How to start up a plastering business

Plasterer working in living room next to the windowsIf you're an experienced plasterer you might decide to set up your own business, offering a range of different plastering, dry lining and other services. Our easy-to-follow guide will help you start up and run your own plastering business.

Research your target market

It's very important to research your market properly. Try to find out as much as you can about the level of demand for your services, and about how much competition there is to meet that demand.

Customers

Think about how many people are likely to use your services. These might include home owners, residential landlords and owners of commercial property, as well as other construction businesses that need plastering services on a regular basis.

Domestic work

Pay attention to the type of housing in your area. For example, are houses large or small? Are they old or new? Do they appear well kept or run down? Look at exterior coatings - what type are they? Have they been renewed recently? Is accommodation mainly owner-occupied or mainly rented? Is some owned by the local authority or by a housing association? Are there many buildings with special requirements, for example very old buildings, listed buildings and those sited within a Conservation Area?

Try to match the range of products and services that you offer to the needs of local customers. Think about whether or not you are prepared to travel to other areas to do work.

Work for other businesses and organisations

Think about other buildings in your area. Shops, pubs, offices, churches, schools and so on may all require plastering and rendering services at some point and are all potential clients.

If you offer specialist services such as custom-made fibrous plaster mouldings there may be some demand from companies such as film studios and theatres from time to time.

Once you have identified who your potential customers are, you can direct your advertising efforts at them.

Contract and sub-contract work

Try approaching other businesses that may need your services. You could, for example, leave your details with local building contractors, decorators, property developers, interior designers and shopfitters. Other large plastering firms might also require sub-contractors on a regular basis. Consider approaching your local authority - these are major users of construction services and may be prepared to include your business on a list of 'approved contractors'. Housing associations may also be potential clients. You might consider trying to become an insurance-approved contractor.

Large organisations who invite firms to tender for contract work may be reluctant to use a newly established business. Also, a young business may have difficulty in funding a large contract, as many things may have to be paid for well before any payment is received. But it may be worth finding out who is responsible for putting work out to tender in large organisations such as housing associations, local authorities and big construction firms. Try to find out how the tender process works and what you would have to do if you wanted to tender for a contract.

Establishing the level of competition

Once you have decided who your customers might be, you need to find out how well they are already served.

How many other plastering firms are there in your area? A look through the relevant classifications ("plastering and screeding", perhaps also "plaster ware") on Yell.com and other similar online directories will give you an idea of how many plastering businesses there are in your area. You could also look at local print directories. Bear in mind that other types of business, for example general builders, may also do plastering and rendering work - take a look at their advertisements too.

Look at some of your competitors' advertisements and websites:

  • what services do they offer
  • do they offer any specialist services, for example antique plaster moulding renovation or high performance floor screed systems
  • do they advertise any special features, for example 'all work guaranteed', 'no job too small', '25 years experience' and so on
  • do they belong to any trade associations, for example the FPDC, the Guild of Master Craftsmen or the Federation of Master Builders
  • what sort of impression does their advertisement give you (for example, does the firm come across as small and friendly, large and efficient, good value, traditional, upmarket)

Remember that, unfortunately, you may also face competition from 'cowboys' and 'moonlighters' who do some plastering work for cash but don't advertise anywhere. These often quote very low prices but fail to match the quality of professional firms. Many have no insurance and some are blatantly dishonest.

Research current trends, plus legal and tax issues

Price your services

How will you decide on your prices?

First decide how you will charge for the work you do. For example, you might:

  • charge for your services on an hourly or daily basis, adding to this the cost of any materials and other items (for example ornamental plaster ware) you supply
  • charge for certain services on the basis of the area to be covered. For example, you might charge a certain price per square metre to plaster an interior wall
  • charge for certain jobs on a fixed rate basis. For example, you might work out a standard basic charge for hacking off and re-rendering the outside of a small semi-detached house
  • charge for plaster moulding work (if you do it) on a per-item basis

You may decide to use different methods of costing for different jobs, depending on who the customer is and what type of work you will be doing.

It is very important that you set your charges carefully. You must make sure when deciding on what to charge that, assuming you get enough work, you will earn enough to cover all of your operating costs including your own drawings.

Also consider the following points when setting your charges:

  • what do your competitors charge for similar services
  • do you aim to win business away from your competitors with attractive pricing
  • will you vary your rate depending on the type and complexity of the work involved
  • will you make a profit on materials and services that you buy in or will you pass these on at cost? If you decide to add a mark-up (profit), decide how much this will be
  • what will you include in your prices, and what will you charge for as an extra? For example, will your quotations include the cost of skip hire and scaffolding where needed? Make it clear to the customer what your prices do and do not include

Quote or estimate

If you give a quote for a job, that is a fixed price. Once it has been accepted by the customer the price can't be changed, even if there is a lot more work to do than you realised when you prepared the quote. So your quotes should give precise details of what is covered and make it quite clear that any variations or extras not covered by the quote will be charged for as extras.

An estimate is not a fixed price, it is just your best guess of what the job is likely to cost. You are not bound by it. It is perfectly acceptable to provide several estimates, each taking into account different circumstances from best to worst case scenario.

Where necessary explain to customers what could lead to the price for a job having to change - for example the discovery that a ceiling to be plastered needs re-boarding first. And if the customer asks for extra work to be done during the course of a job, be clear about how this will affect the overall cost.

It is usual to provide estimates and quotes free of charge on a no-obligation basis. You might, though, decide to make a charge for more complex and time consuming consultancy work - perhaps you will refund this charge if it leads on to a substantial contract.

Trade rates

Clients that are other businesses might expect you to offer them a special 'trade rate'. Large organisations that invite firms such as yours to tender for contract work will also expect your rates to be very competitive, as will insurance companies.

Think carefully about whether or not scaffolding will be needed on a job, and be clear about whether your quote includes this cost. Health and safety legislation means that there are strict limits on the types of work at height that can be done off a ladder.

Be aware that many of your clients will get quotes from several plasterers, so you need to be able to quote accurately and competitively. However, don't cut your own throat. Many clients value good quality workmanship and efficient service and are prepared to pay a realistic price for it. Above all, make sure that you don't end up working at a loss because your quote was too low!

Special guides are available to help you when pricing all aspects of construction work including plastering and rendering. They give up to date advice on what rates to charge for particular types of jobs. Some materials suppliers may also help you to work out what quantities you will need for a particular job, and the cost.

Advertising

It's important to advertise your business effectively, to let your potential customers know who you are, where you are and what you can do for them. Most of your domestic customers will not require plastering and rendering services regularly and may not have the name of a plasterer to hand.

Advertising and marketing

Now that so many people search for things like plastering services online, a good website can be a very good way of advertising your business and reaching a wider range of customers. Think about getting listed in online directories - perhaps 'contact an expert' directories run by some trade associations.

Social media can also be an effective way of marketing your business, staying in touch with previous customers and making contact with potential new ones. Think too about using relevant forums and perhaps a blog (although be aware that some forum websites ban blatant advertising in forum posts). You could sign up to a review website for trades-people such as Checkatrade. You could also consider trying to obtain work through job-referral websites like Mybuilder.com and Rated People too.

An entry in a local print directory can be an effective way of advertising your business. However, many of your competitors will have done the same so try to make your business stand out.

Some firms spend a lot of money on large, eye-catching display advertisements. You will have to decide whether to compete head on with these firms, or look for a different way of attracting customers. You could, for example:

  • focus on your own unique selling point (USP) in your advertising material. This might be, for example, "25 years experience", "Family run firm" or even simply "Friendly, honest service"
  • advertise in other ways. For example, you could distribute a paper flyer, plastic card or sticker with your business name and telephone number on it as part of a mail-shot that you do, perhaps in the early spring
  • look into becoming listed by an insurer, specialist helpline or directory as an 'approved tradesman' (most of these organisations operate a quality screening process and some will only list firms that have been trading for at least two years)
  • contact local residential landlords associations to enquire about being included in their suppliers guide

The important thing is to tell people as many of the good things about your business as possible in your advertisements, particularly things that distinguish your business from your competitors.

Other ways of advertising

Your local paper may run a regular 'contact the experts' advertising feature. Remember that your vehicle can be a very effective means of advertising if you have it sign-written and keep it clean and presentable. You might consider having a large sign made that you can display outside places where you are working - but make sure that your client has no objections before putting it up.

Think about other ways of promoting your business. You could, for example, sponsor a local sports club or event.

Word of mouth

Word of mouth recommendations are very valuable to your business. Everyone has heard horror stories about 'cowboy' tradesmen who bodge jobs and swindle their customers - and they want to be sure that you're not going to do the same to them. You will have to earn your reputation through good, reliable workmanship - but even small things like politeness and considerateness can pay big dividends. Make sure that any employees that you have are good ambassadors for your business too.

Your work rate

Assuming that you get a fairly steady stream of work, the amount that you can earn depends partly on the number of days you work and the length of your working day.

You may decide to stick to normal business hours, for example 8.30 am until 5.30 pm Monday to Friday and perhaps Saturdays too. Or you may decide to work longer hours - perhaps an earlier start. Remember that bad weather can disrupt outdoor work. Perhaps you are prepared to work very long hours when the weather is fair and your services are in demand, taking some time off during quieter periods. Bear in mind that noisy jobs like hacking off old plaster or render may cause a disturbance for neighbours if you start work too early in the morning or continue late into the evening.

You should have a good idea of how long certain types of jobs will take you. It is very important when quoting for a job that you can make an accurate estimate of how long it will take. It's no good basing your quote on two days work if it ends up taking you four!

The speed at which you work depends on your own skills and experience and on the type and standard of the work that you do. Your charges should reflect all of these things.

Non-productive time

Unfortunately, not all of every working day will be spent earning money. Here are a few examples of reasons why you may sometimes find yourself working hard but earning nothing:

  • visiting sites to cost new work and give quotes
  • finishing off jobs that take you longer than you had thought (possibly due to unforeseen problems, such as an unsound structure discovered after hacking off the old surface coating)
  • re-doing faulty work (perhaps an exterior render that has been ruined by a sudden unexpected cloudburst)
  • travelling to and from jobs, or to get tools or materials from a supplier
  • repairing tools or vehicles

Sometimes you may find that you are unable to work at all, because:

  • the weather is too bad to work outside and you don't have any indoor work scheduled
  • you are waiting for materials to be delivered
  • a vital tool or piece of equipment is broken - or your van is out of action
  • another contractor has fallen behind with his or her part of the project
  • unforeseen problems crop up on a job - for example a wall turns out to have serious damp problems
  • you or a key employee are ill

Take all of these factors into account when you are estimating the maximum number of productive hours that you can work each month. Be realistic. When you plan your working schedules, try to minimise the amount of time that will be wasted. For example, you may be able to build a contingency into your work schedule so that you can move straight on to another job if for any reason you are unable to work at the original one.

Decide which services to offer

There is quite a wide range of plastering, dry lining, rendering and screeding services that you might decide to offer. Work is likely to fall into two broad categories - new-build work and renovations. New-build work might include new houses and other buildings, extensions and loft conversions. Renovation work might include everything from making good small areas after minor building work has been carried out to re-finishing whole houses.

Within these broad categories, you might decide to undertake one, some or all of the following activities:

Traditional services

  • interior plastering and skimming using cement and gypsum. This might include new work, making good after other building work, re-skimming, smoothing over old textured finishes, plaster repairs and other remedial plastering
  • Artexing and other textured interior finish applications
  • dry lining
  • installing coving and other basic moulded plaster ware
  • exterior rendering, dashing and other finishes such as self-colour, brick and stone effect render systems, roughcast, Tyrolean and stucco
  • floor screeding

Many of the above will involve preparation such as hacking off an old coating beforehand. Once the job is complete it is likely that other work, such as site clearance and waste disposal, will be required. It's usually advantageous to be able to offer a complete 'start to finish' service.

Specialist services

There is a range of specialist services that you might decide to offer your clients. Depending on your skills and facilities, you might undertake some of these yourself or engage the services of a specialist. Examples include:

  • plaster moulding fabrication and repairs, perhaps including custom mouldings, in-situ moulding (for example 'running' a traditional Victorian cornice), and maybe the restoration of antique plaster ware
  • special effects plastering (for example applying special polished plaster finishes to achieve a marbled effect)
  • traditional lime rendering, and heritage plastering using lime mortar or clay mixed with fibre, hemp or animal hair
  • traditional decorative plastering known as pargeting (also referred to as 'pinking' in some parts of the country)
  • acrylic render application
  • heat-proof plaster application (for example around stoves and fireplaces)
  • machine plastering
  • insulating systems - including internal plasters and external renders that contain insulating materials, and systems that combine rigid bonded insulation panels with an internal plaster or an external render finish
  • installation of brick and stone-effect external slips
  • suspended ceiling installation
  • concrete etching and preparation
  • concrete polishing
  • laying specialist floor screed systems, for example pumped and flowing screeds such as anhydrite
  • installing fire-proof panelling

Other services

You might also decide to offer some other services, for example:

  • general building and concrete work
  • partition stud-work and other carpentry
  • tiling (wall and floor)
  • wall-tie replacement
  • patio building
  • damp-proofing and timber treatment, including specialist salt-resistant plastering to make good after remedial damp-proofing work has been carried out
  • painting and decorating

'Added-value' services

You may decide to offer your customers a range of attractive 'added value' services. These might include, for example, free estimates and quotations, insurance-backed guarantees on all new work, a freephone telephone line or a 'no job too small' promise.

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