How to spot a cowboy tradesman
Everyone has a story of a friend or relative who has fallen prey to a dodgy tradesman. Perhaps they were outrageously overcharged for plumbing work, a building job was done badly, or they were charged a small fortune for a home repair job that wasn't even necessary.
In many cases, by the time someone realises they've been ripped off the perpetrators are long gone and the victim has little chance of seeing the job put right or their money refunded.
However, the good news is that in many cases rogue tradesmen can be brought to book.
Olga Romney, 69, was in the garden of her home in Carlisle when she was approached by a tradesman. She says: "He was parked outside the bungalow opposite and I assumed he was doing some work for them.
"He offered to do some work on my roof and showed me glossy photos of what he could do, but I said all I wanted was the moss removed on the north-facing part. He told me he could do it for £180."
While Olga went to the cashpoint, the man started work on the roof. When she returned he said he'd finished the job, took the money and left. However, the work he had done was minimal, and certainly not worth £180.
Olga says: "I felt there was something wrong straight away, so I wrote down the name, address and phone number displayed on his van. I also asked him for his number, but he gave me a false one."
Olga contacted the company using the phone number on the van and asked for her money back. The man sent his younger brother to return the cash – but insisted she sign a disclaimer saying she wouldn't go to Trading Standards or the police.
She signed it, but with the name 'Jemima Puddleduck', so it was meaningless.
Olga then contacted Trading Standards. Its officers connected the case to a similar one nearby, involving an 85-year-old who was conned out of £200 by the same man, Lewis Gilbertson.
In both cases, the value of the work done was either nil or significantly less than the amount charged, and Gilbertson had obviously not told the customer about their right to cancel under cold-calling regulations.
Gilbertson was taken to court and charged with two accounts of fraud and two accounts of failing to comply with regulations.
He was given a nine-month suspended prison sentence, an anti-social behaviour order banning him from cold-calling for two years, a curfew and 250 hours community service.
Olga says: "I've been quite frightened of reprisals. I've had a security light and CCTV installed. They haven't come back and the police have reassured me it's not their style to come back.
It was a horrible experience and what they did was despicable. It has left me wary of trusting people."
Cold-calling itself is not illegal, but there are certain rules and regulations that tradesmen must follow.
For example, the Cancellation of Contracts made in a Consumer's Home or Place of Work Regulations (2008) mean that if you change your mind about a purchase above the value of £35, you have a seven-day cooling off period in which you can cancel the contract. A trader must advise you of this in writing.
However, many consumers are unaware of their rights and choose to pay up rather than fight to get their money back.
Because of this, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has recently launched the 'Your Doorstep, Your Decision' campaign, which aims to educate consumers about their rights when tradesmen come calling.
According to the OFT, nearly three million people have fallen victim to a rogue doorstep trader. While people of all ages were found to have fallen foul of these rogues, losing an average of £600, the oldest were hardest hit, with those over 55 losing an average of almost £1,100 each.
Last year Consumer Direct, the advice service managed by the OFT, received almost 4,000 complaints about cold-callers offering home repairs, a rise of 18% compared with 2008.
The top four complaints concerned roofing, tarmacing, paving and insulation.
Meanwhile, a survey by TrustMark, the government-backed not-for-profit organisation that helps consumers find reliable tradesmen, found that cowboy builders and rogue traders are an annual £1.5 billion problem for homeowners across the country – that's about £17,123 every hour.
Michele Shambrook, spokesperson for the OFT, says: "Hasty decisions made on the doorstep can sometimes result in agreeing to work that isn't necessary, that turns out to be more expensive than quoted or that's carried out to a poor standard, if it's done at all.
We want people to recognise the warning signs, and to feel confident enough to take appropriate precautions and say no."
How to avoid falling foul
Which? suggests you should generally avoid anyone who knocks on your door – good workers will usually have more than enough jobs on already.
Moreover, you should always get three quotes for any work, check the companies thoroughly and, when you have chosen someone, make sure you get a contract in writing.
Also, there are various trade bodies that tradesmen can join, depending on the nature of their work.
These include the Federation of Master Builders and the Electrical Contractor's Association (ECA) for electricians. So it's worthwhile checking a tradesman is a member of one of these bodies.
Which? also suggests checking whether the firm has been approved by TrustMark. The scheme, which applies mostly in England and Wales, checks a firm's financial position, technical skills and whether it has a dispute-resolution scheme in place.
Plumbers doing gas work need to be on the Gas Safe Register (formerly Corgi). According to the Gas Safe Register, around 100,000 gas cookers and hobs are installed illegally every year by fitters who don't have the skills or the qualifications to work with gas.
"Cowboys and gas don't mix," warns Phill Brewster, the Gas Safe Register's national investigations manager.
"It's crucial that people understand no matter what the size of the job, when it comes to gas, you can't guarantee that the work has been done safely and legally unless you use a Gas Safe-registered engineer."
Word-of-mouth is a good way to find a reliable tradesman, so ask your family, friends and neighbours for recommendations.
If you don't find anyone that way, then take a look on the internet. Ratedpeople.com is a website that allows consumers to rate tradesmen they have used. Contractors are rated on the quality of their work, reliability and value for money.
Members of the website can find tradesmen in their area, obtain quotes and check how firms are rated before employing them.
Andrew Skipwith, chief executive of the website, says: "Rogue tradesmen completely violate the trust of homeowners, quoting unfairly and providing shoddy and dangerous workmanship.
For total peace of mind, homeowners should ensure they recruit a tradesman who has been recommended by other people. By using ratedpeople.com you can find a tradesman who has been rated by previous customers, allowing you to make a more informed decision."
|Five signs you're about to be ripped off
|You're made to feel grateful – the caller turns up with a gift, and it seems rude not to engage in conversation|
|You're made to feel there is a great sense of urgency in the offer, such as a time-limited special offer or a warning that your house is unsafe|
|The tradesman uses high pressure sales techniques to make you feel committed – they get you to agree to a harmless statement, so that you feel embarrassed if you don't buy when you've implied you will|
|You're made to feel that you will be happy with the work, like all previous customers|
|You're led to believe that the service is endorsed by an expert – the seller emphasising the service has been tested and is approved by a professional association, charity, celebrity or council|
|Source: The Office of Fair Trading|
Contracts and money
Once you've found a tradesman and agreed a price, get a written contract. This should state a fixed price, deadline and the work you want done.
A decent tradesman will be happy to do this; you should be suspicious of anyone who is reluctant to put things in writing. Also be wary of tradesmen who offer a discount for cash upfront or VAT-free deals.
A contract should also state how much you have to pay and when. It's best to hold back 10% to 20% of the total fee until the job is completed. That way, if something does go wrong, you have some bargaining power.
If the work is going to cost between £100 and £30,000, pay by credit card if possible, as the card provider will then be jointly liable if things go wrong.
The Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982 says any work must be carried out using "reasonable care and skill". It also states that the job must be completed within a reasonable time.
If you find this isn't happening, the first thing you should do is raise your concerns with the tradesmen themselves and give them the chance to put things right.
If they refuse to, you should warn the workmen that if they don't complete the job satisfactorily you'll get a third party to complete the work but you'll seek the cost of doing so from them.
If you can't reach an agreement with the tradesmen concerned then it's a good idea to seek legal advice or talk to your local Citizen's Advice Bureau.
Consumer Direct can also offer legal advice, while Trading Standards can investigate tradesmen who might be breaking the rules and regulations or overcharging for work.
If the worst comes to the worst and you've lost money at the hands of a cowboy, you can always take them to the small claims court.
THE RIGHT WAY TO COMPLAIN
1. Don't lose your cool
Shouting and screaming will often just make the problem worse. Voice your complaint in a calm and concise manner.
2. Be specific
Highlight any problems as soon as you discover them, preferably before the work is finished.
3. Back up your complaint
Check your paperwork to make sure you have everything you need to back up your complaint.
4. Keep copies
When making a complaint, keep copies of any letters you've sent and note down time and dates of any phone calls or conversations you've had, as well as the name of the person you've spoken to.
5. Know where to get help
If the tradesman refuses to help, contact the relevant trade body to see if there is any dispute resolution or complaints service you can access. Also notify your local Trading Standards office – it will investigate your complaint and may prosecute on your behalf.
6. The courts
If the worst comes to the worst, you can take the tradesman to the small claims court, but this could be a long and expensive process.
7. Call the law
Lastly, if the tradesman has gone AWOL, you need to contact the police, because this constitutes fraud.
|GasSafeRegister.co.uk||The Gas Safe Register assesses the competence of engineers by inspecting the gas work they have carried out to make sure they are safe to work with gas. Check that any tradesmen doing any sort of gas work are on the register by entering their licence number into the website.|
|Trustmark.org.uk||TrustMark is a government scheme whereby consumers can search a database for an accredited tradesman. All members are monitored for quality of work, trading practices and customer satisfaction and are required to operate a user-friendly complaints procedure.|
|Fmb.org.uk||The Federation of Master Builders is a trade body for builders. Consumers can find an accredited builder as well as download contract templates.|
|Eca.co.uk||The Electrical Contractors' Association is a trade body for electricians. Consumers can search for an electrician with certain qualifications and accreditations.|
|Ratedpeople.com||Ratedpeople.com is a website that has recommendations and feedback from people who have employed local tradesmen.|
Invented by a Frenchman in 1954 and ironically introduced in the UK on 1 April 1973, VAT is an indirect tax levied on the value added in the production of goods and services, from primary production to final consumption and is paid by the buyer. Its levying is complex, with a number of exemptions and exclusions. For example, in the UK, VAT is payable on chocolate-covered biscuits, but not on chocolate-covered cakes and the non-VAT status of McVitie’s Jaffa Cakes was challenged in a UK court case to determine whether Jaffa Cake was a cake or a biscuit. The judge ruled that the Jaffa Cake is a cake, McVitie’s won the case and VAT is not paid on Jaffa Cakes in the UK.
Small claims court
Courts that sit in England and Wales (Sheriffs Court in Scotland) and used by the public to resolve most consumer and personal-related disputes. “Small claims” refer to action where the monetary value involved is £5,000 or less. You can claim for faulty goods or services and even for wages owed and also bring a personal injury claim, as long as the value is under £1,000. You can also use small claims court if you’re a tenant claiming against your landlord for repairs that total less than £1,000. It’s worth noting that, even if you lose your case, you won’t have to pay the other side’s costs.
Used by the holder to buy goods and services, credit cards also have a monthly or annual spending limit, which may be raised or lowered depending on the creditworthiness of the cardholder. But unlike charge cards, borrowers aren’t forced to pay the balance off in full every month and, as long as they make a stated minimum payment, can carry a balance from one month to the next, generating compound interest. As the issuing company is effectively giving you a short-term loan, most credit cards have variable and relatively high interest rates. Allowing the interest to compound for too long may result in dire financial straits.