Insurers helping victims to fight the cowboy repairers

Householders are sick of the bodgers who turn up and cause problems, says Edmund Tirbutt. But you can beat them

Michael McElroy, a 52-year-old school caretaker, could have been tearing his hair out when his dishwasher was declared a write-off as a result of a split tank. But instead of facing a bill for several hundreds he paid just £89, for a repair plan from www.flyingtoolbox.com, part of Domestic & General. That policy earned him a new replacement washing machine.

The dangers of using cowboy repairers was vividly illustrated last month with the news of a sting operation by Trading Standards officers in Leatherhead, Surrey. Under cover, they invited 44 tradesmen to carry out simple jobs while being secretly filmed. Almost a quarter behaved appallingly and 10 are facing criminal prosecution.

Some examples include a boiler engineer who took five hours to complete a small repair and then charged four times more than other tradesmen called. One engineer used a lighter to search for a gas leak and a plumber appeared to urinate in a vase and pour the contents into a drinking-water tank.

Mr McElroy, who lives in Cannock, Staffordshire, with his wife Shirley, 45, and nine-year-old daughter Katie, says: "The new machine cost nearly three times what I paid for the repair plan, so I can hardly grumble. The contractor, who arrived within 48 hours, seemed to know what he was doing and I would recommend the service to anyone."

Flyingtoolbox.com does not cover plumbers and electricians, but operates on a pay-as-you-go basis for kitchen, audio-visual and heating equipment and even PCs. Repairers detailed on its website are given quality ratings, based on feedback from customer questionnaires. But users can also take out a repair plan which covers the cost of immediate repairs and any further repairs needed in the next 12 months. The cost is typically in the region of £100.

The insurer Domestic & General offers to insure the work of contractors. Cornhill Direct offers an add-on to its household insurance for £30 a year which guarantees the availability of a contractor within two hours of a domestic emergency, and covers the first £250 of any costs. And for £7 a month Direct Line offers a standalone policy that will secure you a call-out, free labour for the first hour and up to £250 for parts.

These services have sprung up as a result of increased dissatisfaction with builders, odd-job men and contractors, and a willingness to pay for peace of mind. Learning how to select a suitable firm and where to complain about them if they let you down can save a lot of grief.

You can at least deal with some professions in the knowledge that their members have sat extensive exams, are stringently regulated and have clear complaints procedures. Anyone who has a complaint about a solicitor or accountant, for example, should first raise the matter with the firm concerned, but if this fails to satisfy they can contact the complaints help-lines detailed below for The Law Society or the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales (ICAEW).

A recent report in Which? magazine says few trade associations have all the necessary policies in place to justify the confidence consumers place in their logos.

But the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) endorses trade associations which meet certain core criteria, including providing a complaints-handling procedure and giving clear information in advertising and pre-contractual details. Four bodies have qualified. These are the Association of British Travel Agents, the Vehicle Builders and Repairers Association, the Direct Selling Association and the Ombudsman for Estate Agents.

Disputes involving less than £5,000 can be pursued in the small claims court, which involves no cost other than a nominal court fee. Larger claims need a solicitor. Straightforward cases involving less than £15,000 should be fast-tracked and completed within six months.

FACT FILE POOR SERVICE

* Trade associations have widely varying standards

* Record in writing changes and variations to original quotes

* At first, raise grievances with the firm concerned

* Check to see if a complaints-handling procedure is offered by a trade association

* Claims for less than £5,000 can be pursued through the small claims court

* It may be possible to persuade a solicitor to take on a larger claim on a no-win, no-fee basis

* Some legal expense add-ons to household insurance policies cover consumer disputes

* Mediation services can be less costly than going to court

* Insurance helplines can provide details of suitably vetted contractors

* Some insurers and utility companies offer insurance against costs of repairs

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