It would be lovely to get through a lifetime of plastering without having to deal with difficult customers and those that refuse to pay on shaky grounds; unfortunately that is a daydream and not a realistic expectation when you are self-employed. Most customers are reasonable and will pay for the work you do, but there will always be some people who take a chance on getting something for free. What can plasterers do to protect themselves from disputes and non-payment threats?
One very important thing to do is to photograph your working area before you start. It can be worthwhile photographing the access route to that area as well, as marks on walls or damage to carpets are sometimes cited by homeowners as grounds for a discount or not paying. Modern cameras, both digital and those on smartphones automatically log date and time data against each file, so there’s no need to get a copy of the day’s paper to prove the date, although it wouldn’t hurt if you had one handy (best keep page 3 out of the shot though). Having photographic evidence of the state of the house and room to be plastered before you start any work, means you have proof of any damage that was there before you arrived.
Agree in writing with the homeowner that they will remove or cover any furniture, remove skirtings’ and sockets or radiators, and anything else that may have been agreed (i.e. they may be suppling some of the materials). If the homeowner does not keep to their end of the deal ensure you photograph this as well, as if you end up charging more in labour costs you can prove that these extras were outside the original scope of the work. Having the scope of work agreed in writing as well, will back you up should the homeowner claim that you have failed to complete part of the job.
When you quote for a job and can clearly see that there will be problems with plastering, either due to cracks in the walls, damp or other issues then ensure this is discussed and agreed with the homeowner. They may expect you to be a miracle worker, remedying underlying issues that are nothing to do with plastering, so by making them see what can be realistically achieved you can both start off on the same page. It is a good idea to get any agreements that you will not be liable for issues arising due to damp or structural problems in writing as well.
Asking for a deposit, if only to cover the materials, is one way of sounding out potentially difficult customers. Most reasonable people will be happy to pay in advance for the materials and if they say no, it could be a good warning sign that there may be issues with payment on completion. There are stories of people organising work then being on holiday for long periods when the job has finished, making obtaining payment a nightmare. Check with the homeowners that they are not planning a two month vacation just as you are due to finish plastering.
Providing a method statement to all customers is a good way of being transparent with the homeowner, without spending time repeating yourself and explaining what you are doing. If there is no confusion with what work you are there to do, and in what order, the chances are you will be left largely alone. Terms and conditions, including when payment is due, are also worth providing on every quote and it is important that the homeowner signs something to agree to those terms, which can then be used to prove your case should it be necessary. This is considered to be a contract and should the customer threaten to take legal action (it’s not common, but it does happen occasionally) then you can rest easy knowing you have all the paperwork to back you up.
Unfortunately there is no such thing as mybuilder.com for customers, so with all new customers you have no way of telling, except for your instincts, whether they are going to be reasonable or not. For this reason alone it is worth taking the steps outlined above, and as a bonus it also makes you look professional.