Builders never turn up. It's because they can't afford to, says Jeff Howell
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WHEN I told a woman at a dinner party that I was a builder, she gave me a funny look and said: "Why do builders never turn up?" Good question. But I could ask the same about office workers; whenever I phone the council or the building society and ask to speak to the person I dealt with last time, it seems they are either off sick, on a course, or in a meeting. So why should builders be any different?

Another example. When you buy a house, you think nothing of the fact that the conveyancing process takes three or four weeks, when the actual paperwork involved could be completed by the solicitor's secretary in a morning; so why complain when your plumber takes three weeks to fit a shower? He'll be working at a similar rate - doing several small jobs consecutively for different punters.

Now, there are two ways of paying builders. One is to pay an hourly or daily rate, and the other is to get the whole job done for a fixed price. You might think that the first option would result in more disputes about timekeeping - but not so. The most serious breakdowns in the builder/client relationship occur with price work, and I have a theory why this is. It's all about control. When you employ a builder on a day rate, you are effectively his employer - if he doesn't turn up, he doesn't get paid; if he doesn't work hard enough, you have the right to look disapprovingly at him, make tut-tutting noises, or reduce his biscuit ration.

Builders in the real world, by the way, don't get paid for tea breaks or lunch. Eight-till-five counts as an eight hour day, with half hour breaks at 10am and 12.30pm. Make sure your builders abide by these rules and there's one less thing to fall out about. Of course, this does rather cast you into the role of foreman, which many punters don't fancy; hence the initial attraction of price work.

Because when the job is being done for a price, you can relax and let the builder get on with it - or can you? Well, apparently, no. You no longer have any direct financial control over the work and, therefore, there is a loss of power. This can manifest itself in mysterious ways. The punter still wants to be the centre of the builder's attention, and wants him to turn up every day until the job is finished. But the builder can make a start on the job and, secure in the knowledge that the punter will not be able to exercise any further control over its progress, is free to go out and start organising the next job, and the one after that. It's an inevitable consequence of self-employment: the small builder or tradesman cannot devote himself fully to one job at a time - if he did, then when it finished he'd have nothing to go on to. He has to be his own surveyor, estimator, negotiator, secretary and book-keeper - the amount of time he can actually be at your house, doing the work, is limited.

Some clients just can't handle this. They think they own you and want you to devote yourself exclusively to them. Bethnal Green Eddie went for a tea break the other day and his client (a famous television actor, as it happens), spotting him in the cafe, charged in and made a scene. This was a bad move - the finishing date for his job, uncertain at the best of times, now looks likely to be further disrupted by the millennium celebrations ...