If you ask for an estimate, make sure you know what you want, says Jeff Howell
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The Independent Online
My neighbours have decided to have a conservatory built. So they have done the right thing, or what all their friends have told them is the right thing, and asked three builders for estimates. Trouble is, they got the three builders round and said, "how much for a conservatory over here?". So they've now got three estimates for three different builders' ideas of what constitutes a conservatory - how can they tell which one is going to be the best bet, in terms of quality and value? They can't. Because they didn't have a drawing, or even a written description, for the builders to work on. They just said, see this bit of back yard here, well we want a conservatory on it. Now, there are conservatories and conservatories. Brick walls or timber? With or without concrete foundations? Double or single glazing? Timber frames or uPVC? Glass roof or corrugated polystyrene?

You can't really ask a builder to estimate for a job unless you provide a drawing and some kind of specification. Well, within reason, that is. I mean, if you ask someone round to clean the leaves out of your gutters, you shouldn't have to provide him with a drawing of the gutters. Mind you, with some of the characters going round calling themselves builders these days, you sometimes wonder if that might not be a bad idea.

No, seriously, for maintenance items like that, or getting a ceiling plastered, you should be able to rely upon a simple verbal description. Note, of course, that your verbal description of the work, and the builder's verbal estimate, constitute a verbal contract, which is just as binding, in the eyes of the law, as a written one. So even with small jobs like this, be careful what you say, or it could lead to arguments. You will know from your own observations at the DIY superstore that a door, for example, can cost pounds 30, for the hollow plywood version, or pounds 300, for the solid hardwood panelled job. So if you ask a builder to give you a price for supplying and fitting a new door, you'd be crazy not to give some thought as to what kind of door you both have in mind.

Brickwork is another example. Punters get you round and say, how much for a garden wall? I can get you bog standard London Brick Company Flettons for pounds 120 a thousand, but I wouldn't be seen dead with them around my garden; they look naff and the frost will blow their faces off within a few years. Second-hand yellow stocks cost pounds 350 per thou, but they look great and they'll still be standing in fifty years' time.

But it's not just appearance - things that get built without regard to the correct design procedures can present more serious problems. I was once asked to repair some cracks in the brickwork where a rear addition had been built on to a house. One glance told me what the problem was - the rear addition didn't have any foundations. Really. The bricks had been laid straight on top of the patio paving slabs. The thing was slowly sinking under its own weight, and falling away from the house. Well, there's no point trying to repair the cracks in that sort of situation - the thing needed pulling down and rebuilding properly. Unfortunately they'd just had it rewired and plumbed, and it had 15,000 quid's worth of Poggenpohl kitchen in it. They asked me what they could do. Hide the crack with a climbing plant and sell the house, I ventured. So they did. A hundred and eighty grand. The buyers' surveyor didn't spot a thing. JEFF HOWELL IS A BRICKLAYER