Consumer rights: House nightmare – from the builder's point of view

Customer who ignored advice won't pay the full amount
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The Independent Online

Q. I have just spent 10 days doing building work on a customer's home.

Before we started the work, which included laying a wooden floor, rebuilding her porch and putting in new garage doors, I visited, measured up, gave her information and recommendations on all the materials she needed and gave her a detailed quote for labour. She bought and paid for the materials but some of them weren't as good quality as I had advised.

We agreed that she would pay half of the money for the labour when half of the work was done and the rest on completion. Along the way she changed her mind several times on various details and, as a result, the whole thing has taken longer than it should have done. However, I like to keep my customers happy and do the best possible job so that they recommend me to other people, so in the end I just charged her the agreed outstanding amount.

She has now paid me but held back half of that amount (a quarter of the total) because she says she's not happy with the wooden floor and wants me to put it right. The floor has been laid to a very high standard. It's true that it would have looked better if she'd bought the more expensive wood I suggested in the first place, but I can't change anything without taking up the whole floor and laying it again with different wood – all of which would cost me more than she still owes me. I have tried to explain all that but she isn't listening. I'm out of pocket as it is. I feel she is trying to get the job on the cheap. How do I get her to hand over the rest of the money?

FL, London

A. This is a difficult one. If your customer had written to me she'd have said she withheld a quarter of your money until you put right a wooden floor that hadn't been finished properly. She'd have asked me how to get you to come back and finish the job. She's seeing the end result and it's not as good as she imagined when she decided to have the work done. You're seeing work well done despite the inferior materials that were her choice.

It's very difficult for a third party, without any experience of these types of jobs, to decide who is right and who is wrong. So you need an independent expert to give an assessment of the job and negotiate a settlement. I hope you still have all the paperwork, including details of the materials you advised her to buy. If the expert says the floor is well laid and convinces your customer that the fault lies in the materials she bought, she may give in and pay up. Do you belong to a trade association which offers a dispute resolution service? If so, I suggest it as a way forward.

If you can't get the situation resolved through mediation, you have two choices: cut your losses and walk away or make a claim in the county court through the process that deals with small claims. I wonder whether you took any photographs of the disputed work. If not, it's not likely that your customer will let you back into the house to take some; without detailed photos it's your word against hers in court.

The judge isn't likely to be a flooring expert and, unless he or she decides an independent assessor should assess the quality of the work. it will come down to who does the best job of convincing the judge that they are in the right. You do have your workers who can act as witnesses but they may not be seen to be unbiased. You'll have to decide whether to take your chances and risk losing the court fees and the time the case takes.

Q. My parents have recently bought a stair lift which cost them several thousand pounds that they can't afford. Someone called at the house and I get the impression they stayed until my dad cracked and signed an agreement. The irony is that they can both get up and down the stairs fine at the moment and have always intended to sell the house and move into a flat near me when they get too much to cope with. I think they've been pressured into this agreement. I've called the company and asked them to cancel it but they say it's too late and that they won't deal with me. Can it be cancelled and is there anyone we can complain to?

JO, Surrey

A. Pressure selling to elderly people of items such as stair lifts isn't a new complaint. As you weren't there at the time it might be difficult to get to the bottom of how this visit came about. Try to find out from your parents whether the representative of this company turned up on the doorstep without invitation or visited following an initial unsolicited phone call.

If, as it seems from what you say, your parents had an unsolicited call from the rep, they should have had a seven-day cooling off period and that should have been put in writing. If it wasn't, the contract is void and they should get their money back. Stair lifts are mobility items and so the company selling them is obliged to carry out a proper needs assessment. It sounds unlikely that they did.

Get on to the company straight away. If you still get nowhere, call your local trading standards department at your local authority.

Do you have a consumer complaint?

Write to Julian Knight at The Independent on Sunday, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5HF

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