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You don t hear so many horror stories about cowboy builders these days. Is the problem going away

01:00 Thu 28th Feb 2002 |

A.� Far from it. With the current property boom in full swing and more and more people moving there have rarely been richer pickings for the cowboys.

Last year it was estimated that there were over 100,000 complaints made to the Office of Fair Trading or local authority Trading Standards officers about substandard workmanship. It is believed one in five householders have been victims of a cowboy at some time.

Q. But isn't there some sort of regulation

A. As things stand anyone with a van and a ladder can set themselves up as a building contractor.

Most reputable builders will belong to one of the self-regulating trade organisations such as the Federation of Master Builders or the National Register of Warranted Builders, but this is still no cast iron guarantee.

There have been calls, including from inside the industry, for a compulsory registration scheme for all builders, just like, say, with doctors. But there is also plenty of opposition from the trade who are concerned it would involve being buried in paperwork.

The government has stepped into the breach by piloting the anti-cowboy Quality Mark Scheme in Somerset and Birmingham and, if successful, this could be spread across the country in years to come.

Q. What is the Quality Mark Scheme and how does it work

A.� Builders volunteer for the scheme and pay an annual fee based on their turnover. Those who sign up have to adhere to a code of conduct, have their work inspected regularly, sign a contract that includes start and finish dates and provide a warranty on work done.

However, critics argue this still does go far enough. They point out that builders volunteer for the scheme, leaving the cowboys to carry on unchecked. Although hundreds of firms have come forward it is still a small minority of those touting for trade.

They will be reputable firms and so are likely to have plenty of work, so the chances of getting them out at short notice are slim. Many people fall foul of the cowboys when they need something done quickly.

Q.� So what precautions can the individual householder take

A.� It is hard to beat a recommendation from a friend, relative or colleague, especially when you have had a chance to inspect what has been done for them first hand, but this doesn't help if you're new to the area or the builder in question is fully booked.

If you're starting blind here's a checklist that will help you avoid being ripped off:

  • Make sure the firm is a member of a trade association such as the FMB or the NRWB
  • Get at least three quotes. Remember cheap is not always best. The most expensive may be the most honest because it has taken everything into account
  • Don't settle just for an estimate. When you hire a particular firm get a quote, which will detail the work involved, breakdown labour and material costs and give start and finish dates. If it is a big job it might be worth drawing up a formal contract
  • Don't pay for everything up front or a large deposit. Pay in stages as the work progresses to your satisfaction
  • Avoid those who turn up on your doorstep because they 'just happen to be in the area'

Q.� What can you do if it goes wrong


  • First write to the builder detailing what is wrong and how you want it put right.
  • If that doesn't work take pictures of the disputed work and get an expert opinion to support your complaint.
  • Get in touch with the firms trade organisation or seek help from your local Trading Standards or Citizens Advice Bureau.

Sometimes these matters end up in the Civil Court, but remember they only deal with claims of up to �3,000 and by the time legal fees have been paid you may find yourself even further out of pocket.

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By Tom Gard

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