Getting the decorators in needn't be a nightmare.
A recent survey shows that employing a decorator is only slightly less worrying than taking your car to the garage, asking for a bank loan or getting the builders in.

At the best dinner parties, horror stories abound of paint-splattered houses, mis-matched patterns and unfinished jobs. Valerie Hind, who has had a series of decorators at her London home, admits to "lying in bed worrying how it's going to turn out". Her first experience was of a young Irish decorator who spent ages covering his dread-locked hair only to spray everything but his head in paint. "He offered to take pounds 50 off the bill to pay for cleaning my new sofa," says Valerie. "I was so fed up I just accepted, but it was ruined."

Tony, recommended by a friend, sticks in my mind. For exterior work he was a "pure professional" even painting drainpipes and door steps without charging extra. However, inside, his skills were rather less apparent. He used paint sparingly, and was more likely to dunk his biscuit in a cup of tea than dip his brush in the paint tin, leaving his own style of paint effects on the stairwell. His piece de resistance was flooding the hall when he tried to unhinge the radiator. Tony wanted cash in hand, no questions asked. Nigel on the other hand, seemed more professional, that is, he charged VAT. However, he not only hung embossed paper upside down, but also convinced me it could hang either way.

Another decorator, who prefers to remain anonymous, pre-empts situations like this by telling clients his cautionary tale about the woman who made him paint her kitchen walls three times until she was happy. It usually works. No one wants to appear as pernickety as her.

However, it would be unfair to suggest that everyone's experience of decorators is a bad one. Cathy and Andy Woosey employ a painter and decorator who is "just superb". Recommended to them by the builder who fitted their kitchen, Peter the Painter, as he's now called, has been working his way round their Victorian terrace in south London.

"He has such a professional approach," says Cathy. "He's tidy and works really hard, and he's also good company." When the Wooseys moved in just over three years ago, they had great plans and no children. "We didn't enjoy the boring bits of decorating like the preparing," says Cathy. "And once we had the children we realised we'd rather pay someone to get it done and do a better job."

Cathy didn't get other quotes before giving Peter the work. "I checked with a friend to see what she'd paid someone else to do a similar job and it seemed on a par." Peter, a former musician who found he could make more money out of paint, hasn't had to advertise; Cathy has already recommended him to friends.

Dulux's Select Decorator Service appears to be trying to bridge the gap between employing a decorator through informal recommendations and having to respond blind to a small ad in the Yellow Pages. Homeowners are put in touch with decorators recommended, approved and guaranteed by ICI Dulux. Paul Hayward from Dulux says, "We're only interested in decorators who are serious about their profession. There's a strict vetting procedure including site visits to jobs in hand and at least three references are sought from homeowners, as well as checks at the decorator's supplier to ensure they run a good account." Smoking on the job will earn a potential member a black mark.

It's a free service for consumers who are asked when and what kind of work is required when they call the information line and if any special paint effects are needed. The adviser finds a member in the area and checks their availability and willingness to carry out the job.

The big selling point is that ICI Paints will "guarantee the work carried out by a member for 12 months from the date of completion" provided "any liquid surface coating used" is from the Dulux trade range or an approved substitute.

So what if you want to use wallpaper or specialist paints? "As long as the main paint areas are Dulux you're covered," says Mr Hayward. "We'd rectify any wallpaper problems if the product was faulty. But if none of the products are Dulux we can only recommend the decorator." And that means you'll lose the workmanship guarantee.

Members, who are charged an annual fee of pounds 195, have to give customers a fair and competitive price that includes VAT and no hidden extras. Mr Hayward agrees that a Select decorator may be more expensive, but the "price quoted is the one you pay".

Homeowners are free to compare quotes with other tradesman of their choice and members will be removed from the scheme if they are found to be overcharging. The customer benefits from a conciliation and arbitration service and a deposit protection scheme.

Fewer than 2 per cent of Select decorators are women but the number is growing as are requests from consumers for women decorators. Search the small ads in family-targeted publications and you'll find "child friendly" decorators and "gentleman builders". Niche marketing is alive and well.

Dulux Select Decorator: 0345 697668.