Construction workers Cheap tradespeople at the click of a mouse?

There are web portals where you can get quotes from tradespeople in the blink of an eye. But cheapest doesn’t always equal best.

by Jürg Zulliger 06 Dec 2016

The business case is simple. You open an Internet platform on which numerous tradespeople and construction firms offer their services. Potential clients, often simply private homeowners, then visit the website to obtain quotes, selecting the best offer from the comfort of their own homes. The variety of jobs that need doing is virtually endless: from painting and plastering, laying floors and replacing windows to renovating bathrooms, installing saunas and rewiring rooms.

As the customer, it is often sufficient to simply provide a fairly detailed description of the work. Depending on the complexity, additional documents, plans, descriptions or photos may also be required. Then you leave your name and contact details and, hey presto, a couple of days later the quote lands in your letterbox.

Huge price differences

A test shows some remarkable results. For simple jobs in particular, the first quotes can start to come in after just a few minutes. Larger undertakings such as a kitchen conversion or a roof renovation often receive fewer responses. The price differences are uncanny. For painting jobs, the most expensive offers are sometimes four or five times higher than the cheapest ones.

“Nowadays, some quotes are so low that doing the work for such a low price simply isn’t realistic,” warns Sascha Fopp, Head of Legal Services at the Swiss Association of Painters and Plasterers (SMGV). He advises people to exercise caution if the offer is unusually low or if it is unclear who the actual contractor would be.

A tradesperson or a business that is well-known locally and well established will generally do a more reliable job and offer better support if there are any defects or other problems occur. Fopp therefore has reservations about online tenders. As a counter-argument, the web portal operators point to the fact that their services are transparent, since customers can also see the ratings from previous customers online.

Statutory rights

Many customers ask themselves what terms and conditions apply or what their warranty rights are when using online businesses. In principle, the terms and conditions are the same as they would be with a conventional tender. Customers can rely on the fact that they will have the usual statutory rights, for instance in the case of complaints about construction defects. Certain technical standards and building industry rules (including the use of up-to-date equipment and methods) also have to be complied with, irrespective of how the contract comes into existence.

However, fast and relatively informal tenders are associated with higher risks. If you do not explicitly agree on very specific terms and conditions or clearly defined contractual standards as are otherwise customary in the industry, you are operating in a gray area. Neither the customer nor the contractor will be able to rely on them.

Beware vague information

“Major difficulties can arise,” Sascha Fopp warns, “when the customer does not define or provides far too vague information on the specific circumstances such as the dimensions of the rooms, the scale of the work required or the necessary preparation.” Often no plans are available, which makes a professional approach to the job in hand impossible.

Let’s take an example: On the basis of an online tender, a plasterer calculates that an area of 300 square meters needs plastering and prepares his quote on the basis of this figure. He and the customer agree a fixed rate on the basis of SIA standard 118. Upon arriving on site, however, he is surprised to discover that the area is actually 600 or even 1,000 square meters. Online commissions are particularly risky when, due to the absence of plans or information on dimensions or volumes, the two parties parties work on the basis of completely different assumptions.

Practical for small jobs

Thomas Ammann, Head of Energy and Building Technology at the Swiss Homeowners’ Association (HEV), considers this channel to be quite suitable for smaller, clearly defined jobs, however. “These might include replacing windows and gardening, painting and wallpapering work,” he says.

The key factor is that the job can be very clearly defined and does not require a large amount of coordination or planning. However, the situation is different, believes the HEV expert, when multiple types of work have to be coordinated. This is already the case in a number of classic jobs that customers frequently have done. One such task is installing a new kitchen, for which it is often necessary to enlist other tradespeople such as painters, electricians, carpenters and floorers in addition to the kitchen fitter. The same applies to bathroom conversions or technically complex modifications to energy and building technology.

Ammann also recommends that, depending on the job in hand, customers should pay attention to the background of the tradesperson or construction firm. For some jobs which just need to be done quickly and with a minimum of fuss, a handyman may actually be the best choice. “For many types of work, however, it is advisable to only consider tradespeople who are actually trained and qualified in the specific field,” he stresses.

Choosing a tradesperson: seven tips

  1. When posting a job online, make sure you describe the work in detail and add photos, plans or sketches.
  2. Don’t forget to provide exact details, such as the precise dimensions, the materials you want and the quality of the parquet flooring or tiles you require.
  3. If possible, it is advisable to split different jobs into separate posts.
  4. For larger jobs, you should suggest making an appointment for an inspection in advance.
  5. Complex jobs such as kitchen conversions require very good planning and coordination. In the end, it is usually necessary to enlist the services of an architect.
  6. If you receive a quote that is very low, you should obtain references from the provider in addition to the online quote and check them. It is also worth obtaining alternative offers from tradespeople in your town or district.
  7. Ask for clear cost estimates or clearly defined fixed prices. If the quote only contains a guideline price or the price information is vague, the contractor is permitted to charge any additional costs.