Property: How not to find a builder

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Don't listen to your friends' recommendations and don't place your trust in trade associations, warns Jeff Howell

HOW DO you get hold of a decent builder? This is a frequently asked readers' question, and one to which there are no ready answers.

The usual advice is to ask your friends to recommend one, but this is a long shot - unless your friends are themselves construction experts, who are they to judge whether the work was good, appropriate, and necessary in the first place? Friends' recommendations are most likely to produce builders who turn up, feed the cat if you're away, and don't smoke or read the Sport. All very nice, but hardly a testament to the quality of their work.

In fact, nice middle-class builders can be a pain. They drink Earl Grey tea, which means they'll help themselves to yours; they read big newspapers and so need extended tea breaks; and they engage you in meaningful discussions about human rights in Burma, Gordon Brown and, worst of all, their relationship problems. This is all down-time as regards getting the work done. No wonder your friends recommended them - it was the only way to get them out of their kitchen and into someone else's.

Proper prole builders buy their own tea in polystyrene cups from the cafe, look at the pictures in the tabloids, and if they discuss anything with you at all it will be football and/or the Spice Girls. Still no guarantee of quality work, though.

Another common bit of advice is to choose a member of a trade association, but this doesn't necessarily mean much - most trade bodies exist to protect members from the public, not the other way round. I recently needed a plumber - the boy Steve being tied up until 2006 - so I asked the Heating and Ventilating Contractors' Association for details of three members in my area, and rang them. One didn't turn up, another told me water couldn't be pumped downwards so I couldn't have a hall radiator, and the third paid hardly any attention to the details of the job but kept asking if I could pay cash.

If anyone from the HVCA wants to tell me these were exceptions to their otherwise impeccable standards I will listen, but the assumption must be that the body does not monitor its members' behaviour.

So how to control standards of building work? In many countries you cannot offer yourself for work in the building trades unless you have appropriate qualifications and are registered with a government scheme, but successive British administrations have resisted this. The middle-class professions have protected titles - you can't just call yourself an architect, say - but anyone can say they're a plumber or a plasterer.

So I offer a tentative welcome to a scheme by ICI/Dulux to police standards of painters and decorators using their materials. Members of Dulux Trade Select are supposed to follow a code of practice including fair prices, written quotes and quality. The customer and decorator both complete a registration card for the job and Dulux offers a 12-month guarantee on the work.

This sounds like the sort of control that should be exercised over all the building trades, and in the absence of any government scheme, Dulux's initiative is to be applauded. I look forward to hearing readers' comments on whether it is successful.

q Contact:Dulux Select Decorator Service on 0345 697668.

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