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Avoid Costly Mistakes: How to select the right tradesman and not get ripped off

As I write this post, I can’t help think that I am running the risk of losing a potential job to a larger painting and decorating business in Cambridge, who may exceed the guidelines that I am going to list below but having a large base of repeat-customers reinforces my faith in our business and the high standard of work that we can provide. There maybe bigger fish in terms of larger competing companies but we can give the very best painting companies anywhere a run for their money in terms of the quality of our work and after-sales service (we provide a “geniune” 2-year guarantee).

You are probably browsing Google on your PC, laptop or phone and may have a few tabs open relating to local companies. How do you choose one without getting ripped off?

First off, from having 15 years experience as a local painter and decorator, I can tell you that the majority of companies in the area are geniune and we even work as sub-contractors for some of them (on the balance of probability, some of their testimonials probably relate to work that we have undertaken), so I am not going to single out anyone for criticism but I feel that I have a duty to highlight some of the questionable practices that go on and which tend to catch people out after its too late.

For the sake of simplicity I have chosen to use the word “tradesman” (or woman of course) to mean an individual, partnership or incorporated company.

Bells & Whistles

Everyone wants to make their business stand out from the local crowd and one way to do this is to reflect as many badges/logos from trade organisations, etc… on their website as possible. The intention is of course to give potential customers reassurance that their business is geniune and reputable. We also do this and it makes perfect sense.

We know of some local businesses whose memberships of some trade organisations are inactive and who continue to display logos, etc… so your job is not to take anything for granted. A smart business (notice that I didn’t say “geniune”) will link to the relevant profile page on the trader association’s website. If a website is just showing a logo without a link, this should raise questions but should not be a deal-breaker as long as the tradesman is prepared to porovide proof of the relevant memebrship. It may just be that it is something they have overlooked or they don’t have the necessary web design skills to do it properly (many small businesses DIY their websites).

On a separate but related note, verify that any claims relating to their insurance are geniune in case anything goes wrong.

Takeaway: Check that all accrediations are geniune.

Quote vs Estimate

This is a subtle one that you really need to pay attention to. A quote reflects a fixed price, an estimate does not. When you receive a written quotation (and you should always ask for one) whether physical or in a soft-copy format i.e. email, word document or PDF, ensure that you check that it reflects the final price of all the work to be undertaken. The painter may have geniunely gotten into the habit of using the 2 words interchangably but some painters would use the word “estimate” in order to give the impression that the price quoted is fixed only to then turn around half-way through the job and claim that additional work needs to be done, at an additional cost, and they were only “estimating” the cost previously (again – always get a written quotation).

As a general guide, the total price of a painting and decorating job relating to walls needs to include the following:

  • Surface preparation (walls and skirting)
  • Application of Emulsion paint
  • Application of top coats
  • No. of coats to be applied
  • Waste disposal costs
  • Any other charges e.g. parking charges where free off-street parking is not available, moving furniture, etc… (ask, ask, ask)

It would be good to get into the habit of asking the following simple question: Are there any other costs which are not included? (best to have confirmation of this in writing via email or by text message)

Below is an email template that you can use to request initial estimates for your painting project (amend accordingly for decorating) should you wish to get a rough idea of pricing especially if you don’t live near a main village/town. Let me warn you that the response rate may not be high but saying that you are ready to proceed immediately should incease the response (don’t say that you are ready to proceed if it’s not the case – tradesmens’ time is money and petrol/depreciation isn’t free). Also, it is  very important to have the tradesman visit your home to see the condition of the surfaces to be painted in order to get final confirmation of the price. Furthermore, don’t discount any tradesman that is unwilling to give you a price without first visiting in person (we do that).

Dear Mr Tradesman,

I am in need of a painter/decorator to carry out the following:

Scope of work:

  • Paint X rooms/kitchen/fence/exterior wall/furniture, etc…
  • The condition of the (above) in my judgement is fair/good/bad, etc…
  • The dimensions are AB x CD
  • Attached are some photos of the (above).
  • The postcode of the property is AB12 3CD
  • Based on other quotations I have received, the target price is £XXX (value of best quote – 10%).

Please forward your best price and don’t hesitate to let me know should you have any questions or if you require any additional information.


Mr/Mrs Smith

Tel/Mob: 01234 567890 (optional and this phone no. better not exist as I haven’t checked)

Regarding the last bullet point in the template above, some tradesmen will want to see written quotations before being willing to price-match or beat other quotes and although this sounds fair, I would like to request you not to comply with such a request in full. Painting and decorating is a tough industry and it would not be fair to disclose other specific tradesmens’ pricing. By all means, feel free (and I encourage you to), disclose the value of other quotations but try not to disclose details of who gave you the pricing. You may disagree with me on this point but I just feel that good tradesmen would already know what the going rates are and would not want to compete on price alone anyway so you should let tradesmen carry out their own competitive intelligence.

Takeaway: Always ask for a full written quotation specifyng the scope of intended work and always check that the price is final.

Paying in advance

Don’t pay the full amount in advance and remember that you are in a position of power, the tradesman wants the work while you have other options. If a tradesman is insisting on full payment upfront, don’t budge and just walk away (trust me on this), even if you think that you’ll be missing out on a great deal. It is OK to agree to stage payments and I can tell you that running a small business requires good cashflow and on some big jobs, the tradesman may need to buy some of the materials upfront or once an agreed phase has been completed in order to cover their costs and finance the purchase of materials for the next phase.

Tradesmen may also request stage payments for fear of the customer defaulting on payment because sadly, some people will delay payment after a job has been completed to their satisfaction citing various reasons (some of which are exotic), so please ensure that you set aside the cost of the project and also make sure that you can actually afford the cost.

If you are a commercial customer and have access to a business credit checking service like Experian Business Express, you can also check the financial health of a painting and decorating company and its directors to see how financially viable they are and whether the directors have been part of other companies that have ceased trading. Services like Experian Business Express also reflect previous CCJs.

One final note, always pay the company and not the decorator and try to do so via a BACS or otehr trackable method. The individual decorator maybe a subcontractor or someone that will dispute the amount you paid in cash so if you deicide to go down that route, make sure that they sign a receipt.

Takeaway: Clarify payment terms upfront and walk away if full payment in advance is the only option. Don’t view requests for stage payments with suspicion (as long as there are no other warning signs).

If their price seems too good to be true, it probably is

Businesses have overheads and need to make a profit and as you can imagine, their pricing needs to ensure continuity. A smaller business will have lower overheads and generally speaking their pricing may naturally be more competitive for various reasons (no VAT, lower hourly rate, etc…), but there is no such thing as cheap professional painting and decorating. How do you know what a fair price is? by getting multiple quotations.

A cheap painting and decorating quote (from a dodgy painter) may mean that the painter would do 1 coat instead of 2 and tell you otherwise, use cheaper paint than agreed or skip proper preparation work. It is also not uncommon for dodgyy tradesmen to take the deposit, do one day’s work and then disappear. You can mitigate the risks by carrying out thorough checks of various tradesmen before ending with a final short-list.

Takeaway: Get multiple quotations (3 should be fine)

Ask for references

Most testimonials that you see on tradesmen websites are geniune but you can’t take that for granted and you are advised to contact some of their previous customers. This is because some or all of the testimonaisl maybe old and you don’t know what may have happenned since they were given (fresh paint always looks good and a shady job may go unnoticed for some time). Also, some tradesmen would request relatives, friends and even employees to submit testimonials. Google is good but not yet good enough to find out about these practices so you want to ask for a mix of recent/old references and if possible contact these references for feedback whilst finding out if they have any relationship to the tradesamn other than a purely customer one.

Takeaway: Ask for and check references thoroughly

Trust your intuition

Your home is your castle (even if it’s a 1-bed small flat/mid-terraced house) and you need to proceed with caution when choosing a tradesman. Although it may sound superficial, but first and subsequent impressions are important:

  • What are they like on the phone?
  • Do they turn up on time for their initial site review?
  • Are their quotations detailed?
  • Do they try to hard-sell or not?
  • Do they look presentable? (not necessarily spotless if they visit after completing a job – would you have turned down Picasso for a painting job if he didn’t turn up looking good?)
  • Can they answer your questions with ease?

Takeaway: You need to be comfortable with the tradesman before committing to a contract

Older than time

It is common to see statements similar to “We have 25 years experience” and this may mean one of the following:

  • The oldest painter and decorator has 25 years experience
  • The average experience of 25 painters/decorators in the business is 1 year each (exaggeraion on my part)
  • We have been in business for 25 years (and may have had differrent owners)
  • We have been in business for 25 years and the average experience of our painters/decorators is actually 25 years

The point is this, some tradesmen employ sub-contractors (like us for example – make sure you accept the quote immediately if that’s the case) or apprentices so you want to ask about who will actually be carrying out the painting/decorating work and how much experince they have. Also, if they will be using an apprentice or someone relatively new to the industry, ask about their quality control procedures and whether more experienced painters/decorators will supervise the work.

Takeaway: Check who will be carrying out the work and how much experience they have.

Ask for recommednations

Approach family, friends or neighbours for recommendations. These people will certainly have your best interests at heart and should be in a position to provide honest feedback on tradesmen that they have used and are sure to give you good recommendations. Don’t forget to shop around in order to ensure that you will be paying a fair price though.

Also, don’t feel awkward about not going with the recommended tradesman for any reason. I know that it is not easy to have someone call the tradesman, then follow up with you with more words of praise for them only for you to proceed with someone else. It is your home and your investment.

Takeaway: Ask for recommendations from those around you.

Ask, Ask, Ask

You will be giving your hard earned money to someone whom you have never met before so you have the right to ask as many questions as you want and they are obligated to answer. If they are experienced tradesmen they should be able to answer promptly, clearly and should also expect a lot of questions from you.

Takeaway: Ask, Ask, Ask


  • Check that all accrediations are geniune
  • Always ask for a written “quotation” and confirm that it’s not an “estimate”
  • Ask for, and check references
  • Don’t accept payment in advance if it’s the only option
  • Obtain multiple quotations
  • Check experience level of the people that will actually carry out the work
  • Ask for recommendations
  • Ask them as many questions as you want
  • Don’t proceed with a tradesman if you’re not comfortable with them

Finally, as I spend more and more time in the industry, I am learning all the time about the overwhelmingly good and some bad practices that go on. If you feel that there is something which I have overlooked and which other people may benefit from, please share your advice/thoughts in the comments section below and I will be mroe than  happy to update the article accordingly. Also, please share this article with others and don’t forget to contact us should you require a “quote” for painting and decorating.

Kind regards,