How to keep the cowboys at bay

Homeowners often have no idea who is repairing their house, but the DTI plans to change that, reports Christopher Browne
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The Independent Online

The very mention of identity cards is enough to spark a lively and vigorous debate. But a leading mortgage broker is now calling for building contractors and tradesmen to carry them too, to give houseowners peace of mind and help combat the disasters that occur all too often in today's home. Dave Smith, of Surrey-based HJP Financial Services, explains: "Building and repair problems often start at the estimate stage when owners are all too often quoted silly prices with no idea of knowing whether they are fair or not. The snags then extend into shoddy or unreliable workmanship."

The very mention of identity cards is enough to spark a lively and vigorous debate. But a leading mortgage broker is now calling for building contractors and tradesmen to carry them too, to give houseowners peace of mind and help combat the disasters that occur all too often in today's home. Dave Smith, of Surrey-based HJP Financial Services, explains: "Building and repair problems often start at the estimate stage when owners are all too often quoted silly prices with no idea of knowing whether they are fair or not. The snags then extend into shoddy or unreliable workmanship."

The answer, says Smith, is an ID card showing the name of the bearer, the company he or she works for, ratification by a public body like the British Standards Insitutute or the Construction Industry Training Board, and a phone number owners can contact if they have further doubts. "The building trades are unregulated and just as the Financial Services Association monitors brokers, anyone who works on people's homes should be scrutinised too."

So far, the only contractors with training back-up are gas and central heating engineers. All reputable ones are Corgi (Council for Registered Gas Installers) registered, so anyone with a damaged boiler or faulty system can call up one of several thousand on an approved list. But for other trades you often have no clue.

Many of us rely on the recommendations of friends and neighbours - unless of course we happen to have a council-backed list of tradesmen. It can be a risky process - as Ashish and Catherine Kulkani found when they asked two handymen to install a bathroom suite in their house in Stirling. "One of the installers was a friend of the family, so we were confident of getting a reliable job done. But when we tried out the new fittings, water poured from the shower unit and into the kitchen below and the bath was both leaky and unstable," says Ashish.

They spent two weeks finding a second company to replace the suite and repair their damaged ceiling. "It cost us another £8,000 and the installers found the shower hadn't been properly sealed, while the bath didn't have the correct foundations. We had no comeback. We haven't spoken to our friend since," he says.

According to the Office of Fair Trading, more than 100,000 of us complained about unreliable tradesmen, shoddy workmanship and overpriced home projects last year. The complaints are rising by five per cent every year. Cowboy building contractors now top the Government's hit list of rogue traders - followed by second-hand car dealers. "It's a consumers' nightmare. There are 20 unregulated trades in the housing sector, with double-glazing and replacement window companies heading the list of bad performers," says DTI spokesman Alan Wheeler. But many shoddy jobs go unnoticed. "Owners are often too embarrassed to tell anyone about their latest bad building experience," he adds.

The DTI recently launched a quality mark scheme and has spent £6.7m on its "Come Clean" campaign. The spearhead is a website that urges the UK's 160,000 buildings and repairs traders to join up and give owners who have £2,500-plus home improvements or building work a six-year guarantee against loss of their deposit, poor workmanship and major defects. So far 540 firms have joined up, and 700 others are going through the site's rigorous inspection process.

The DTI is aiming to sign up at least one-third of Britain's building firms - backed up by a multi-million pound advertising and consumer awareness campaign in the autumn. So, next time you need a builder or repairer, log on to www.qualitymark.org.uk, type in your postcode and see which local companies the site recommends.

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