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How to resolve conflicts with tradies

How to resolve disputes and misunderstandings with your tradesperson before they escalate into conflict.

hands holding tools for renovation tradie conflict lead
Last updated: 11 November 2019

Whether you're embarking on a new home build, an extension or alteration, you'll inevitably be dealing with various tradespeople to get the job done. 

And while some of those relationships will be great, others may result in conflict if issues and concerns are not effectively handled by both tradie and home owner. 

Your relationship with your trade professional will play an essential role in the success of your renovation. We've put together some advice on how to avoid conflict before it escalates – and how to  deal with it effectively when it's unavoidable.

home undergoing renovation painting walls

Your relationship with your tradie will play an essential role in the success of your renovation.

Common tradie-client conflicts

When it comes to renovation, conflict occurs when the actions of one person or group hinders, or are perceived to hinder, the actions or achievement of another. 

A June 2019 CHOICE Consumer Pulse survey of 1176 households found that among those who've undertaken renovations (35%), the results have been largely positive, with 78% of respondents happy with the end result of their renovation. 

However, almost a third (32%) of respondents thought tradespeople made the project more difficult than they thought it would be. 

There are many reasons why the relationship between a tradesperson and client can break down, but some common issues include:

  • misunderstandings relating to messages, roles, responsibilities and tasks
  • personality clashes between clients and tradespeople
  • differences in goals and expectations
  • disagreements around cost and payment
  • disputes over contracts
  • defective or incomplete work
  • differences over methods employed
  • poor communication and cooperation
  • delays that put financial strain on client or tradie
  • design flaws that require time and money to correct
  • competing schedules, pressing deadlines and project management concerns.
woman and tradie when conflict arrises with home renovation

Don't let a personality clash ruin your reno.

How to avoid tradie-client conflicts

Many issues are avoided by having a contract and ensuring your tradesperson is licensed and insured before starting the job.

Have a contract

"A written contract is vital if you are going to build a house, or intend repairing, renovating or extending your home, regardless of how much you are spending," says Gina Ralston, Chief Dispute Resolution Officer at Domestic Building Dispute Resolution Victoria (DBDRV).

"It is a crucial document in settling any dispute with your building contractor and I recommend consumers have a written contract for all building works, regardless of size and price."

 I recommend consumers have a written contract for all building works, regardless of size and price

Gina Ralston, Domestic Building Dispute Resolution Victoria

These agreements outline the services that a tradesperson will or will not do, the terms and conditions upon which they provide their services and the agreed cost to be invoiced to the client. 

Home owners should thoroughly read and understand the agreement prior to signing it and seek further legal advice if necessary.

Checking your tradies' licences

In most states, you need to use a licensed tradesperson or building practitioner for any residential building work worth over a set amount (which varies from state to state), as well as any electrical wiring, plumbing, air conditioning, refrigeration, drainage or gasfitting work.  

NSW Fair Trading's research into licensing reveals that some consumers are at risk because they don't actively check that a tradesperson is licensed. 80% of homeowners think licensing is important, but only 10% go to the Fair Trading website to check.

Australia's strict safety standards and licensing requirements for licensed occupations helps ensure tradies are qualified and legitimate. 

Check with your state, territory or local government authority that your chosen tradespeople have a current licence.

Ensuring your tradie has public liability insurance

It's essential that your tradesperson has the appropriate insurance to work on your project, for both their safety and security and yours. If a tradesperson has no insurance or it has lapsed and something goes wrong, both parties will be impacted.

Any tradesperson you contract should have public liability insurance, which will cover mistakes or accidents that may occur onsite and pay out for damage, replacement or repair. Without it, the client may be left to foot the bill or pay legal fees to recover the money.  

In fact, if you've knowingly contracted a tradesperson that doesn't have this vital insurance, you – the person who hired the tradie – could be held liable, as you own the property. 

But it's not just the tradies' insurance you should be considering when embarking on a renovation. A licensed builder should have construction insurance, but this will generally only cover the part of the structure they're working on. 

Why communication is king

Managing conflict is the responsibility of both client and tradesperson and its success stems from honest and regular communication between the two parties.

"It is important to keep in regular contact with your builder to check progress and discuss any queries you might have," Ralston says.

"By communicating directly with your builder, you will avoid any unnecessary confusion and be confident that both you and your builder are clear on the work that is being done, and what it will cost." 

Breakdowns in communication can happen between homeowners and tradespeople for many reasons. As soon as you're aware there is an issue, speak with your contractor. Talking things over could resolve the problem quickly. Be upfront but calm and polite – it could be a simple misunderstanding, which can be resolved by talking it though.

woman chatting to her builder about home renovation

"It is important to keep in regular contact with your builder to check progress and discuss any queries you might have," Ralston says.

Keeping detailed records 

Ensure you keep accurate and true records of the entire project – receipts, phone messages, photographs, invoices, quotes, contracts and invoices can all come in handy when clarification is required.

"You should keep copies of all relevant documents, for example, contracts, invoices and written communications," Ralston says.

"You should also consider keeping a record of all conversations you have had with the other party and taking photographs of work that is the subject of dispute."

Resolving conflict in four simple steps

1. Stay calm and react thoughtfully 

Reacting in anger never works to resolve anything at all. Your best bet is to remain calm, tell the contractor that you'll come back to them later and remove yourself from a confrontational situation to consider how to move forward most effectively. 

2. Communicate your concerns with the tradesperson

Arrange a mutually agreeable time and place for you and your contractor to sit down and talk about the issue calmly, rationally and with the sole intention of resolving the issues at hand. This may involve some negotiation and compromise from both parties to avoid any further escalation.

3. Write a letter reiterating your discussion

Once you have both voiced your concerns around the issues, write a letter outlining what you have both agreed to do and by when, date it and sign it. Then provide your tradesperson with a copy and keep one for your records (you should use registered post if you are sending this by mail). This ensures your meeting is summarised on paper and will be a valuable resource should further action be necessary.

4. Check your agreement for a dispute clause

Some contracts contain a clause that deals specifically with dispute resolution, so it's wise to check this before you take any further action. This clause will outline a prescribed dispute resolution process, which you are compelled to follow if you've signed the contract, before initiating any other action. 

man calling consumer protection agency after conflict with tradie

If talks break down, you may need to contact your consumer protection agency.

What should I do if talks fail?

If, despite your best efforts, you've been unable to resolve conflict between you and your contractor, you will need to seek alternative options. It's reassuring to know there are  state and territory government and industry bodies in Australia that can provide advice and sometimes mediation between both parties to find a resolution.

Contact your consumer protection agency: Your local state or territory consumer protection agency can provide you with information about your rights and options, and may be able to help negotiate a resolution.

Tribunal or court: If the consumer protection agency can't help or you're still not satisfied with the outcome, you can take your complaint to the tribunal or court, such as NCAT in NSW, VCAT in Victoria or the WA Building Commissioner.

If you're nervous about making a complaint or haven't done it before, here are some useful resources from the CHOICE Help team:

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.