Builders always get the blame, but there's another side to every story. HESTER LACEY reports
The cowboy builder is the stuff of legend; a lazy, greedy, unreliable, tea-slurping, Sun-reading nightmare. He'll run over time: a week's work will take months. His original budget will magically double, and then double again. And he'll never, ever, turn up when he says he will. Along with estate agents and lawyers, builders are a profession that everyone loves to hate. Earlier this year, Elizabeth Hurley and Hugh Grant had a run-in with the firm entrusted with the refurbishment of their pounds 1.5m Chelsea home. Grant complained that, after two years, the house was still unfinished. "We haven't moved in because of a succession of lazy, inept, pretentious builders who have supposedly been doing the place up. It's hideous." The said builders, according to Ms Hurley, were "beastly". In a concerted display of solidarity, every columnist on Fleet Street weighed in with their own horror stories; colourful tales of absconding, criminal, incompetent and otherwise useless builders.

And yet. Could it be that builders are unfairly maligned? Talk to builders themselves and you find there is a flip side to the cowboy builder image. Most have a horror story or two of their own, and these concern cowboy clients. A project for a cowboy client will change from day to day, and expand to take in tasks that were never in the original quote. He will complain about the finished task, inventing faults to justify not paying. And when everything is completed he is quite capable of ignoring the bill, which he had no intention of ever settling anyway.

Ken Smith (not his real name) runs a small building firm that employs four people. Last year he took on an initially straightforward job that involved refurbishing and partly rebuilding an extension. "It quickly turned out that there were some structural problems that we couldn't have foreseen. I informed the owner immediately and explained that it would mean extra work," says Ken. "He said that was fine and accepted my new quote for the work. We managed to get it all pretty much finished within the original amount of time that I'd said, but then he started picking and querying, and wanting a second opinion." The "second opinion" came from another builder - who turned out to be the owner's brother. "He said that we should have been able to do the work for the original amount I'd quoted, and that the new charge wasn't justified."

Ken has yet to receive any money at all, and solicitors are being instructed. He is still hoping that things can be resolved without resorting to the law. "I can't afford to go to court. It could finish me off financially. But at the same time I can't afford to lose the money these customers owe me." This is not the first time it has happened to him, but in the past, with smaller amounts outstanding, he has not taken action. "I've had bouncing cheques and even one woman who laughed in my face: she said, `I haven't got the money, but you've done the work, you can't undo it, so there's nothing you can do'. I was pretty shocked by that one. These days I tend to ask for at least part of the money up front."

Another builder, who has reached the court stage with a client, is bitter. "I've been running my firm for 20 years and this could bring it down and put my boys on the dole, not to mention myself and my wife who does our paperwork." He is so furious with his customer, who is claiming that the work he did on a roof and conservatory was sub-standard, that he can barely get his words out. "I am an honest businessman and I expect to be treated properly by my clients. I can't believe that this person can turn round and refuse to pay me for a job that has taken four months full-time labour. The woman was always making tea and handing out biscuits, she was all charm. Then she just turned into a snake, all venom. She says we haven't done what she asked, but she was watching the work as it went on and never said a word."

According to Brian Flint, deputy director general of the Federation of Master Builders (FMB), these are not isolated incidents. "The phenomenon of domestic clients using a bona fide builder and then lying and cheating and not wishing to pay pervades this trade," he says. "Firms go bust over cases like this. A lot are driven to the wall. And it is quite wilful on the part of the clients, because they know they can get away with it, especially in cases of small amounts of money. If you're a small builder and you do a job for pounds 10,000, that's a lot of money to you - but if you don't get paid you probably can't afford to go to court to get that money back."

He has, he says, been approached by the consumer programme Watchdog a number of times over cases involving members of the FMB, but none of the incidents they were researching ever made it onto the television. "In all the cases they came back to me and said `It's not the builder, it's the client'."

Builders who do get caught out by cowboy clients aren't entirely helpless, however. One builder, incensed with a customer who refused to pay for a new roof, went back with his team and stripped off every last tile. Another, who had refurbished a pub and found that his bill was ignored, persuaded the owners to settle up by striding in with his men, armed with 14lb hammers, and threatening to demolish all the work they had done. Told that this was no way to go about doing business, he was unrepentant: "How do I get my money otherwise?"