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Cowboy builders and organised criminals are exploiting the post-pandemic building boom to target homeowners ‘desperate’ for home offices and extensions.

The number of complaints about building crooks and rogue traders rose by more than a quarter last year, new figures reveal.

The Citizens Advice helpline received close to 60,000 reports of shoddy work, with social media sites a magnet for unscrupulous firms.

Cowboy threat: The number of complaints about building criminals and rogue traders rose by more than a quarter last year, new figures reveal (picture posed by models)

Cowboy threat: The number of complaints about building criminals and rogue traders rose by more than a quarter last year, new figures reveal (picture posed by models)

Cowboy threat: The number of complaints about building criminals and rogue traders rose by more than a quarter last year, new figures reveal (picture posed by models) 

Victims told Money Mail they had been fleeced of tens of thousands of pounds and left to live in building sites, unable to afford remedial work. Experts say in the worst cases, some have even been conned into signing over their homes to criminals.

The head of doorstep crime at National Trading Standards also warns that aggressive cold-calling is making a comeback.

She adds that prison sentences are a ‘hotel break’ for organised building criminals, who simply used their time inside to recruit more members.

Lockdowns spurred scores of families to improve their living space, with many extending kitchens and lofts or building home offices. But the demand also sparked a chronic shortage of quality builders and a spike in the price of materials.

Builders’ groups raised concerns that families are so desperate to get work done they are taking risks and are vulnerable to cowboys.

The courts have also seen a flurry of cases. Last year, Gerald Johnston, from Goole, East Yorkshire, was jailed for two years after he conned a blind man out of hundreds of pounds for roof repairs that were not necessary.

The victim told the court he felt ‘ashamed and betrayed’.

James Lee Knight, 44, from Cornwall, was also jailed for fleecing victims out of a total of £100,000 and leaving their homes uninhabitable, damp or with leaking sewage.

Another cowboy builder, Jamie Thompson, was jailed after ‘crippling’ a family by spending their £46,000 on drink and drugs instead of building their extension.

The home of Julie and Kelvin Briggs, near Stockton-on-Tees, Co Durham, was left looking like a building site for four years and they were told it will cost £63,000 to rectify.

Home salon dream ended with £47k bill 

A single mother of two has been left with a bill of more than £47,000 and had her dream of running a hair salon from home shattered by a cowboy builder.

Nicola Goulden, 35, from Leeds, has been forced to work two jobs to pay off the loan she took out — and is living in a building site.

The work has already cost more than £15,000 and she now faces a £20,000 bill — which she cannot afford — to fix the mess.

Shattered dream: Nicola Goulden is working two jobs to pay off the loan she took out to cover the cost of her cowboy builders

Shattered dream: Nicola Goulden is working two jobs to pay off the loan she took out to cover the cost of her cowboy builders

Shattered dream: Nicola Goulden is working two jobs to pay off the loan she took out to cover the cost of her cowboy builders

Her only recourse is through the courts, where she is expected to represent herself, despite paying £2,500 in fees to bring her case.

The builder began work on her 18ft extension in late 2019 and gave her a quote for £17,500.

But he walked out after she challenged him over his slow progress on the job. Nicola, who has been put on medication, was forced to pull the whole structure down after a surveyor warned it could collapse, and her children still cannot play in the garden.

She says: ‘I’ve had to take on a second job hairdressing in a care home to pay off the loan.

‘I also had to spend another £10,000 to build a cabin in the garden to work in. The surveyor said everything was done wrong.

‘I just have to get through each day. It has cost thousands just to clean up his mess.’

 

In November, ministers were lambasted for failing to back a statutory licensing scheme, which would bring the building trade in line with gas installers and electricians.

Current weak regulations leave victims of cowboy builders with no way of getting their cash back.

Anyone can call themselves a builder without any qualifications, experience or evidence of training. 

This means that the only protection available to homeowners is contract law — the legally binding agreement between them and the builder.

For simple claims of up to £10,000 against a firm or individual in England and Wales, homeowners can take action in the small claims court, after paying fees of between £35 and £455. 

In Scotland you can pursue a ‘Simple Procedure’ claim for up to £5,000; and the limit is £3,000 in Northern Ireland.

Larger claims are considerably more expensive. Fees are charged at 5 pc of the claim — for example, £1,500 for a £30,000 claim — and it is likely you would need to instruct lawyers, which could cost tens of thousands of pounds.

Even if you win, the builder can claim they do not have the money to pay, or victims may find the firm has gone into administration. Insurers are also unlikely to cover the cost of any damage caused by rogue builders.

‘My children had to sleep on the floor’ 

'Living in a building site': Emma Short and daughter Courtney

'Living in a building site': Emma Short and daughter Courtney

‘Living in a building site’: Emma Short and daughter Courtney

An A-level student recovering from cancer was forced to sleep on the floor for three months when a rogue builder left without finishing a loft conversion.

Mother-of-two Emma Short, from Coventry, spent £9,500 before the tradesman suddenly stopped work on the conversion claiming he had ‘gone bankrupt’.

She has also shelled out £4,000 on repairing damage done to the house and her furniture by his workmen.

Emma, who works as a trainer for special educational needs schools and foster carers, was originally told the work would be completed at a total cost of £15,000 to £17,000, and that it would take eight weeks.

The two-bedroom house in Coventry marked a new start for her family following an acrimonious divorce.

But shortly after the build began in January 2021, problems started. The workmen regularly damaged her walls, furniture and carpets, and often only worked a couple of hours each day. 

As delays mounted, Mrs Short’s two daughters, now aged 13 and 19, were forced to sleep on inflatable beds on the sitting room floor for months.

Her eldest child, Courtney, who has an autism spectrum disorder, was recovering from childhood cancer and studying for her A-levels at the time.

Eventually, weeks passed with no work being done and, in June, the builder told Mrs Short he was going bankrupt and would not complete the project.

The electrics, plastering and insulation have been left unfinished, while the council has ordered the stairs to the attic be ripped out as they do not meet fire regulations. There is also a hole in the roof, dangerous wires hanging out from the wall and the builder owes money for furniture his workmen damaged.

Emma says: ‘As a parent, I feel I’ve failed my children. They’re living in a building site and I can’t do anything to get it fixed.

‘The woman from the council said, ‘I’m not even going to look’. She said I needed to rip it out and start again.

‘I’m angry that the builder has done it. He knew my situation and my daughter’s past, and yet he still chose to do this.’

Trading Standards refused to investigate, telling her it was a civil matter, but Emma cannot afford to go to court. She has made a complaint to her home insurer but has not yet received any response.

She adds: ‘The rules are useless. I don’t know where to turn or what to do.

‘I work hard for my money, I miss out on things for my children and to keep a roof over their head, and now I feel it’s worthless and pointless.’

An Association of British Insurers spokesman says: ‘While you should always check your policy for the scope of cover provided, damage caused by faulty workmanship, faulty design or use of faulty materials is not commonly covered by home insurance.’

Katherine Hart, doorstep crime lead at the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, says: ‘The number of cowboy builder incidents has gone up significantly. 

People can get scammed up to and beyond £50,000. The criminals will exploit for as much as they can get. I’ve heard of people who have ended up signing over their home.

‘People are so desperate to get work done. These are criminal organisations that see a weakness in society and they’re quite quick to exploit it.’

Brian Berry, chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders, says: ‘Even when you’ve done all your homework you can still fall victim to an unscrupulous building company.

‘There is a huge demand for builders coming out of lockdown, with people wanting to extend their homes, material prices going up and a skills shortages. It’s difficult to get a good builder at the moment.’

Last night there were renewed calls for the Government to regulate the industry and protect vulnerable homeowners.

‘Our life’s been left in tatters’ 

A couple were left facing a £63,000 bill after a rogue builder put up wonky walls and uneven floors.

Mark Smith, 56, and his wife Gillian hired an architect and a builder to work on a kitchen extension and garden room at their three-bedroom house.

But the ‘cold, callous and heartless’ builder left them living in a building site in Stourport-on-Severn, Worcestershire.

Wonky workmanship: Mark Smith, 56, and his wife Gillian were left living in a building site and facing a £63,000 bill

Wonky workmanship: Mark Smith, 56, and his wife Gillian were left living in a building site and facing a £63,000 bill

Wonky workmanship: Mark Smith, 56, and his wife Gillian were left living in a building site and facing a £63,000 bill

They were forced to pull the internal walls down and replace the door frames.

There are still gaping holes in the walls and floors, ‘bangs in the night’ as bricks crumble and the roof has been installed at the wrong angle.

The builder became aggressive and refused to admit fault when they asked him to fix the work in March 2020.

When he finally did so nearly a year later, he ‘made it worse’ and boarded up the walls to hide it. The builder left with £33,000 of the couple’s money and they estimate it will cost a further £30,000 to rectify the errors.

But the Smiths have been told it will cost between £20,000 and £30,000 to pursue the case through the civil courts and, even then, the company can be wound up to avoid any resulting court order.

Mark, a sales manager, has been left trying to complete the work himself at the weekend. The father of one says: ‘We have suffered two years of heartache, sleepless nights and tears over this ordeal. My wife and I get up feeling depressed.

‘Until you’ve gone through this situation, you don’t understand — it is total anguish. He’s nothing but a rogue and he’s left our life in tatters.’

He called for a law to give recourse to victims, adding: ‘You feel so helpless.’

Tory MP Mark Garnier, who fell victim to a rogue builder himself and campaigns on the issue, says: ‘This is a massive problem. It is such a completely bust system. The Government have got their head in the sand over this.

‘We need a licensing regime with an ombudsman — then we can crack on and regain confidence to get building work done.’

Industry figures reveal that one in three homeowners has been put off starting work because they are worried about taking on a rogue builder.

In 2021, the Citizens Advice consumer service had more than 58,800 reports of issues related to home improvement, glazing products and installations. This compared with 50,000 reports in 2019, and 46,000 in 2020.

Most complaints about work in 2021 involved major renovations, roofing and chimney repairs, and windows and door frames. The Citizens Advice ‘problem with building work’ web pages also had a record 160,000 views in 2021, up from 105,000 in 2020 — a rise of 52 per cent.

Until regulation is introduced, there are ways you can protect yourself.

Only use a builder who has been recommended or one you find on a trusted directory, such as the Federation of Master Builders’ Find A Builder online service.

Always make sure you have a written contract with your builder, detailing the price, what is included and the timescale for each stage.

Pay for work only once the job, or each stage, has been completed satisfactorily. And beware builders who are not VAT-registered, offer a dirt-cheap quote or insist on cash payment.

[email protected]

As an MP and victim, why we MUST act, says MARK GARNIER, Conservative MP for Wyre Fores

Abandoned: Tory MP Mark Garnier's builders stopped taking his calls with the job half done

Abandoned: Tory MP Mark Garnier's builders stopped taking his calls with the job half done

Abandoned: Tory MP Mark Garnier’s builders stopped taking his calls with the job half done

In my role as an MP, I see plenty of cases where dodgy builders have done shoddy, dangerous work, leaving victims thousands of pounds out of pocket. But I never expected to fall victim myself.

When looking to restore our home, my wife and I enlisted the help of a building firm I knew through my work as an MP. I believed I could trust them.

The two builders met with the architect to discuss the plans and drew up contracts to guarantee they would complete the demolition, rebuilding and extension within six months.

It started well and the standard of work was OK. But it soon became clear it would take much longer than we’d expected, and the two builders quickly dropped to one when the junior got fed up with his working conditions.

When the work was overdue by four months, they had barely finished half the contract. They stopped taking our calls and when we went to visit the project manager’s home, he refused to see us.

Eventually, the site was completed to a basic level, with no extension and large parts left undone.

That’s when the real nightmare started. They presented us with a mostly fictitious six-figure bill. We engaged a legal team to challenge it but, at each turn, the builders made up more charges.

Our project began in July 2016 but we reached a settlement only in March 2021. It cost us more than £100,000 in legal and settlement fees, and I still have sleepless nights about it.

We need a licensing regime — this has to end.

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Source: dailymail

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