Doctor On The House: Snakes and ladders: a great game for builders

Heard the one about the water that was waterproof? Jeff Howell on scams for hard times
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The Independent Online
WHEN the going gets tough, the tough get a bit crafty.

The building game has always had its share of scams, most of which involve getting paid but not doing the work. Sometimes, when things are really tight, it may be necessary to invent work, so you get paid for doing things that didn't actually need doing. When builders get talking in the pub, stories of such job-creation schemes often get an airing.

My favourite is the ladder-between-two-shops trick which, my sources assure me, was common during the 1930s Depression. It goes like this: put the ladder up against the wall between the shops, walk into shop A and say: "I've just been cleaning out the gutters next door and I noticed yours are blocked as well - I could do them for a tenner [or other appropriate monetary unit] while I'm up there." Obtain agreement from grateful shop owner, go next door to shop B and repeat. Climb ladder and clean out both gutters, collect money and move on down the street to shops C and D.

As scams go, this is only a little bit fraudulent because the gutters probably needed cleaning out anyway, but the truly inventive might combine this with the old grass seed trick, which involves sprinkling a bit of seed into the cleaned gutters.

Some of the seeds lodge in the joints and germinate, so the following year you can return, take the shopkeeper out on to the pavement and say: "Your gutters need cleaning out again - look, you can see the grass growing in them from down here," which you can. Then you can get commissioned to clean out the gutters before you've even got the ladder up. Crafty. This trick can be repeated on an annual basis.

A modern variant is the waterproof-your-brickwork scam. This involves telling householder A that you are waterproofing the brickwork of house B, and you've got some waterproofer left over - so you can do theirs while you're up there.

The waterproofer is, of course, a colourless, odourless, completely safe liquid that will not affect the appearance of the brickwork. Repeat pitch with householder B, climb the ladder and brush the walls of both houses with water carried in an old waterproofer tin.

The leftover carpet scam has been previously described in this column, but continues to thrive. You knock on a door and say you've been carpeting a place up the road and they've ordered too much carpet; you've got enough left to do a whole front room, and you only want a score for it.

The trick here is that the "carpet" is the cheapest, thinnest cord stuff with no rubber backing, not really intended for carpeting homes at all; it is generally sold for lining the backs of delivery vans, and is only worth a fiver.

But the cleverest scams are those approved by the mortgage lenders and the surveying profession - those treatments for non-existent rising damp and long-departed woodworm. Like the ladder-between-two-shops trick they gain support from the fact that the neighbours have already had it done, so it must be A Good Thing and, like the old grass seed trick, can be repeated on a regular basis, in many cases every time the property changes hands.

With lucrative corporate scams like these around, what need is there to make up your own?

q You can contact Jeff Howell at the Independent on Sunday or by e-mail: