Doctor on the house: Botch watch: a survey will see off the cowboys

What do you do if you get two vastly different quotes for building work? Ignore them, says Jeff Howell
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The Independent Online
FEAR of getting ripped off by cowboy builders is the most common reason given by owners for not having routine maintenance work done on their homes, says a report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

This distrust of builders also apparently accounts for many dodgy DIY repairs - people would like to get builders in to look after their properties but don't know how to find firms or tradesmen who can be trusted. The result is that the nation's housing stock is falling into decay, arrested only by emergency repairs - which may be botched through patch-work DIY - or ruined by inappropriate replacement products such as uPVC windows and ghastly stone cladding.

The main cause of this is the complete absence of government regulation of the construction industry. Anybody can call themselves a builder and go out touting for work, and there is no easy way for consumers to check up on their qualifications, experience or reliability.

A typical example of the range in quality of builders comes in a letter from a Scottish reader who has just moved house, and decided to invite a few companies round to report on the state of his roof. Estimates for necessary work ranged from pounds 870 to pounds 11,700 plus VAT. Either or neither of these could be correct, but as a consumer he has no way of knowing which one to trust.

His main problem is that he has solicited specifications for work from people who stand to profit by doing that work, whereas a safer approach would be to pay for a survey and specification from someone who has no vested interests. The Association of Building Engineers (01604 404121) will provide a list of members in private practice in your area, who can give just such an independent service.

The survey, which should be far more thorough and informed than your mortgage valuation survey, will cost a few hundred pounds, but it should save you far more than that by helping you make the right decisions about your home - not just the things that need doing, but the things that don't need doing.

Sadly, many home owners are in no position to afford independent advice about the state of their properties, and either avoid building maintenance altogether or spend money on unnecessary home "improvements" while neglecting the essentials. The position is not very different from car maintenance - those who can afford it will get their cars serviced by a reputable garage, but the rest get it done by the bloke down the road, do it themselves or don't do it at all. Sadly, the difference between cars and buildings is that all cars have a limited life and end up on the scrap heap, while buildings are part of our environment and collective cultural heritage. Everyone loses if they fall into neglect and decay.

Given the lack of concerted government action in tackling this problem, the best hope of improving things may lie with the media. I am involved in a forthcoming television series that aims to explain the "dos and don'ts" of building maintenance and repair work, so if you plan to get the builders in over the summer, and you would like to help other people avoid some of the pitfalls associated with the experience, drop me a line; together we could help beat the cowboys.

q You can contact Jeff Howell at the 'Independent on Sunday', or e-mail: Jeff@doctoronthehouse.demon.co.uk

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