Tide turns in fight against the rogue double glazers

The industry is finally launching its first ombudsman scheme to protect homeowners against unscrupulous or incompetent builders. Laura Howard reports

Decades of battles between homeowners and unscrupulous double glazing companies could be a thing of the past, after the launch of the industry's first ombudsman scheme. DGCOS, which stands for the Double Glazing and Conservatory Ombudsman Scheme, went live on Tuesday after four years of research and a further two-year pilot.

Consumers who find a double glazing company through the new association (at dgcos.org.uk) can be reassured that all members have undergone a rigorous 12-point vetting process. This includes submitting references of 10 jobs completed in the past 12 months, having professional and watertight contracts in place, offering insurance-backed guarantees for at least 10 years and being covered with public liability insurance should a job go wrong. DGCOS will also check for evidence of phoenix companies – where the same management appears under a new name after going bust – as well as health and safety records.

"To become a member, some companies will really need to pull their socks up," says founding director Tony Pickup. "But at the same time, the good guys are really fed up with being compared with the rogues, so it's an opportunity for them to officially differentiate themselves."

But the main benefit lies with the consumer. According to DGCOS research, the average cost of a double glazing job is £2,500 – and much higher for conservatories at £9,500. Homeowners are required to stump up between 10 and 20 per cent of the total estimated cost before work even begins which leaves them at risk, says Mr Pickup. According to the website Double-glazing-forum.com, 2,607 firms have gone bust in the past six months alone. Using a DGCOS member, your deposit will be fully guaranteed by the association itself to up to 25 per cent of the contract price (to a maximum £12,500).

Once the work has been carried out, if a dispute between the company and homeowner arises, DGCOS offers an independent dispute resolution service which is free of charge for the homeowner. If the dispute cannot be resolved between the parties, it will be referred to the scheme's ombudsman whose decision is final – and legally binding. Any compensation awarded to the consumer will then come out of the association's coffers.

In an industry totalling an estimated 13,000 firms, DGCOS has just 36 founding members with a further 126 that are currently in the application process. However, it aims to carry 14,000 members within the next three years, representing about 14 per cent of the industry.

The need for official consumer protection is long overdue. Recent research from Santander Insurance UK revealed that 18 per cent of British homeowners have fallen victim to sloppy workmen that have caused damage costing an average £1,592 for each job. And during 2009, trading standards recorded 22,000 complaints specifically about double glazing firms.

The closest consumers can get to protection is to use a firm that is Fensa registered – though even this is commonly misunderstood, said Mr Pickup. "Double glazing firms will often use the Fensa certificate as some kind of endorsement but actually it's just a way for installers to prove they are compliant with building regulations."

There are wider measures homeowners can take to protect themselves when commissioning home improvements, starting with using a building firm belonging to a recognised trade association. The Federation of Master Builders is the largest, with 11,000 members, all of which have been vetted with at least six references.

"Some of our building members are also double glazing installers, though householders would need to check they are Fensa-registered too," says Brian Berry, director of external affairs at FMB. "We also offer an independent dispute resolution service, monitored by a chartered surveyor that is a member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors."

But consumers should not rule out smaller players that can't afford to be members of these voluntary schemes, says Stephen Alambritis, the chief spokesperson at the Federation of Small Business. "Ombudsman schemes are introduced like confetti and lend themselves to bigger businesses that can afford to be glossy and compliant, while smaller legitimate players fall to the wayside. They also negate the need for consumers to exercise caveat emptor or buyer beware. The best route is to take personal and local recommendations and obtain several quotes before making a decision."

DGCOS membership costs £695 a year. Members are required to upload details of every commission on to a database at a cost of £32 each time.

Paying for your home improvement with a credit card – even just the deposit – offers homeowners protection under the Consumer Credit Act 1974. This means a credit card company is equally liable with the building company for any breaches of contract. This is particularly useful if the trader goes out of business before finishing the job. The contract must be worth more than £100 but less than £30,000.

If you feel confident to carry out home improvements yourself, be aware of changes in the law. In 2005, the Government introduced electrical safety rules which state that any fixed electrical installation work in the home must meet building regulations – in other words, it must be completed by a certified electrician. You can find one at trade body Niceic.org.uk. And alterations to the structure of your home could require planning permission. Details are at Planningportal.gov.uk.

Glazed and confused: Wrong windows put in

Sean Marten, 26, commissioned a double glazing firm based in Herefordshire, to fit seven windows in the home he had bought with his partner, Caroline Palmer, 27. "I was quoted £3,400 and asked for a deposit of £975," he said.

But Sean and Caroline soon realised the firm was fitting the incorrect windows. "In one downstairs room we had asked for a sash window but were given a bathroom window."

The installer made a greater mess when he tried to "make good" the windows that had been installed wrongly. Sean and Caroline took the firm to court and won £5,000 to put the windows right, but the firm had gone bust.

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