How to ride herd on the cowboys at bay

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The Independent Online
JOHN is a first-class psychiatrist and a third-class handyman. When his lavatory developed a blockage, he called a plumber selected at random from the Yellow Pages. He paid £187 in cash to have it cleared.

Later, a less nave friend checked one of the relevant pipes and found that a cork had been inserted into the system by the plumber. John explains: "The purpose apparently was to cause a blockage, thereby creating the excuse for further and more expensive work. The problem is that when you have no practical knowledge at all, you are completely at the financial mercy of those who attempt to blind you with science."

John's experience is not isolated - the cowboys are not restricted to the prairies. Obtaining a guarantee of quality without a personal recommendation can be difficult. For some types of maintenance, there are trade organisations that register their members, such as the National Association of Plumbing Heating and Mechanical Services Contractors, the Institute of Plumbing, and the British Decorators' Association.

Membership of such bodies, however, is no guarantee of quality. Many of the organisations have codes of practice, but few monitor the quality of their members' work. Some offer dissatisfied customers conciliation and arbitration as an alternative to legal action.

Gillian and Derek Mayrick, of Pembury in Kent, decided to take direct rather than legal action when matters went wrong.

The couple employed a roofer selected from the Yellow Pages to carry out some work on their farmhouse, and paid an amount in advance. After a time, however, they became disillusioned with the quality of his work and dismissed him from the job, but held on to his equipment as security for the advance payment.

The couple completed the work themselves, and the roofer never recovered his equipment. Mrs Mayrick says: "We discovered later that he was subsequently imprisoned for stealing tiles off one roof in order to repair another."

Huw Davey, a litigation specialist and partner in the Exeter law firm Anstey Sargent & Probert, comments: "It is very important for customers to specify as precisely as possible the work they wish to be done, and then to agree a timetable and price for the work.

"If the contractor has his own terms and conditions of business, you should read them carefully to ensure they cover the price and date for completion as well as the obligation to remove all rubbish when the job is completed. The terms of business should also confirm that the contractor has indemnity insurance to cover any damage inadvertently caused to the property while work is being completed.''

Customers should also obtain confirmation that all necessary regulations have been complied with, particularly when the work involves altering or installing gas or electrical appliances.

In the absence of a written contract, contractors remain, by virtue of the Sale of Goods and Services Act 1982, under an implied obligation to use reasonable skill and care and to complete their work within a reasonable period of time.

Mr Davey advises customers never to part with payment until they are happy with the work that has been done. Those who are dissatisfied have the option to sue in the small claims court of for sums up to £1,000. Larger claims of up to £50,000 can be heard in the county court.

Mr Davey says: "I would advise dissatisfied customers initially to contact the contractor to give him an opportunity to make good any defaults. If he refuses, then someone else can be hired to rectify the damage. The cost can be recovered by suing the original contractor.''

If possible, photographs should be taken or a report prepared for the purposes of providing evidence of the sub- standard work to produce in court. Invoices and receipts for any remedial works carried out should also be retained as evidence of the loss suffered.

The Mayricks and John the pyschiatrist decided not to sue, but they say that in future they will seek personal recommendations before reaching for the Yellow Pages.

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