Most people, for one reason or another, will engage a paving contractor at some point. It may be in a professional capacity such as appointing a contractor for a large development project or choosing someone to build them a new patio.
There are different types of paving contractor . Not all paving contractors undertake all forms of paving work. Some work on specific types of project , such as car park construction, and some have specific skills, such as laying bitmac which does not mean they can lay setts .
There are many excellent contractors throughout Britain and Ireland, but their number is almost certainly matched by the number of 'cowboys', who have few or no real skills, and are only interested in making as big a profit as possible in the shortest time with the minimum effort.
Find a Good Contractor
This is the best reference available.
For commercial works, suitable gangs are often recommended between main contractors or engineers. Occasionally, a particular manufacturer will know of a particular gang that would be ideally suited to a particular project. Accordingly, recommendation is usually sought within the trade.
For residential work, recommendation is usually on a more personal level. If someone amongst your family and friends has had some paving work done, ask for a recommendation. Did the contractor do a good job? Did they complete the work on schedule and within budget? How approachable and courteous were they? Were there any 'hidden' costs? Was the work done by tradesmen or 'young lads'? Did they clean up the place when they had finished? Did they offer any guarantees? Are the customers pleased with the finished job? Was there any problem getting the work 'snagged' and did the contractor make a final inspection of the work?
Quality paving is not cheap - make sure you are getting what you pay for.
From a pre-vetted list
There are three main types of contractor lists currently operating in mainland Britain (the situation in Ireland is slightly different). The first type is the independent trade association, and the second is the manufacturer-managed list, and then there is the online 'Find-A-Contractor' sites.
Pavingexpert Contractors' List
There is a group of friendly, professional contractors that frequents the Brew Cabin discussion forum on this website and many of them offer a higher-than-average standard of service along with giving their free time to answer queries posted by other contractors, DIYers and members of the public. Several of these have websites of their own and they have published a list of web addresses that homeowners and others looking for a quality contractor may find useful.Access the Brew Cabin Contractor list via this link
There was only one, nationally recognised and respected independent trade association for paving, and that was Interlay, but they sadly folded in the Spring of 2021, leaving our trade with no proper representation.
There are other so-called independent trade associations, but they tend to be small and ineffective, and/or primarily concerned with making money rather than maintaining standards, and/or they are not specific to the paving and hard-landscaping trades.
In an attempt to ensure homeowners and other clients are less likely to be fleeced by the cowboy element, some manufacturers have established lists of vetted and approved contractors. These Approved Lists cover only certain trades and/or products, most notably block paving and decorative patio flags/slabs. They do not necessarily cover PIC , tarmacadam , sett-laying , general landscaping or many of the other types of paving.
Some manufacturers maintain lists as a gesture of goodwill, and so tend not to offer any warranty or express any recommendation - they are simply passing on the name and contact details of contractors that are regular buyers of their products. Other manufacturers run schemes that require payment to join and usually (but not always) involve some form of vetting.
The value of these Approved Lists is more fully examined on a separate page.
There is now a phenomenal number of these sites and they grow like weeds with each passing week.
The idea is that, by means unknown, these websites manage to check out a whole slew of contractors in any given area and provide you with a shortlist of who they think might be suitable. That's a great idea, but the weak link is the quantity and type of vetting that takes place.
Some of these sites are, essentially, paid advertising, pure and simple. The only question they ever ask of the contractor is 'Have you got X hundred quid to have your name added to our list?'
Other sites will undertake minimal vetting, such as checking insurances, VAT registration, County Court Judgments, etc., all of which is better than nothing, but only just.
There are sites that will sometimes ask potential list members to answer a pretty basic question or two, intended to determine whether they have any real experience. Sorry, but asking a candidate how much sub-base they'd put beneath a driveway is NOT a valid way of assessing their skills!
And then there are the review-based sites, which allow customers to post feedback, good or bad, following their dealings with a particular contractor.
These are probably the best option but caution is still essential. The trade abounds with tales of contractors adding their own highly positive feedback, and of posting negative criticism of competitors, or of getting the friends and family to do so on their behalf. Some contractors, who are widely known in the local area to be little more than cowboys, are seen to have exemplary ratings and boundless praise on some of these sites, much to the bemusement of their betters.
Again, while better than no checking at all, relying solely on these glorified search sites is not a good idea: further research is essential. It should be borne in mind that none of these sites are free. They are commercial enterprises and they take a fee from the advertiser/contractor. Is this really impartial? It seems little different to the sort of service provided by a standard directory or search engine.
This refers to selecting possible contractors that you have little or no direct knowledge of. Contractors can usually be found in the Yellow Pages or the Thomson Local telephone directories under 'Paving' or 'Landscaping'. Be aware that some companies are paving specialists, some companies are plantsmen, and some companies do both.
There is also the opportunity to locate a contractor by using a search engine. I believe several are now available.
Searching Online - what to look for in a good paving contractor
- The advertising and running costs for any publication, whether a printed directory or an online presence, does tend to sort the wheat from the chaff. The small, one-man-bands and the fly-by-night cowboys are not likely to pay hundreds of pounds for advertising, but then, some see it as a small investment that enables them to get their foot in your doorway and their talons into your bank account.
- Be wary of contractors who have only a mobile phone number, and no address. Be especially wary of anyone 'cold calling' - good contractors do not need to cold call to generate work.
- If you see a drive being installed, and it appears to be quality work, ask the 'ganger', or one of the other workers, for a business card or similar - they should be more than happy to oblige.
- If you have seen some paving locally that you particularly admire, the resident will probably be pleased to pass on a business card or telephone number for the company who did the work.
- Look for membership of recognised bodies, such as BALI, APL or FMB (Federation of Master Builders), but don't assume that means the contractor will be trouble-free.
- Try to find a well established firm, not one that has sprung-up over the last 12 months, and look for guarantees.
- Most honest firms do not charge for quotations or for general advice.
How many prices?
We always advise clients to obtain at least three estimates for the paving work.
The cheapest price may not be the best of jobs, while a top price is no guarantee of quality. Prices vary significantly between contractors. If a paving company is employing tradesmen, the wage bill, and therefore the cost to the client, will be higher than a company who employ only labourers and young lads.
Who is pricing?
Ascertain whether the person you are dealing with is the Contractor.
Some companies use professional sales people to 'sell' their paving, usually on a commission basis. Other companies don't actually do the work themselves, but sub-contract to other gangs. Most firms undertake a brief survey of the job, checking access, quantities, layout, etc., before submitting a price. Some firms will give you a price 'on the spot', whilst others will send you a price through the post, once they've done all the calculations.
What are they pricing?
It is best to ensure that all potential contractors are quoting for the same work.
Draw up a specification, and ask each firm to tender for the works on the basis of that specification, and to make separate costings for any optional or extra items they consider might be required, such as extra drainage gullies or decorative kerbs. You can find written specifications for the most common types of paving and drainage on the Specifications page.
Quote or Estimate?
Which is best?
A verbal quote is completely, utterly and totally useless. Insist on written quotations or estimates, with the specification that the contractor will use written into the document as part of the price. Some contractors may prefer to submit 'estimates' rather than 'quotations' - as long as the specification and quantities are stated as part of the price, there should be no problem. Estimates and quotations seem to be interchangeable within the residential construction market - estimates often come in 'on budget' whilst quotations may suddenly sprout extra costs not anticipated at the time of pricing the work. However, in law, there is an important difference between the two, and a quotation is much stricter than an estimate.
In very simplistic terms, a quotation is a firm statement of the price that will be charged, based on the information contained therein, whereas an estimate is a 'best guess' as to what the likely cost might be. A contractor may need to charge extra if additional work or materials not included within the quotation is undertaken on the client's instruction or with their agreement.
What should be included?
Make sure that any price obtained, whether quotation or estimate, makes clear exactly what quantities of which materials the contractor will provide for the price stated, and which items or optional extras, if any, may incur additional charges.
As a highly generalised rule, a written quotation or estimate should include the following items as an absolute minimum...
- Type/name/brand of paving or surfacing to be provided, including any relevant colour options
- The construction method in brief - excavation depth; sub-base type and depth; edgings; drainage
- The total area to be paved or surfaced - edgings and kerbs should be quantified separately
- The cost of carrying out the work as specified above
- Any additional or optional costs
The dreaded VAT
Check that the price stated by the contractor includes Value Added Tax - VAT.
Many contractors talk in nett terms. That is, the prices they often discuss do NOT include VAT. This can come as a shock if the price you have been given verbally is suddenly upped by 20%.
This stems from the fact that most suppliers to the trade (Builders' Merchants, Manufacturers, Aggregate Providers, etc.) state prices in the same way and that all work undertaken to WHOLLY NEW developments is VAT-exempt.
VAT is due on any paving or landscaping work carried out to an existing property. VAT-able work can include what the homeowner considers to be a new driveway or patio: it comes down to whether the property as a whole is new or whether the work is a repair, alteration or addition to an existing property.
Unfortunately, some residential contractors quote a price and assume the customer will understand that the price to be paid will be considerably higher once the tax is added. This is an unacceptable, underhand tactic.
While it is perfectly legal to pay a contractor in cash, it is illegal to expect the contractor to omit the VAT element in return for non-traceable cash, or for the contractor to offer such an arrangment.
In truth, it is quite unlikely that the contractor can afford to 'lose' the whole of the VAT element in exchange for cash. The contractor will still be required to pay VAT on the materials supplied to the site, and also to pay VAT on sundries such as diesel for the vans, plant hire, skip wagons or grab lorries. Consequently, the only part of the work on which the contractor is solely responsible for VAT is the labour provided, and this is but a small part of the overall cost.
Ask each contractor to provide a minimum of three addresses where they have installed the same, or very similar, paving to the chosen type.
You should view their actual work rather than rely solely on photographs or websites showing work that may or may not be their own.
If possible, speak to previous clients. After all, if you were spending £3,000 or £10,000 on a car, you would want to take it for a test run before committing yourself...so spend a Sunday driving around and noseying at other drives and make sure you are happy with the contractors and the paving type you have selected.
Previous clients who are happy with the work done are usually only too eager to bore you rigid with the fine detail of what a wonderful job was done.
It is far better to choose your paving type from real life examples rather than from dog-eared photos, low-res website images or professional advertising shots.
The estimates and quotations have arrived. How do you choose which contractor to award the work? The first consideration is usually 'price'.
As a general rule, most prices for straightforward paving jobs should fall in a ± 15% range. For instance, a project with a cost of £5,000 may generate estimates from contractors in the £4,250 - £5,750 range.
Be wary of very low or very high prices. Low prices indicate that corners will have to be cut for the contractor to make a wage, and some contractors will deliberately submit artificially high prices for work in which they are not really interested.
View 'special discounts' with a cautious eye.
The quality of the materials used will also have a large impact on the price.
For example, we expect to pay £10 +VAT for top quality concrete paving blocks. There are similar blocks available at half that price, but they are of a poor quality, using softer concretes and inferior dyes. If you did not ask for a specified pavior, you run the risk of the contractor supplying cheaper, sub-standard materials.
T & C's
What are the terms and conditions of the price submitted by the contractor?
- Are they fully insured? (minimum £1 million Public Liability in the name of the business)
- Do they demand a deposit? (Be careful!! Get a written receipt!)
- What are the guarantees they offer? Verbal guarantees are but breath on the wind. Insist on a written guarantee.
- When and how do they expect to be paid?
- How long do they expect the job to take?
- What maintenance service do they offer?
- Can you withhold a retention sum until the final snagging is completed?
- How do they handle disputes over quality or price?
Check Those References
As mentioned above, you should view completed works of each contractor with a critical eye, looking for features and details that you find attractive, and noting any faults or defects that catch your eye. Try to look only at the paving, and not let your overall impression of the work be swayed by the house itself, the garden or the overall setting. Re-visit sites as often as necessary until you feel confident about your final decision.
A final quality to consider is the contractor personally.
Is the contractor affable and easy to talk to, or bullish and arrogant? If you feel intimidated by a contractor, it will be much harder for you to negotiate fairly with him/her.
Does the contractor seem trustworthy and honest or do you get a sneaky feeling that you're being duped? You MUST be able to trust your contractor.
A good contractor is eager to please, and is as keen as you are for the finished paving to look good and provide years of trouble-free service.
The good contractor will keep you updated regarding the progress of the works or any problems that will require extra work that could not have been foreseen at the time of pricing - this applies especially to faulty drainage that is often undetected until the excavation commences. You should feel able to reach an amicable agreement with your contractor as to the cost of any such extra works.
Getting on with it
You've decided which contractor you are going to use, and you naturally want to get cracking with the job as soon as possible.
Most good contractors will have a 3-8 week 'lead-time' i.e. the length of time from your ordering the works to their day of arrival. If a contractor can start work the very next morning, why aren't they busy?
Ask your contractor for a proposed start date, but please bear in mind that our profession is subject to the vagaries and whims of the British/Irish climate.
Allow a contractor some leeway - a week, or two at the most. The good contractor will keep you fully aware of their schedule and any advances or delays that could affect your project.
Very often, once a contractor is halfway through a two week job, the client decides to extend the scope of the works, "while they're here" - the two week job grows into a three week job and the contractor's schedule has fallen to pieces!
Once the work has started the contractor does not normally need access to your house. Do not hand over the keys to your home, in order that the workmen can make a cup of tea while you're down at the shops. You didn't know these people from Adam a few weeks ago!
A good contractor will refuse to take your keys if offered - if anything was to go missing, or get broken in the house during your absence, even if it was not the fault of one of the workers, the contractor is going to be held liable.
The contractor will need access to water, and possibly electricity, for drills, mixers etc.
If you have an outside tap, that will be adequate for the smallish quantities of water required.
Electricity is best supplied via an extension lead from the garage or shed or, as a last resort, via a small window.
If you have no outdoor tap or access to power, and you expect to be away from the property during normal working hours then inform your contractor that they will have to make their own arrangements by bringing water in drums and/or using a small generator.
DO NOT HAND OVER YOUR KEYS!!
Changes, alterations and extensions:
It's quite common for some changes to be required once the job starts, and these changes are often a source of dispute when it comes to the final bill. The client thought the price that had been agreed at the start was a fixed price while the installer expects to be paid for the additional excavation, drainage, kerbs, steps, whatever-it-was that had to be undertaken.
In the building and civil engineering sector of the hard landscaping trade, we deal with such changes via a written document known (usually) as a "Variation Order", and it's always been a mystery why such a system is not used with smaller, residential projects.
In essence, a Variation Order states precisely what has "varied" since the original quote or estimate. It would detail any additional work that is required, or it might document a change in the materials used. It can cover unexpected occurrences such as uncovering a collapsed drain, or finding a layer of running sand, soft clay or other unforeseen sub-surface problems that could not reasonably have been predicted when the work was priced.
The document should state exactly what additional work, changes in materials, or extensions to the schedule are required, along with an agreed cost. A Variation Order (VO) has to be agreed by both parties: it acts as an addendum to the contract agreement, ensuring each side knows what is to be done and at what price, so there is less risk of disagreement when it comes time to settle-up.
The good installer will usually inform the client verbally of any need for "variations" as soon as they become apparent and then submit a price. The client is expected to ummm-and-aaaah for a short while, possibly haggle over the cost, but eventually both sides reach an agreed cost and both parties should sign the VO. Of course, the client can reject the VO terms, but the installer is then free to omit what may be essential works and could not be held responsible for any failure or problems that arise following completion of the project.
When a client suddenly realises they want additional work carrying out, perhaps a larger patio than originally agreed, or to use recess tray covers rather than re-using the old, unsightly units, or whatever else, a VO can incorporate such items into the original agreement/contract with the surety of the work being undertaken in a specific manner and for an agreed sum. This avoids the sudden surprise of finding a bill for an extra two thousand quid or so for that little step that was requested for outside the kitchen door.
Variation Orders are hugely beneficial to both parties. They remove doubt, misunderstanding, and uncertainty for both the contractor and the client....or, at least, they should do!
Dealing with problems
Even the best contractors in Britain and Ireland will encounter problems occasionally on some jobs.
- A responsible contractor will not undertake any additional work for which you will be charged, without your prior knowledge and consent.
- Any delay or setback should be reported to you at the earliest opportunity, and you should feel comfortable enough with your contractor to reach an agreement on how to proceed that suits you both.
- Try to be fair and reasonable with the contractor - don't expect substantial unforeseen work to be undertaken at the contractor's expense. Equally, do not allow yourself to be conned by a wily contractor: stick to the specification which was agreed.
- If inclement weather or sudden illness forces work to a halt, ask the contractor when he expects work to resume.
- Do not tolerate a stop-start operation, where the workmen arrive and do a bit of work for a day, before disappearing for two days (known in the trade as " A Hospital Job ").
- If you have any serious concerns about the quality or progress of the works, write them down and pass a copy on to the contractor, asking for written confirmation of what action they intend to take to alleviate or dispel your concerns.
- Do not allow yourself to be cajoled into paying for unwarranted extras.
What if you reach an impasse?
This is where the use of independent arbitrators can be invaluable, if you are lucky enough to have access to one.
- Some Manufacturer Approved Lists offer an arbitration service. Sad to say, the standards expected tend to be highly variable and there are too many reports of any 'benefit of the doubt' being given to the contractor, who, after all, is paying to be on the manufacturer's list.
- Some of the Trade Associations offer an independent arbitration service.
- In certain cases, pavingexpert.com may be able to help and/or advise.
- In cases of sharp practice, dishonesty, or shoddy workmanship, your local Trading Standards office may help.
Ultimately, you may consider using the services of a solicitor as the only way to impress the seriousness of your concerns upon the offending contractor.
If all else fails and if you haven't yet paid for the work, then pay only for that portion of the work that you are satisfied with. Issue a written promise of full payment on satisfactory completion of all the works.
And finally, a request from an ex-contractor; please don't treat the contractor or the operatives as underlings or minions. A good tradesman has pride and integrity and will not welcome being told how to do the job. Just because a man does not wear a suit to work, it does not mean that his work is menial. Treat the men with respect, and they will build that respect into your paving.
PS - a cup of tea when they arrive in the morning can often get them on your side!
- Get at least 3 estimates, and make sure they are all pricing the same job by including specification and quantities within the estimate.
- Make sure that the estimates are written, not verbal, and that they are written on headed notepaper, with a land-line telephone number, an address, and a VAT registration number.
- Check the Terms and Conditions, and make sure you understand them.
- View previous works and speak to previous clients.
- Get a proposed start date, length of job, payment schedule and a guarantee, all in writing.
Dept. Transport, Environment & the Regions Combating cowboy builders: A consultation document (1998)
Joint Contracts Tribunal (JCT) "Building contract for a homeowner/occupier"
A new development from the body responsible for drawing up the contracts most commonly used in the construction industry and approved by many national bodies. A simple, 4 page document, approved by the Plain English campaign, aimed to sort out potential difficulties before they arise. Available from Construction Industry Publications for only £9.95 inc VAT
Approved Contractor Listings
The pros and cons of these lists are considered on the Approved Contractors page.