2006-02-01

Intolerance: Rogue Tradesmen & The New Trustmark Logo

'Margo Leadbetter' would be disappointed; where is the stern expression, the wagging finger and the haughty tone with which 'The Good Life's' imperious character always got her own way? A new survey shows that nearly two-fifths of us no longer trust builders, plumbers or roofers to do a good job, while one in nine said that having building work carried out at home was one of the most stressful experiences known to man. Yet, while we shrink from confronting the worst slackers with their slapdash approach to 'improving' our homes, more than 100_000 of us complain to 'Trading Standards' every year about substandard work. A new government-backed initiative called 'Trustmark', which commissioned the survey, has been launched to help tackle the problem. It issues standards for trade bodies -- and those which meet the criteria are issued with the 'Trustmark' logo.
'We hope it will take some of the pain and the stress out of getting any sort of work done to your home,' says 'Trustmark's' Chief Executive Mr.Chris Blyth.
Why do we find it so hard to tell those in our employ exactly what we want, or to complain when we don't get it? According to TV psychologist Ms.Jenni Trent-Hughes, it's partly fear of the unknown.
'We feel wrongfooted,' she says. 'We're entering a world where we don't know the vocabulary, we're not sure what's going on and we're not at ease -- it's the equivalent of a man walking into a lingerie department.'
We also feel threatened:
'Your home is your retreat, you feel protected there, and having strangers suddenly invading it raises the stress levels.'
Or maybe it's just good old British reticence and insecurity: it can be hard to look your fellow man in the eye and tell him how to do his job. Help is at hand; here we present the stress-free guide to getting work done on your home without falling apart. PUTTING A PLAN TOGETHER Do your research.
'Head down to a DIY store and have a look around,' says Mr.Blyth. 'Try and make yourself aware of what's out there, so that when you start dealing with the professionals, you've got some idea of the materials available [for the jobs you want done].'
Managing Director of central heating installer AC Wilgar, Mr.Billy Wilgar, says that from a tradesman's perspective, the more research a customer can do the better.
'It's fantastic if you're dealing with someone who's got some knowledge, and knows what they want. 'The Internet can be great for that.'
You should also leaf through interiors magazines for inspiration, and build up a visual image of the ideal end result.
'Pictures really help,' says Mr.Blyth.
You should also, says Mr.Blyth, set your budget and stick to it.
'It's dead simple, really,' he says. 'If you were going to buy a television, you'd know beforehand how much you want to spend. 'There's no reason why you can't use the same principle when getting work done to your house.'
This doesn't mean you need to spend all your money at once, however.
'Keep some back for emergencies,' says Ms.Trent-Hughes. 'If you go right to the top of your limit at the very beginning, and then run into problems later that need more cash, you're stuck.'
For couples, Ms.Trent-Hughes also suggests talking everything over with your partner before you get the professionals in.
'If you have disagreements in front of your builder about budgets or design choices, they may well try to exploit that. 'Discuss things with each other first, and make sure you've got a plan organised, so that you can present a united front.'
BEFORE YOU START 65 per cent of people say they feel uncomfortable leaving tradesmen alone in their homes. If you're one of them, or you'd just prefer to have someone who's an expert keeping an eye on things for you, then once you've found your builder the next thing you should consider is hiring a project manager.
'If you're not 100 per cent familiar with the territory, this can be a very good idea,' says Mr.Blyth. 'An architect or a surveyor will know the industry, and be able to talk the same language as the builders. ' Even if it's 10 per cent of the total cost of the project, it can be money extremely well spent when it comes to securing your own peace of mind.'
After that, it's time to sit down with your builders and project manager.
'Be very clear about what you want done,' says Mr.Blyth. 'Talk every detail through, and make sure your contractor knows exactly what it is that you want.'
Don't necessarily reveal to them your entire budget, but ask them to give you quotes and estimates, and cost out every element. Once this is done, make sure you keep a note of it somewhere. For larger projects, getting a contract drawn up is also a good idea.
'Particularly if the cost of the work is going to be over 20_000_GBP,' says Mr.Blyth. 'A contract means there's much less margin for error, particularly if you run into problems.'
ON THE JOB
'Once work starts, you must, must, must keep a file,' says Ms.Trent-Hughes. 'Keep every receipt, every quote, every clipping. 'Make a note of every phone call you have with your builder, and what is said. 'It may seem tedious and pointless, but if something goes wrong, this is the first thing you'll look at. 'It takes away any confusion, as it's all written down there in black and white.'
If you do run into problems -- say for example a room has been painted the wrong colour -- Ms.Trent Hughes advises trying not to lose your temper.
'Speak to the foreman, or whoever is in charge, and suggest a quiet cup of coffee. 'Say you want to talk over concerns. 'Don't say complaints. That way they'll know something's bothering you but will be less likely to come into the conversation with an aggressive attitude.'
Mr.Blyth agrees.
'Be upfront, but don't be angry.' 'There are good guys out there,' adds Mr.Wilgar. 'The majority of tradesmen aren't cowboys and will deal with situations sensibly.'
Whether or not you have a project manager, make sure you have a weekly meeting with whoever is in charge.
'It's a good way to keep monitoring the work, check that everything's on schedule, and raise any problems,' says Mr.Blyth.
HAPPY EVER AFTER? So, thework is finished. The walls are painted, your kitchen is tiled to perfection and the electrics have been rewired without anyone hooking your cat up to the toaster. Job done, surely? Not necessarily.
'Ask your builder for a detailed report on all the work that's been carried out,' says Mr.Blyth. 'Not only is this a useful thing to have yourself, in case anything goes wrong in the future, but it also shows you're a good and conscientious homeowner.'
Mr.Blyth points out that it could even help boost the price of your house, if you plan to sell it in the foreseeable future.
'Being able to show the new owners proof that you've had work done, and had it done well, looks good to a potential buyer.'
It is also a good idea to have a final meeting with your project manager, if you have appointed one, or your builder in order to go through all the issues that have been raised throughout the work, make sure you're happy with what has been done, and shake hands on a final price. This is, again, where your file and meticulous note keeping will come in handy, allowing you to see at a glance the pre-agreed price that any extra work would cost.
'The people I know who've never had any problems with tradespeople are always the ones who have been organised from the very beginning, and can carry that organisation all the way through a project,' says Ms.Trent Hughes 'They are organised, calm and firm. And bear in mind: an informed consumer is a confident customer.'
CALL THE PROFESSIONALS -- QUICK! If you've chosen the wrong person for the job, you'll soon know about it. Here are the most common gripes:
  • WHERE THE HELL IS HE? Appoint a tradesman, agree costs, time-frame and details to your satisfaction. Get a skip delivered, rip out your unwanted kitchen, and, on the agreed start date, wait for him to show up. And wait. Four days later, when you've left countless stroppy messages on his mobile and eaten nothing but takeaway curries, he will ring to tell you that his wife's sister's dog is being held to ransom by drug dealers, and you will apologise profusely for bothering him.
  • I DIDN'T GET WHAT I ASKED FOR You can clearly recall showing the decorator your Farrow & Ball paint chart and requesting Dead Salmon in a water-based eggshell around the breakfast-room fireplace. So, how come you've ended up with a coat of emulsion in fish-paste pink?
  • THE DISRUPTION The neighbours will go berserk when they find three white transit vans and a cement-mixer blocking their gates. Not to mention the foreman's brand-new BMW X5 Sport, double parked. And you can forget listening to any earnest cultural discussions on Radio 4. While the workers are in situ, every wireless in the house will be tuned to Five Live at ear-bleeding volume.
  • THE MESS THEY LEFT BEHIND You were so glad to see the back of the plasterer and his mate after three weeks that you didn't mind vacuuming up the debris and scrubbing their dusty bootprints off the parquet. But check the house thoroughly -- you may also find fag ends in your flowerpots and beer cans behind the drawing-room curtains.
  • THE EXTRA CHARGES Who knew that a brushed steel lightswitch costs 20 times as much as an ordinary plastic one? Or that adding a bevelled edge to your granite worktop would treble its cost? Tempting though it is to upgrade whenever the decorator waves swatches and samples under your nose, be aware of the pound signs flashing in her eyes.
  • WHERE THE HELL IS HE? It's Friday, for heaven's sake! You don't expect anyone to work on a Friday, do you?
'Have you got the right tools to handle your tradesmen?', Emma Cowing, The Scotsman, 2006-01-31

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