Consuming Issues: How to stop the builder cowboys ripping you off

Paying someone to do work around the house is notoriously tricky. Time and again, undercover footage by television shows has shown how tradesmen charge a king's ransom for shoddy work.

Assuming they don't turn up wearing a stetson, how do you check that a builder is not a cowboy? There are few national brands in home repairs or extensions, making it harder to compare reputations and, by its nature, the work tends to be infrequent, making it less likely householders will have experience of hiring a builder or acting as a project manager.

The consumer group Which? has published a guide, Hiring Builders and Professionals, with the appealing slogan: "Get the work done without getting ripped off". It gives advice on hiring tradespeople to do work around the home such as extensions, attics, electrics and plumbing. It also provides a guide to hiring less frequently used services such as antiques restorers, locksmiths and piano tuners and "professionals": accountants, estate agents, surveyors, financial advisers and many others. There are also tips on how to complain, directly and through professional bodies and ombudsmen services.

Here are some of the book's suggestions for hiring builders and other tradesmen and women. While there are no guarantees – and in any case many professionals do a perfectly good job – a little preparation should minimise your chances of poor workmanship.

BUILDERS

After checking Which?'s local site for recommendations, ask a builder for three phone numbers of customers for whom they have carried out similar work recently. Follow up with the referees and establish whether the builder is courteous, capable and reliable. Check they are financially secure by asking for phone numbers of suppliers such as a brick manufacturer or cement firm and ask them how long they have to wait for payment. Good builders tend to have waiting lists and cannot start immediately. The same questions should be asked of them as of other trades (below): What will be the cost of the work (get this put in writing)?; is VAT included?; who will take away waste materials?; how would a complaint be dealt with?; do they have insurance for damage to your home or neighbouring properties?

CARPENTERS AND JOINERS

Joiners cut and fit joints that don't require nails, such as a chest of drawers, while carpenters are general woodworkers who build stud walls, floors and staircases and fit worktops and kitchens. It's best to get someone specialising in the type of work, such as building staircases, or who has done it frequently. Details of qualified and experienced carpenters can be found at trustmark.org.uk, which audits skills and carries out on-site inspections.

FENCERS

Which? favours hiring professional fencers, rather than doing the job yourself, because professionals will advise on the best style of fence and remove and dispose of the old one. An online directory of accredited companies is kept by the the Fencing Contractors Association at fencingcontractors.org. Ask how long the new fence will last and whether a guarantee is given.

GAS INSTALLERS/PLUMBER

Anyone working on a boiler or a gas cooker must legally be registered. Corgi is the old registration scheme; Gas Safe is the new one (enter a postcode search into gassaferegister.co.uk). Ask what a contractor's hourly rate is before calling them out. Be wary of anyone charging more for the first hour. If not an emergency, obtain references and several quotes for the job.

ELECTRICIANS

"Sparkies" should have a Part B qualification to carry out most jobs and you can ask for proof of this. Check if they are bringing along assistants who may push up the bill. The electrician is responsible for any work carried out by subcontractors.

PAINTERS/PLASTERERS

Aside from acting on personal recommendation, householders can check a scheme that purports to list high-quality decorators. Painters and decorators must have been trading for at least a year and have three references checked before they can join the Painting and Decorating Association (paintinganddecoratingassociation.co.uk). Bear in mind that plastering is a separate trade and decorators are probably not the right people to do plastering, unless they have specific training. Some plasterers have worked only on new buildings, so check they can repair old plaster if required.

ROOFERS

Again, it's better to hire a trained roofer than ask a builder to do the job. A list of registered roofers is kept by the National Federation of Roofing Contractors (nfrc.co.uk). A guarantee should be given.

Heroes & Villians

HERO: Ben & Jerry's

The middle of Fairtrade Fortnight and hats off to Ben & Jerry's. The Vermont-based ice-cream maker will convert all its ingredients to Fairtrade in Europe by the end of next year and in North America by the end of 2013 (with the exception of sugar). Given the scale of the business, this is no mean feat. Supplies that pay a higher price to farmers will have to be bought for 58 flavours in 26 countries – 121 different chunks and swirls, including sugar, cocoa, banana, coffee, vanilla, almonds, walnuts, pineapple, macadamia nuts and peppermint. Jerry Greenfield, above, who put the Jerry into the company and who is a bit touchy about it losing its halo under its corporate owner Unilever, said: "Fairtrade is about making sure people get their fair share of the pie. The whole concept of Fairtrade goes to the heart of our values and sense of right and wrong. Nobody wants to buy something that was made by exploiting somebody else." And on that, he's more right than wrong.

VILLAIN: BT

BT is the only leading provider to offer 'renewable' phone deals, where once the initial tie-in ends a contract is automatically renewed for the same period unless the customer cancels in advance. Having received complaints about BT's contracts, the consumer group Which? called BT 10 times posing as customers. Three in 10 BT sales reps didn't say the contract was renewable until researchers finally prompted them. Peter Vicary-Smith, chief executive of Which?, said: "We think BT is pulling a fast one."

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