The day I took on the tradesmen's guild

When Simon Read, The Independent's personal finance editor, hired a roofer to repair storm damage, he was shocked to see that half the bill consisted of travel time. So he wrote about it – and all hell was let loose

When the storm hit our south London home this winter, I wrote about the problems I had getting my roof repaired at a fair price and wrote myself into a storm of protest.

The complaints centred around an article in which I reported that a roofer had submitted an invoice for an hour and a half's work replacing a couple of roof tiles that had blown off, when he had only been at my home for 45 minutes. That, to me, seemed unreasonable. And so I questioned the £135 bill. That prompted criticism from tradespeople up and down the country. "I bet you don't pick up a pen for peanuts," wrote one angry carpenter.

"The real question you should be asking is not, 'Am I getting ripped off?' but, 'Have I got £135 worth of value?'" wrote another.

"Did he respond quickly, do a good job and clean up after himself? To withhold payment over a relatively trivial amount on principle, when he did a good job and the overall price is reasonable, is petty."

"Pay up and learn," said another. "If you want a small job done at your home then you will inevitably pay for travelling time."

Meanwhile, a builder from Northumberland said: "Unless the roofer is a neighbour and his ladders reside in your back yard, would you not reasonably expect to incur the cost of picking up and putting his tools back into his stores, plus travel time?"

Travel time? This was a new one on me and certainly wasn't mentioned in the invoice. I needed to find out more. To be honest, I didn't think it reasonable to be charged for his travel time and tool collection unless we had previously agreed it. Even if we had agreed that I would pay him while he travelled to my house, I would not expect to be charged £75 plus VAT for every hour that it took him, which is what he invoiced for.

I don't begrudge paying the going rate for expert work, but it didn't sound fair to be charged around £90 an hour while the roofer was sitting in his van in traffic. Of course, tradespeople deserve to be paid a fair rate but, surely, only when they use their specialist skills.

Not so, according to tradespeople who contacted me. A furniture maker said: "This is very simple: the roofer will not earn enough money by being paid for only 45 minutes work. He can ask for more, such as 1.5 hours work, and the understanding is that the extra is to cover his costs. The amount is not unreasonable, therefore you should pay it."

I still wasn't convinced. A locksmith then wrote in about a gardener friend who had to give up. "He would do perhaps four jobs in a day, but as the travel, loading/unloading (mowers, etc) and preparation time meant he only got paid for four hours, he could not reasonably charge enough."

That is, obviously, a shame, but the same challenge is faced by any people who work for themselves. If they can't get the pricing right, then their business collapses.

Too high? Tradesmen should state all their charges upfront Too high? Tradesmen should state all their charges upfront (Alamy) Another correspondent accused me of trying to get the work on the cheap and suggested that, rather than use a reputable roofer who charged a fair amount, I might have been happier just getting a cut-rate job. "You could use the chap up the road who charges you £20 cash, no VAT, and uses your ladders, but he will sue you when he falls off them, and you will get no recompense when he drops a ladder on your conservatory," he pointed out. That's a fair point, but one I'm well aware of. There's a simple rule when tracking down people to do jobs: never go for the cheapest quote.

But the message was coming across loud and clear from those who work in the industry: people like me who question invoices are a pain. "If you ever need a lock changed, don't call me," cautioned the locksmith.

Had I been unreasonable? My complaint was the fact that I had been charged for an hour and a half's work when only 45 minutes had been done. If the roofer wanted to charge a call-out or "travel time", then that should have been agreed beforehand. Many agreed with me. "If I was the roofer or a call-out tradesman, I would state a call-out charge plus an hourly rate set at a minimum time charge of one hour," wrote a builder. "If this is not done and a bill to cover travelling time is presented, then you can't blame a homeowner for questioning it."

Another reader added: "The roofer's quote should have been inclusive. If he expected to add on costs because he lived a long way from you, you may then have chosen someone nearer whose overall charges would have been lower." That's true. But it also became apparent that, for almost everyone I asked, there seemed to be a different opinion. I decided to get a definitive view from a trade body: the National Federation of Roofing Contractors. "As a Trade Association, we cannot comment on pricing," it told me, blaming the "UK Competition Act, to which we abide".

However, it added: "Our members do agree to provide their clients with a clearly written quote or estimate for the work to be undertaken, giving a fair price for the planned work that shows clearly whether VAT is applicable, and setting out the conditions of the contract."

By the sound of it, I was in the right. I tried other trade bodies. The Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering said it would recommend that readers ask for full cost details over the phone and seek more than one quote whenever possible.

Matt Brereton, of the Federation of Master Builders, proved very helpful. "Quibbles over an invoice from a tradesperson often arise from the client or customer not asking the right questions in advance of work starting," he said, "and then are often exacerbated by not having got everything agreed in writing and the costs set out before agreeing for the work to go ahead.

"Whether a 'call-out fee' is charged will usually depend on whether the tradesperson is being summoned for an emergency repair or being asked to come and quote for more substantial works to be carried out at a later date," he added.

Indeed, 24-hour plumbers, locksmiths, glaziers and so on, all tend to charge a call-out fee, irrespective of the work carried out. Who isn't happy to pay extra for the convenience of having them come round when you need them? But our roofer was actually too busy to come when we wanted him, which was the day after two tiles had been blow off our roof. It was 10 days later that he agreed to come round, which was totally at his convenience. So I didn't expect there to be any emergency call-out charge.

"What about if the tradesperson has to come from a long distance away, transport particularly heavy or bulky items, drive in poor weather conditions or in heavy rush-hour traffic to effect a quality job in a timely fashion? Then it is surely not unreasonable for them to charge a bit extra for this?" asked Brereton.

Not unreasonable, no. But not the reason for the unexpectedly high charge made by our roofer. However, his final advice was sound.

"Ultimately, it is always best to get any charges cleared up and agreed in advance. If you're unclear about any part of what you're being charged for, then keep asking questions until you're satisfied you know what you're agreeing to."

Next, I turned to consumer groups. Gillian Guy, the chief executive of Citizens Advice, told me: "Disputes often arise when there is a lack of clarity around how fees have been calculated and who pays for materials or travel costs. To try to avoid this, it is really important to agree what you are paying for in advance, and get it down in writing so that you have the evidence if there is any disagreement later on."

Seeing as I had refused to pay the bill and challenged it with the roofer's company, I wondered what my legal standing was. "If you didn't agree a price before the work started and you think you are being charged an unreasonable price, you can write to the trader to dispute the price and send a cheque in full and final payment for what you deem to be the appropriate cost, to see if the trader accepts this amount. It is important to bear in mind that if you do not pay in full, the trader may take you to court to recover what they believe you owe them."

That was slightly worrying so, even though I felt I was in the right, I checked with Alonso Ercilla, the lead officer for fair trading at the Trading Standards Institute. "This sounds like a call-out fee/charge," he said. "You can charge, in principle (unless so extreme as to be fraudulent) the fee that you want as long as you make this clear. Therefore, the question is whether this fee should be made clear in advance, and I would say that it should. The law is found in the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008." Because the roofer had made no call-out fee – or charge for "travel time" – clear in advance then he should not have put it on the invoice, I suggested. "I agree with you," Ercilla said, before adding: "However, I'd still advise people to ask about costs before inviting a trader to attend, to minimise the risk of a dispute. Equally, I'd also advise traders to make it clear that they will charge a call-out fee of £X, if that's their intention. There should never be any surprises when a bill is presented!"

In short, if extra charges haven't been agreed beforehand, you don't have to pay them. Of course, if a trader explains why there are extra costs, you may think it reasonable and stump up.

Me? Eventually, the roofer reported back and said that he had misread the clock in his van, which accounted for the extra time. The invoice was cut accordingly.

When I told my carpenter correspondent of the outcome, he said: "Aha. 'Misread the clock'. Hmmm. That's what we might call 'trying it on' then."

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