Don't hire cowboys; you'll only shoot yourself in the foot

Botched building jobs cost us nearly £2bn a year, but we can fight back, says Kate Hughes

Letting strangers into your house is an experiment in trust at the best of times. But when it's tradesmen who are about to pull your house apart and put it back together again, you're upping the stakes. A reliable, reputable and reasonable builder is like gold dust, with the power to turn a stressful renovation into a walk in the park. But the endless home-improvement horror stories raise the question – how can you tell a good brickie, sparkie or plumber from a bad one?

The home-improvement risks are high, and getting higher. The rising costs of transport and raw materials and the shortage of tradesmen are pushing up the costs of such work, according to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. Its Building Cost Information Service (www.bcis.co.uk), which gives up-to-date information on what construction and renovation should cost consumers, has shown that the average cost of home-improvement work has risen by 20 per cent in two years.

But cowboy builders cause damage worth £3.9bn a year, affecting 20 per cent of homeowners who "get the builders in". One in 10 suffer damage worth more than £1,000, according to Abbey. And almost half of the botched jobs are paid for by the customers.

"The potential damage that could be caused by rogue tradesmen is staggering," says Tony Beckwith of Abbey. "Anyone looking to hire a contractor to work on their home must ensure that they have a reputable background. Using workmen who are less than reputable may seem like the cheaper option in the first instance, but you may not have an enforceable contract or any comebacks if the job goes wrong – and that could end up costing a lot more in the long run."



Rogue tradesmen

There are more than 180,000 construction companies operating in the UK, and logic suggests that some of them will be dodgy, says Brian Berry of the Federation of Master Builders, which has a searchable database of members at www.myhammer.co.uk.

"Watch out for cold callers or tradesmen coming to the door," he says. "A good tradesman is a busy tradesman, so these door-steppers are very unlikely to be reputable." They often target the vulnerable or elderly. Tradesmen employing a hard sell, or making offers of a "today only" deal, are also to be avoided at all costs. Make your excuses, make something up if you have to, and close the door, suggests Berry.

Other warning signs are tradesmen who can start work on a large project very soon, or who avoid giving references or insist on being paid in cash. Never pay in advance or part-way through, only when the job is finished. Preferably, pay by card. Remember that the price quoted should cover materials as well as labour, so don't get sucked in by demands for cash to cover expenses. Check that the workman or woman is who they say they are by calling the organisations they claim to be a member of.

Get at least three quotes before you arrange a contract to give you the lie of the land. The BCIS website, which breaks down costs by region, is also useful for checking that your quotes are in the right ballpark. "Go in with a list of exactly what you want and stick to it," Berry says. "That way, no one can move the goalposts later." If a quote looks very cheap, it is probably too cheap and one to avoid.



Find the right person for the job

Anyone who is anyone in the trade says that the best advertising is word of mouth. Recommendations from friends and family after a good job done are by far the best credentials. But if no one you know has had work done recently, many trade bodies, consumer charities and accreditation organisations will have a web- or phone-based search facility of tradesmen in your area. Always look for the organisation's "Trustmark" symbol, which denotes standards that are endorsed by the Government.

Anything to do with heat-producing gas appliances and hot-water systems has to be done through the Council of Registered Gas Installers, better known as Corgi (www.trustcorgi.co.uk). This is the regulatory body for everyone working with gas, and working without this certificate is illegal. But being Corgi-registered doesn't necessarily mean that the individual is a highly skilled plumber. The Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering (IPHE) has many members who are registered with them as well as being Corgi-registered, and its website (at www.iphe.org.uk) has a searchable database of its members, who should all be particularly skilled.

"Our members must have NVQ level 2 at the very least, and should have been qualified, with experience, for at least three years," says the IPHE's Carol Cannavan. "But there's a growing number of short, theory-based plumbing courses, which means a tradesman can claim to be a plumber but is badly prepared."

If the job you need done calls for an electrician, the Electrical Safety Council (www.esc.org.uk) is a good place to start. "Find out if an electrician is Part 2 registered," says Alison Parkes, a spokesperson for the council. "The vast majority of work should be done by someone with this Local Authority Building Control registration; the site www.competentperson.co.uk will give detailed information."

Parkes also recommends NICEIC (niceic.org.uk), the electrical contracting industry's independent voluntary body, with a database of 24,000 government-registered electricians across the UK (www.findanelectrician.info).



Emergencies and smaller jobs

If the job is an emergency, especially at unsociable hours or on a public holiday, you are likely to be hit with much higher fees. But the same rules regarding qualifications and professional trade memberships apply. If possible, do your research into specialists with a 24-hour call-out service before the boiler falls apart at 3am on Christmas Day, so that you have a list of tradesmen you have already vetted.

Ask what the call-out fee will be and, if the fee is per tradesman, how many people will come. (If you think you smell gas, Transco has a free 24-hour emergency hotline on 0800 111 999. Open all doors and windows and don't turn any electrical appliances on or off.)

Government-backed accreditation and standards information, and organisations for electricians, plumbers and builders, are available through the Department of Communities and Local Government's "competent persons schemes" at: http://www.communities.gov.uk/planningandbuilding/buildingregulations/competentpersonsschemes/existingcompetentperson/.

The British Standards Institution at www.bsi-global.com, which controls the Kitemark standard, also provides more information on the details and training regimes of the various standards from across the sector.

Emergency home cover may help you to avoid some astronomical call-out costs, especially if you live in London, where call-out fees can be twice what they are in other locations. Homecall+ (www.homecallplus.co.uk) offers a basic policy, costing from £11 per month, which covers you if your central-heating system breaks down (up to £500) and for plumbing emergencies (up to £500), and also covers door and window damage, and even vermin infestation.

Premiums on other emergency policies, such as from Direct Line (www.directline.com), depend on your location. Their basic Response 24-hour policy covers call-out fees and the first hour of labour, but more comprehensive and expensive packages also cover parts and labour up to £1,000.

Know your rights if things go wrong

"Most problems between homeowners and tradesmen occur because of a breakdown in communication," Brian Berry says. "Creating a contract at the outset is crucial so everyone is clear about the work and what's being paid for."

If you spot problems, raise the issue immediately. If the job has finished and you find a fault, approach the tradesman to discuss putting it right as soon as possible. Getting the original workman to make good a fault they are responsible for within a reasonable period should not cost you anything.

You cannot reasonably withhold payment unless you can prove that the contractor is at fault by referring to the contract. If, for example, 90 per cent of the work is finished to your satisfaction, you should generally pay 90 per cent of the bill, not 50 per cent – unless getting things put right will cost you that proportion of the overall total.

If you need to take it further, approach the relevant trade or professional body, which should have a formal complaints procedure, and usually a guarantee for the work, supported by the member's professional liability insurance. The Institute of Plumbing, for example, offers Plumbsure, a six-year guarantee of workmanship if the plumber is incapable of rectifying problems because, say, they have fallen ill, lost their qualifications, retired or gone bust.

Plumbsure also offers cover for loss, damage or theft of contract site materials, purchased by either the customer or plumber, and covers the plumber "walking off site". Institute members using Plumbsure will be required to hold a minimum of £2m public liability insurance. This sort of guarantee is now common among the larger representative bodies, but the details vary.

Going to the small claims court, which can be a long, expensive process, is generally a last resort; see http://www.hmcourts-service.gov.uk/infoabout/claims/index.htm.

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