What's the damage?

Emergency home repairs can be costly. Now you can cover yourself against cowboys, says Neil Baker
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The Independent Online
Hammering rain, gale-force winds and the prospect of freezing temperatures make the winter months pretty miserable. The burst pipes, leaking roofs and falling chimneys which accompany the bad weather, can make it an expensive time of year, too.

And unless you are lucky enough to know A Man Who Does - one of those mythical repair people who can do a good job of fixing anything for a reasonable price - the cost of repairing damage to your home can be far higher than expected.

An average household spends pounds 368 a year on home maintenance, repair and decoration, according to a survey by the Institute of Trading Standards Administration. That adds up to pounds 8.5bn a year and consumers are far from happy with the services they are getting.

Everyone with a leaking tap has heard the traditional refrain - "Oh dear, who did this, looks like real cowboys, could be very expensive..." And in recent years consumer complaints about home maintenance have increased at an average rate of more than 5 per cent a year.

When householders needed a tradesman to do maintenance work, more than 50 per cent asked friends, or relied on past experience. But beware - 27 per cent of claims to trading standards officers are from consumers who called tradesmen they had used before, or who were recommended by friends. And don't put too much faith in the impressive crests of trade associations - between 13 and 22 per cent of membership claims are false.

When a tree has just been blown through the roof of the conservatory and it's raining, consumers are sitting ducks - 71 per cent do not even get a quote before having the work done.

The law can be a help in some cases. Last year a plumber was sentenced to 150 hours' community service after pleading guilty to making false claims in charging a pensioner more than pounds 1,000 for work done on an immersion heater. The courts fined a building company pounds 9,000 when it deceived a customer over its credentials and created chaos with a new conservatory. In one extreme case, a coroner ruled that a pensioner who committed suicide a week after receiving a pounds 4,000 bill for rebuilding a garden wall had been unlawfully killed.

Two companies that offer emergency breakdown services for cars - the AA and Green Flag - are now offering the same sort of cover for the home. Home Assistance cover with the AA costs pounds 49 a year for members and pounds 59 for non-members. The fee gives you access to a 24-hour emergency telephone number. When you call, the AA will send round the required tradesman within two hours. There is no call-out charge and the first 90 minutes are free. Thereafter, you pay an agreed labour rate.

If you are not happy with the work done, you have recourse to the AA. There is no limit on the number of call-outs each year. Trades covered include locksmiths, plumbing, roofing, glazing, drains, heating engineers, electricians and carpenters.

Green Flag offers a similar scheme for pounds 96 a year. The fixed fee is more expensive, but you get the first three hours of labour for free, and pounds 100 of materials per call-out. Green Flag also says it will get someone to your home inside 90 minutes. The company offers two cheaper schemes with reduced cover for pounds 72 and pounds 15.99.

Both the AA and Green Flag stress that their policies should be viewed as add-ons to home and buildings insurance, not alternatives.

AA Home Assistance: 0345 383838; Green Flag Home Assistance: 0800 800 688.

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