Consumer rights: A bumped-up bill for a bad job by the builder

What are your rights in a dispute with a tradesman? ... A car-rental firm and the long pursuit of an apology ... And who should you turn to for investment advice?


Q. We needed some work doing on our house and a friend recommended a builder. He quoted £13,000 for three weeks' work. But the results were poor and he ended up charging us £5,000 more than that first quote.



We complained. He made some attempt to make things look better, but it was still a bad job. He came back to do some more work at our house a few months later and I asked for a refund. He refused, saying that if I had been unhappy, I shouldn't have paid him at the time. What are my rights? Is there a time limit for demanding a refund? And is it legal to charge so much extra over an original quote?



PD, London

A. The curse of overcharging and shoddy workmanship seems rife in the building trade. That said, there is more choice available now, so I'm surprised you asked this man in for a second go. However, the legal case is clear, though enforcing it may be a different matter.

Peter McCarthy, a lawyer at consumer group Which?, says: "The builder has a duty to exercise reasonable skill and care when providing his service. If he fails to do so, he will be in breach of contract. He will be liable for the cost of rectifying the work that he did badly or shouldn't have undertaken. You have six years to take a claim for breach of contract to court, and paying him does not prevent you from doing this."

He adds: "If you agreed a fixed price for the work, the builder should not have charged more unless you asked for additional work to be done, or you agreed he should receive more."

However, the builder may try and argue that as you paid the extra £5,000, you in effect agreed he was entitled to this sum.

For future reference, it may be worth using a tradesman belonging to the Federation of Master Builders (www.fmb.org.uk). Brian Berry, director of external affairs at the FMB, says members currently have a complaint rate of less than 0.02 per cent and it has an impartial system in place to deal with problems.

He adds: "A quote from an FMB builder should include the price and what is included in that price. Contracts should always state how long the project will take, when it will start and whether the work will be covered by a warranty."



***

Q. On a trip to Italy last summer, I left a bag in a Europcar rental vehicle. My hotel contacted the local branch, which said it had the bag and I could pick it up from reception. I took a taxi to the branch but no one knew anything about the bag. I returned empty-handed and the bag was never found.

When I contacted the firm to complain, things got even worse. My first letter, to the Italian office, went unacknowledged. I wrote to the UK customer services team in August. I had to chase this up and received a number of "stalling" emails, saying it was following up with the Italian branch. Two months later, I had still heard nothing. When I wrote again, it asked me to enclose the various bits of correspondence. I did this, but still heard nothing. This was in late December. I feel Europcar has not taken my complaint seriously. I'm not after compensation, just an apology.

KS, Sunderland



A. This was a relatively minor complaint compounded by a negligent response. I think you have been remarkably patient. You admit that leaving the bag was your fault but are rightly astonished that it appeared to have been found and then disappeared. Europcar customer services has been terribly inefficient, particularly the Italian branch.

The company was quick to respond once we got involved, and finally said sorry: "Europcar would like to apologise to your reader for the delay in replying to his correspondence regarding his lost bag following his rental with us."

However, it still had no explanation for the vanishing bag: "Unfortunately, Europcar in Rome has no record of the reader's hotel contacting them, or indeed the lost bag being found. We are sorry for the breakdown in communication that arose on this occasion and the subsequent inconvenience this caused. We would like to assure your reader that his experience does not reflect Europcar's usual high standards of customer service."

I think "breakdown in communication" is euphemistic and "high standards of customer service" optimistic. Getting companies to admit they are wrong is a small triumph in itself and I hope this resolves the case to your satisfaction. I assume you have claimed for the lost bag on your travel insurance and so have some recompense.



***

Q. I recently inherited some money and don't have any idea how to invest it. The adviser in my local bank branch is keen to invest it for me, but as it is quite a substantial sum, I want to make sure I'm doing the right thing. Can you advise?

GB, Bristol



A. A word of warning when dealing with bank advisers: they are allowed to give you advice but can only offer a limited range of products. More often than not, therefore, the products they sell won't be the best on the market.

Therefore, look for an independent financial adviser in your local area. An IFA will be free to select from the whole market of financial products. This process doesn't have to be more expensive than going through a bank.

Websites such as www.financial planning.org.uk and www.unbiased.co.uk have listings. You should look for someone who is certified or chartered.

Bruce Wilson, managing director of financial planning group Helm Godfrey, says: "You need someone who will take your individual circumstances into account. They should be looking at your willingness to take risks with your money, how long you want to invest for and how this sum fits into your overall wealth. They should demonstrate professionalism and independence.

"It is also very important that it is someone with whom you feel you can build a relationship. If at any point you are uncomfortable with the advice being offered, or feel you are being pushed to buy something, just move on."

Mr Wilson adds that most advisers will offer a free first meeting or telephone interview, where they can help judge your circumstances and the most appropriate level of advice. You can use this meeting to assess whether you feel comfortable with them.

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