The cowboy builder

Ian Hunter on how to avoid a shoot-out
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The Independent Online
Those who can do and those who can't try a career in DIY, at least that's how it sometimes seems. Most people can recall at least one shoot- out with a household cowboy. For example, Cathy decided to have a garden fence built. She used a handyman who operated from the store where she bought the materials. The builder used shoddy materials and submitted high quality bills. Cathy ended up paying the builder and rebuilding the fence herself.

Tim, a psychiatrist, also has a tale to tell. He called a plumber, at random, from the Yellow Pages, when his lavatory blocked. He paid pounds 187 to have the blockage cleared. A more practical friend later examined the pipes when other problems occurred. He discovered that a cork had been inserted in the system, by the plumber. The purpose was apparently to cause a further blockage, thereby creating the excuse for further call out.

The best advice when your boiler bursts or your roof leaks is to act on a recommendation from someone who has experience of a good job well done. Organisations such as Green Flag Home Assistance and the AA Home Assistance also run helpline services which arrange a call-out service for a range of home-based emergencies.

Some trade organisations register their members, such as the National Association of Plumbing, Heating and Mechanical Services Contractors, and the Institute of Roofing. These organisations operate codes of practice for their members. However, the extent of these codes and the rigour with which they are enforced varies. Likewise, many organisations operate conciliation and arbitration machinery, in order to resolve disputes.

The best way to avoid a dispute is to be precise at the outset. A price and a timetable should be agreed for completing the work. It is almost always worth shopping around, in order to obtain more than one quote.

If the contractor has his own terms and conditions of business, these should be read carefully to ensure that they cover the price and the time scale for completion. There should also be an obligation to remove all rubbish once the job has been completed. The conditions should confirm that the contractor has indemnity insurance to cover any damage caused while the work is being carried out. It may also be possible to insert a penalty clause to deal with the situation if the work is completed late.

Another option is to agree to retain part of the contract price for a period following the completion of the work. This can be used as security for any further work that may be required to deal with any residual problems.

Small traders and casual workmen may ask for a deposit to buy materials, and although this may seem reasonable, buyers may not see their money again if the supplier fails to deliver or the work is substandard. It is a sound rule of thumb that customers should never part with their money until they are entirely happy with the work that has been carried out.

In the absence of a written contract, certain rights are implied into any contract by virtue of the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982. This Act places a duty on contractors to carry out the services with reasonable skill and care. It is also implied that the services will be carried out within a reasonable period of time.

Exclusion clauses contained in contracts, which seek to restrict or eliminate liability for any loss suffered by the customer, are also tightly regulated by both the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977 and the more recent Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1994.

If the customer is unhappy with the work carried out, the first step should be to contact the contractor in order to give him an opportunity to make good any faults. If he refuses the customer can hire an alternative contractor and seek to recover the costs incurred from the original contractor.

Sometimes the law is the only way of resolving disputes. Customers should not believe that they are prevented from suing for loss just because the contractor insists that their agreement precludes such action. Unfair exclusion clauses will be ignored by the courts. Local law centres and Citizen's Advice Bureaux will usually be able to provide guidance.

Rights can be enforced, if necessary, in the small claims court. The small claims court will entertain claims of up to pounds 3,000. The necessary forms can be obtained from the local county court. Larger claims for up to pounds 50,000 can be heard in the County Court.

Before attending a court case or an arbitration hearing, the customer should, if possible, take photographs or have an expert's report prepared, to support the claim that the work carried out was substandard. Invoices should also be retained in respect of any remedial works carried out.

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