Can't get the staff: The trouble with choosing tradespeople

PUBLISHED: 09:13 23 January 2020 | UPDATED: 09:28 23 January 2020

Trading Standards encourages consumers to use approved trader schemes they endorse, such as Which Trusted Traders. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Trading Standards encourages consumers to use approved trader schemes they endorse, such as Which Trusted Traders. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

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Recruiting tradespeople can be a challenging process, fraught with grey areas about 'quotes', 'estimates' and 'unforseen expenses'. Richard Burton's heard it all before...

If a homeowner signs a contract, the tradesman is legally obliged to inform them of their right to a 14 day cooling-off period, during which they can cancel the contract without penalty. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphotoIf a homeowner signs a contract, the tradesman is legally obliged to inform them of their right to a 14 day cooling-off period, during which they can cancel the contract without penalty. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

I remember telling the tiler there was no rush; to take his time. Everything was plumbed in and working and this was just the finishing touch. The tiles were quite expensive and we knew that cutting and crafting them into place needed care and precision.

But that was not a problem to him. He was a pro. He knew what he was doing and the job was pretty routine. Besides, he was up for an award, lest we needed convincing.

We were happy with the quote. It was better than the others but not unduly cheap; but in line with the mumbled mental arithmetic he did as he sized up the job; things like "that's two hours tops" and, "probably half a day if I use acme pro-plus speed-grout". Even the bits that looked tricky, like the floor-to-ceiling box-out bit for the pipes, he took in his very proud and professional stride. "Three days should do it," he said. "I'm in demand and do loads around here."

Anyway, morning came and he arrived fussing that he may have to add parking fees to the bill. He didn't realise how expensive the meters were, despite doing loads around here. Happily, we had access to a gated compound which was largely empty during the day so I let him in and suggested he put a note on the windscreen.

That evening, we came home to find an indoor chair on the sun-facing balcony and an empty can next to it. The chair had a scuff mark on it where it had been dragged through the sliding doors and the tiling looked what could best be described as early stages.

Another sunny day, and having now decided to come by train and yomp from the station, he rang me at work with a suggestion. He'd been thinking: the boxed section that hid the pipes would probably look better painted than tiled.

What he meant was the intricate cutting and fitting was a bit of a faff for someone used to taking the contents of my fridge on to the balcony. I thanked him for the design input and told him just to complete the job he'd quoted for.

That evening, we came home to find four walls nicely tiled but the boxed area untouched. The following day he rang again and asked if I'd "had any more thoughts" on his suggestion. I said I hadn't had any - let alone more of them - and reiterated that there was no rush.

A lot hinges on whether the tradesman has provided a quote or an estimate./The first is binding, the second isn't. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphotoA lot hinges on whether the tradesman has provided a quote or an estimate./The first is binding, the second isn't. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

That's when he admitted he'd - wait for it - "underquoted". I smiled to give my voice a lift like cold-call salesmen do and reminded him as nicely as I could that that was an admin matter - for him - and not something that should concern me. After all, I didn't underaccept. But I would underpay if it was underfinished.

When it was finally over he said he'd lost work because of the extra time it had taken but he'd "gone the extra mile" because we were nice people and wondered if we'd recommend him. I asked him why he'd quoted for three days if he'd thought the job may take five. You just say what you think will get you the job, he said. Most people are happy to pay more for quality.

A year earlier, a friend had rung me for advice when her builder, two thirds of the way through a kitchen and bathroom refit, had asked for a meeting to discuss "unforeseen additional expenses" hinting that it was important as "they're running into a few grand" and he wanted to nip it in the bud.

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I asked a consumer affairs columnist for advice and she gave me a rent-a-quote lawyer [newspaper speak for professionals who like to get their views in print] and a contact at the trade association the builder had named on his business card. The latter suggested a formal, independent, assessment of the work and a proper evaluation, taking into account the original job spec and quote and asked me to forward all correspondence. The builder "didn't want no aggro" and said he'd have another look at his sums.

Not surprising, given another complication I've yet to mention. In joining the cold water bath pipes to feed the new shower, his plumber had caused a leak that had brought the ceiling down, flooding the units he'd just fitted.

Thankfully, this type of practice is rarely an issue around here. I've heard countless times, mentions of price adjustments. Ah, that wasn't part of the quote, sort of thing, or something's no longer available at that price. But in many cases, the customer has paid for a quiet life when faced with a logical argument. In fact, Tony Dolphin of St Albans Citizen's Advice assured me that unfair selling practices by traders accounted for fewer than a dozen complaints in the past nine months.

But when they do occur they can land a tradesman in serious trouble. Deliberately underquoting to secure a contract, only to then increase the cost when it begins, is illegal and punishable by a prison sentence, according to Herts Trading Standards.

Some victims have lost thousands of pounds to increases to a quote,Some victims have lost thousands of pounds to increases to a quote," says Mike Macgregor community protection manager for Herts County Council. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Mike Macgregor, community protection manager for Herts County Council, said: "This type of behaviour puts great pressure on customers who worry that if they don't pay the additional money, the trader may abandon the job part-way through, leaving them having to find someone at short notice to complete the work at an additional cost.

"Some victims have lost thousands of pounds to increases to a quote. Traders that do this damage the reputation of tradespeople generally and harm legitimate businesses who miss out on work by quoting honestly, because of the false and misleading information provided by unscrupulous competitors."

It may sound obvious, but it's nonetheless important to remember that it all hinges on whether the tradesman has provided a quote or an estimate. The first is binding, the second isn't.

To avoid this scenario Trading Standards encourages consumers to use approved trader schemes they endorse, such as Which Trusted Traders (https://trustedtraders.which.co.uk/)

They always recommend getting multiple quotes and to be wary of any that are significantly lower than the rest. And it's worth remembering that, if a homeowner signs a contract, the tradesman is legally obliged to inform them of their right to a 14 day cooling-off period, during which they can cancel the contract without penalty.

Of course, all this works both ways. I once recommended a Watford builder to an elderly old-school doctor for some work which involved channelling a cooker cable into the wall for a new 45amp switch. It meant breaking a few splashback tiles and "making good", not a problem as there was still a small box of them left over from the original fit a few years earlier.

It was the sort of DIY job I would've done myself to be honest. He did it in a few hours, only to receive an irate phone call complaining he'd turned the wall into "a patchwork quilt". He hadn't. The grout looked newer than the old and the tiles that had languished in a cupboard were cleaner and not as faded as the existing ones. Other than that, it was a perfect match.

Her forceful - but totally barking - argument was he hadn't fulfilled his commitment to "making good". What's more he'd done it for mate's rates; what builders often refer to as "a drink". Far from being the butt of a complaint, he deserved a hefty tip.

I think the poor bloke needed a drink of his own after that. As for the quote: the one he gave me can't be repeated in a family newspaper.

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