Building firms hit by 'cowboys'

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The Independent Online
"Cowboy" builders are flourishing while reputable firms go under because home owners and the Government allow them to, according to a new report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

The fear of poor quality work also deters many people from doing necessary work, imperilling the house's safety. A study for National Housing Week in 1994 estimated that pounds 69bn needed to be spent to bring the UK housing stock up to standard.

The report, Quality Repairs: Improving the efficiency of the housing repair and maintenance industry, studied 80 small builders in Bristol and north Somerset and found that only half those working even in reputable firms had a formal construction industry qualification or formal business training and few employed trainees.

The report noted that a "generally minimalist" attitude to business administration was common, and new technology was rare, even for such simple tasks as word processing.

But while many reputable builders struggle on, home owners compound the problem because of their willingness to employ contractors who cut corners and avoid VAT by accepting cash payments.

One contractor complained: "There's less work and materials have gone up but customers want cheaper prices. At times it's hardly worth working. Five years ago, I had 16 people working for me. Now I only have two and I have just a few weeks work ahead."

Cowboy builders were described as traders who put in very cheap quotes based on the cost of poor-quality materials and inexperienced workers. Work was usually of poor quality and might not comply with building standards or regulations. They were less likely to use safety procedures and unlikely to possess public liability insurance.

Another contractor reported: "Often I hear that the client has found someone who will do the work at half my estimate. To do that they must be working on the quiet. They're not qualified and they're probably claiming unemployment benefit."

But taking the cheap option can often work out more expensive. "Customers are misled. The trouble is they are not experienced enough to know what they are getting and they may not realise how bad the job is until it is too late. I often get called to sort out bodged jobs."