Safe as houses - if you've a good builder

A trusty handyman can be the first line of defence against looming problems, writes Robert Liebman
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Through wonky windows, builders reveal their mettle.

After 20 years of neglect, a four-bedroom semi-detached house in south- west London was being thoroughly overhauled for new owners. Workers were fixing floors and renewing walls when builder Terry Gauntlet, replacing a rotten first-floor window, saw that a fungus was among them.

Dry rot is a mushroom-like infestation which, if left untreated, could develop into a serious, and seriously expensive, problem. Mr Gauntlet informed the owner, who immediately hired specialists. The infestation was localised, and the extra expense and mess were barely noticeable.

In Ealing, meanwhile, the surveyor for first-time buyers Loretta and Neill said that their windows needed replacing. Their handyman, Peter Daines, suggested a second opinion, namely, his own. "He examined the windows in the neighbouring houses, saw that they were original and told us ours could be fixed too," says Loretta. "He saved us hundreds of pounds, and now we are doing other work in the house which we previously couldn't afford."

Messrs Gauntlet and Daines are among the legions of general builders and handymen on whom legions of homeowners rely. They belong to no trade associations, but neither are they cowboys. Mr Gauntlet is scathing about certain trade associations whose membership qualifications consist in nothing more than paying a fee.

Cowboys conceal their dodgy pasts and knock on strangers' doors. Legitimate builders thrive on recommendations and are often too busy to serve new clients.

"We found Mr Daines through a friend of my mother," says Loretta, who notes that he was recommended for being helpful as well as skilful. When the couple restored their fireplaces, Mr Daines brought them tiles from the large collection of timber, doors and other discards that he has squirreled away over the years. "The tiles were old and old-fashioned, which was perfect for our living room. We never would have found such attractive and inexpensive tiles on our own."

She credits him, too, for his solution for their bowed interior wall. Instead of rebuilding the wall, "he installed a picture rail to attract the eye. It's a visual distraction which hides the bowing."

Cosmetic work is not always innocent or advisable. Mr Daines says that he often has to undo earlier work done on the cheap, "especially work done in the wrong sequence. Many people can't afford full refurbishment, so they do the cosmetic work first, then when the building work is done, it ruins the cosmetic work."

Some builders excel as skive artists: "One homeowner hired me to fix a leak but I could not find the hot and cold valves. Finally I found them under some tiles. Obviously, a handyman had loosened the holding nuts on the valves and crisscrossed them over one another to lie flatter and closer to the wall. He wasn't doing plumbing. He was tiling, and when he found obstacles, he simply tiled over them."

Most British properties are old and, Mr Daines stresses, have had a succession of builders as well as owners. Some of these handymen have covered rather than corrected, resulting in what he refers to as "laminated concealment".

Fortunately, symptoms usually appear before total failure, enabling owners to budget for their repair or replacement. Mr Daines favours a shake test: "Things should fit solidly. I shake things - radiators, countertops, banisters, windows, all sorts of things. If something is loose, there's probably a problem." Simple visual inspection is also informative. "If something is old, its time may have come. A radiator that is 20 years old is going to need replacing soon. Twenty-year-old radiators also look their age."

However, sometimes even the best jack-of-all-trades handyman doesn't suffice, whether for reasons of true specialist quality, safety or legality. Electric shock, fire or carbon monoxide poisoning are too steep a price to pay.

By law, cooker installation and other gas fittings must be done by a fitter registered with Corgi, the Council for Registered Gas Installers. Some electrical work is also legally required, and even simple wiring jobs require professional expertise. A major fire can start from a poorly wired hall light as easily as from a faulty fuse box. With electrical work, warns Mr Gauntlet, "all you see is a plug, you don't see the wires behind." This normally sceptical builder strongly recommends using a member of the NICEIC, the electricians' association.

For their part, owners must exercise vigilance and self-assertiveness.

References, references, references - good, honest reliable workers leave a trail of recommendations. Ask for references; don't hesitate to interview several builders and get quotes from each.

Advance payments? The Federation of Master Builders asserts that "advance payments, particularly at the start of a job, should be avoided." Mr Gauntlet asserts, "don't pay until the work is done. People volunteer to pay me all or part in advance, thousands of pounds. Many people want to part with their money. I say, `No, pay me at the end or as the work is done.' "

Pay as you go, pay as it has been earned.

Most trade associations have genuine membership qualifications and may also offer arbitration and insurance to cover shoddy work.

It costs a builder nothing to affirm that, yes, he belongs to such and such a trade association. It costs you almost next to nothing to contact the organisation for confirmation. If builders were totally honest, the group representing electrical installers would not have issued this notice: "The Council has come to an agreement with Yellow Pages to prevent misuse of the NICEIC logo by non-approved contractors in individual display advertisements."

`Trust but verify'. That was Ronald Reagan's slogan for dealing with the `Evil Empire.' Don't forget: before he was President, he was a cowboy.

Peter Daines, 20 Boileau Road, Barnes, London SW13 9BL, 0181 748 6574; T Gauntlet Building Contractors, 36 Westfield Road, Cheam, Surrey SM1 2LB, 0181 286 0134; Corgi, 1 Elmwood, Chineham Business Park, Crockford Lane, Basingstoke, Hampshire RG24 8WG, 01256 372200; National Inspection Council for Electrical Installation Contracting (NICEIC), 37 Albert Embankment, London SE1 7UJ, 0171 582 7746; Federation of Master Builders, 14/15 Great James Street, London WC1N 3DP, 0171 242 7583.