Warning shot fired at cowboy builders

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The Independent Online

Cowboy builders, the scourge of householders across Britain, could become a thing of the past if the recommendations of a new report by the human rights and law reform group Justice are adopted.

It has issued Protecting the Householder Against Defective Building Work, which highlights the difficulties people experience when faced with shoddy building work and examines how they can win redress.

The report recommends bigchanges to law and practice, including the introduction of a compulsory insurance-backed warranty for building work, specialist court arbitration, voluntary registration schemes for builders and a "house handbook" detailing works done.

It says more than pounds 12bn is spent every year on building work, with a further pounds 1bn being spent in the "black economy". More than 60 per cent of the "declared" work is done either by one man or small firms. There are no licensing and registration requirements for builders and one survey published last year found that only half those working even in reputable firms had a formal construction industry qualification.

Many people are attracted to small, local firms because of the informality, ease and avoidance of VAT. But there is no recourse if things go wrong. Subsequently, there are estimated to be as many as 3 million complaints against builders every year.

Lord Alexander of Weedon QC, chairman of Justice, said that over the past 25 years many attempts had been made to tackle the problem of cowboy builders, without success. "I hope this report will provide a catalyst for change which will lessen a problem that troubles so many householders every year," he said.

The report's main recommendations include legislation requiring builders undertaking any reasonably large-scale work to register with a government- approved insurance scheme. It also wants county courts to provide arbitrators with experience of building disputes for cases involving amounts not exceeding pounds 10,000, promotion of a system of voluntary registration for builders, and says that lenders should be encouraged to impose as a condition of a loan for improvements that the work be carried out by a registered builder.

The report was welcomed by the Consumers Association, which said that the complaints it received tended to be "really worrying". Ashley Holmes, the association's head of legal affairs, said: "It's a big problem and defective building work can be quite devastating. It would need some legislation so we need Parliament to do something about it. I'm not sure there's the political will but there certainly should be."

He said some recommendations could be implemented immediately, such as the voluntary registration of builders and the adoption of a house handbook. "The most basic thing that wouldn't cost anything is preventative medicine. People should go out of their way to try and find good builders," Mr Holmes said.

"Go and get two or three quotes and ask for recommendations from other consumers, and then go out and look at the work they've done. A little legwork can save a lot of trouble."

Protecting the Householder Against Defective Building Work; pounds 4.50; Justice; 59 Carter Lane, London, EC4V 5AQ.

From dream home to house of heartbreak

Amanda Smith and her husband thought they had insured themselves against problems when they had their dream house built for their family, writes Jojo Moyes.

They knew their builder, who was well thought of in the local community and whose large company offered a brand-named warranty as well as being registered with many other warranty providers and builders' organisations.

The plans were drawn up for their four-bedroomed detached house and the first few months of building appeared to go without a hitch.

"The first indication we had that all was not well was when the double glazing would not fit. The builder had taken it onto himself to fit inferior window frames to those agreed, costing around half the price. He then claimed we had agreed," Mrs Smith said.

"They also did the same with the bricks. They said they couldn't get the bricks that we wanted and sold us some at a greater price. But we later found that the bricks we wanted had been available."

Soon, other serious faults came to light, including subsiding floors, unattached roof tiles, an overflowing sewage system and leaking doors and windows.

"The builder demanded full payment for the work, saying that once it had been received he would take steps to rectify the faults and issue the warranty. We refused to pay and withheld pounds 18,000 of the pounds 98,000 until the house had been properly completed.".

They called the warranty organisation, which said itcould not get involved unless it had the builder's warranty number. He would not give it unless they paid him in full.

Five years of legal wrangling ensued, in which Mrs Smith said she became "sick with worry". The builder issued a writ for full payment and the warranty organisation agreed to conciliation. "Five times they gave him a notice period to carry out the work, which he did not comply with. After all this they stated they were unable to complete the work because the matter was sub judice."

The eventual cost of the remedial work was around pounds 50,000, of which half was met by the Smiths (including the pounds 18,000 they had withheld) and pounds 25,000 from the warranty.

"I think the new recommendations would have helped. I also think it would be a good thing to make sure that any alterations to the specifications should be signed by the builder, owner and architect.," said Mrs Smith.

(Names have been changed)