It can damage relationships and cause additional stress in what can already be a challenging situation. 

Litigation should always be a last resort, and there are alternative or more appropriate means of resolving disputes which should be considered if you cannot reach agreement. 

These options include mediation, conciliation, expert determination, adjudication and arbitration. 


Next steps

If you find yourself in a dispute, and are contemplating litigation to resolve matters, we always recommend that you obtain qualified advice. 


How Harrison Clarke can help

At Harrison Clarke, we are highly experienced in construction disputes, including providing expert witness reports for litigation. 

For further guidance and useful tips and information on the range of surveying services we provide, you can read our blogs and watch our videos. These are available on our website and our YouTube channel


How you can contact Harrison Clarke

For help and advice with construction dispute resolution, call our friendly, expert and highly qualified surveyors on 023 8155 0051, or email us at

We would welcome the opportunity to help with any queries or needs you may have.

At the time of writing, we have a total of 80 reviews across Trustpilot and Google. We are proud to say that they are all 5-star ratings across the board.

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