`Instant' roof repairs cash in on our fears of expense and the elements. Jeff Howell on the perils of the quick fix
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The Independent Online
One of the tragedies of the past 18 years has been the number of people drawn into home ownership who had no idea of the amount of building maintenance this would involve. Without any previous building knowledge, and suddenly finding themselves responsible for the well-being of a flat or house, many will have fallen prey to unscrupulous builders, or worse - salesmen peddling quack remedies. Such "instant" home repairs will always have a seductive appeal for the gullible; after all, they offer a product, rather than a service; so they appeal to our shopping instincts. The thing is packaged, displayed in a glossy brochure, and you can pay for it with your credit card.

Take roof repairs. After replacement double glazing, probably the least sensible "home improvement" product is one of the instant roof repair systems on offer. In the past these have taken the form of some kind of externally applied bituminous coating. The idea of covering your Victorian slate roof with a layer of sticky black goo is contrary to all accepted notions of good roofing practice, to say nothing of accepted notions of making your house look good. The process seals up all the gaps and stops the roof timbers from "breathing"; this will result in condensation in the roof space and wood rot in the battens and rafters. It also means the slates can never be used again.

Lately these systems have fallen out of favour, but they have been usurped by methods which, while less visually intrusive, can turn out to be just as damaging - internally sprayed foam coatings.

For the uninitiated, these seem to combine a quick-fix repair with the advantage of insulating the roof at the same time. But the whole thing is a false economy - as well as sealing the roof and stopping it breathing, and hindering the reuse of the slates or tiles, the insulating foam will actually make the rafters and battens colder, and hence speed up the rot.

The reasons people fall for instant roof repairs are common to all building scams - firstly, fear of the expense of getting the job done properly, and secondly, the quality and persistence of the marketing of the product. In addition, roof problems can make us feel particularly vulnerable - "keeping a roof over your head" sums up all sorts of primeval security neuroses, and one slipped slate or tile can result in a frightening intrusion of the elements into our cosy carpeted interiors.

Like a flat tyre on the car, getting it fixed becomes the most important thing in our lives. Suppose it costs pounds 100 to get a puncture mended properly at a garage - or pounds 10 for a roadside patch-up job? Would we go for the cheap one? You bet we would, even if it only lasted five minutes. (Actually, I may be misjudging human nature here. Some people lavish far more care and attention on their cars than they do their homes. They may well take the long-term view of car maintenance, even though "long-term" for a car is what, two years? Long-term for a house is 50 years, ie for the rest of your life, so short-term thinking should really have no place in the equation.)

Taking care of buildings involves more than just shopping for quick-fix products - it requires a rolling programme of care and maintenance which, if undertaken correctly, will work out far cheaper than the cost of responding to crises like slipped slates or faulty boilers.