Property: Why can't builders be more like dentists?

Ginetta Vedrickas wonders why it is so difficult to get work done on your home without having a nervous breakdown.
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The Independent Online
If only builders were more like dentists. Everyone swears that they have the most fantastic dentist but people only swear about their builders. Each time I hire someone I vow not to be fooled by that outwardly charming "renovator" who reads the same newspaper as me and is kind to children and animals. Then as I survey the half-finished "improvements", the mounting quotations and re-live the arguments with someone whose charms have long faded I realise it's ending in tears again.

Are you as gullible when getting a man in dungarees to do what you want?

Anita heard about Harry at a coffee morning: "When I found he advertised through my local NCT newsletter I thought he must be good." Anita wanted to restore her Victorian terrace, which was laid out as two flats, and needed a skilled person for the extensive work ahead. "When Harry came to give a quote he spotted a "Coal not Dole" sticker and we got talking about politics. We seemed to share the same ideals. What really impressed me was the contract he produced giving timescales and payment dates."

Anita was also influenced by Harry's attitude to her child. "He made a big effort with Kieran, who adored him in return. Harry promised to ensure the house was safe and there wasn't too much dust around. I believed he'd be sensitive to our needs so I gave him the job."

Anita paid regularly, as the contract specified, but found Harry's deadlines slipped. "We even took out a loan to keep up our payments but as the months went by it became clear that he wasn't keeping to his schedule and more jobs were going wrong."

Harry's child-friendly approach disappeared along with his deadlines and Anita and toddler Kieran were left with half-built walls: "The final disaster was the kitchen, which I'd decided to adapt, but I let Harry persuade me to have a new hand-built one." Although Anita paid as much as buying one from John Lewis, the resulting kitchen is fraught with problems. "The extractor fan is in the wrong place, the sink and cooker don't even fit. It breaks my heart every time I look at it," says Anita.

And the charming Harry? "He became increasingly sarcastic and would sulk if I asked him to put things right. Work was supposed to finish in June but it was November before we could use our kitchen. It ended very badly."

Which? recently carried out a survey of their members giving them details of over 5,000 tradespeople and 11 different trades. Unsurprisingly the most satisfied customers had used the tradesperson before and in contrast to Anita's experience the next most satisfied group employed someone recommended to them. Some trades did better than others but general builders and gas fitters came out worst. Which? has produced a fact-sheet giving tips on how to choose a tradesperson and get jobs done properly. The survey found that trades associations can't guarantee the work standards of their members or offer protection if things go wrong.

Wendy thought her choice of builder was perfect. How could you go wrong employing a friend's husband? With limited funds and a Victorian terrace to renovate, Wendy outlined her priorities and the builder quoted a price - pounds 15,000. Work began but Wendy found that nothing was properly finished and the friend's husband kept demanding more money. "It got to the point where I considered I'd paid enough for the jobs I'd originally specified but which still weren't done. I even paid an extra pounds 10,000, which he claimed wasn't enough, says Wendy.

The erstwhile friendly husband turned nasty. "We had a massive argument and he threatened me with violence. It was horrible. After that I dreaded bumping into him." Before Wendy could change her locks the builder took revenge by removing lots of things from the house including a set of double doors. Kitchen floor tiles and worktops were also missing. And the friend? "We haven't spoken since," says Wendy.

The Office of Fair Trading received 13,538 complaints about substandard home maintenance, repairs and improvements between January and March 1997, the most recently available figures. The OFT wants to see a register of approved traders who are committed to high standards and consumer redress rather than a reliance on codes of practice. A conference scheduled for later this year will discuss the use of a high-profile logo, and independent arbitration if things go wrong.

An insurance policy launched this week by Home Buyers Legal Protection gives up to pounds 25,000 of legal cover for pounds 50 if you move and discover problems arising from developers, builders, surveyors and even solicitors. In addition to legal cover you have access to a 24-hour helpline for legal advice and emergency repairs.

Stephen Greene shines as an example of a true British tradesperson. He is a brilliant plumber, reliable, and hates tea. Steve never advertises and prefers his customers to come recommended as well. He warns against using plumbers "because they're cheap" and bemoans the fact that "even your 80-year-old granny can set herself up as a gas fitter." He believes regulation is having positive effects. "Get a recommendation by all means, but make sure they are recognised and will give you their Corgi number."

Steve's halo shines brighter in contrast to the cornucopia of craftsmen who have driven me to seek cognitive therapy. There was Thunderclap, who brought Miss Singh, his dog, to run underfloor cable while he rewired. She managed it but the lights dim when you switch on the kettle. Dave, the "skilled renovator" who did nothing himself but employed teams of boys who didn't understand that paint goes on the wooden parts but not the glass bits. Lastly dear Punch, whose frequent Amsterdam visits were becoming ever costlier, forcing him to make a midnight call the night before laying the patio to double his quote (thanks for the pile of mouldy bricks you left.) Bitter, moi? Boys, this one's for you.

`Which?' fact-sheet LRBUIL: 0645-123580; OFT's Home Improvements leaflet: 0870-6060321; Home Buyers Legal Protection LTD: 01968-678989.

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