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Has the sun set on the cowboy builder?

COWBOY BUILDERS - Have you heard the one about the cowboy builder? Actually, he did quite a good job, if a new survey is to be believed.Emma Crates reports

AROUND four years ago terrestrial viewers were treated to an intimate fly-on-the-wall study of the humble British builder at work. If the title, Builders from Hell, left anything to the imagination, the programme hammered the message home.

The parade of incompetents, jobsworths and petty crooks masquerading as skilled tradesmen was enough to make homeowners hurl their remote controls out of the window; if they could have trusted anyone to come round and fix it afterwards.

This is just one in a tranche of media onslaughts on cowboy builders in recent years.

According to tabloid lore, rogue traders dominate the domestic building scene, overcharging gullible clients, botching jobs and leaving half-finished conservatories and leaking extensions in their wake.

But while the disreputable cowboy builder swaggers large in public consciousness, a new national survey bursts this bubble.

A couple of months ago the Chartered Institute of Building commissioned YouGov to investigate the extent of problems in small domestic building scene.

'So little real work has been done in this area. It's part of the industry that we knew very little about, ' says CIOB deputy chief executive Michael Brown.

The organisation was keen to examine the incidence of homeowners who had had bad experiences, identifying trends in the types of work, methods of employment and groups most at risk.

The initiative had been triggered by several factors: the Office of Fair Trading receives more than 100,000 complaints annually about substandard work carried out by builders.

In an OFT report published in 2004, home maintenance, repairs and improvements were the biggest area of complaint. In 2005, The Federation of Master Builders found that one-third of homeowners were prepared to pay cash to get a cheaper price. But 10 per cent of those who had done this complained that it had backfired.

'The domestic builder sector is still a very dysfunctional part of the market. Things happen in a more haphazard basis here, it's not scientifically measured, people still pay cash and work without contracts. The sector sits somewhere between retail and construction industry, ' comments CIOB deputy chief executive Michael Brown.

But the YouGov report found that, out of a healthy sample (see right) 91 per cent of respondents said that they were either satisfied or extremely satisfied with the work that had been done on their properties. Even Mr Brown was taken aback.

'It was extremely surprising; at first we wondered what had gone wrong, ' he says. 'But this survey was entirely independent, and valid in every sense. No one is denying that the horror stories you hear about are true. But they seemed to take up the public consciousness in a big way.'

It is possible that consumers, alarmed by the horror stories, have become more cautious when employing a tradesperson. The consumers who were most satisfied with the work that their builder had done were also correspondingly better informed and had done more research.

A total of 41 per cent of respondents had checked references before employing their tradesperson, while nearly 27 per cent had checked whether the firm was a member of a professional body or trade association.

Nearly half of those su rveyed said they received a written quote prior to work starting, while 39 per cent had accepted a verbal quote.

And four out of five of respondents said that they had agreed a payment schedule in advance.

Furthermore an impressive 94 per cent said that they had some form of warranty or guarantee for the work carried out.

Of those surveyed, nearly a quarter experienced problems that required extra or remedial work after the job was completed and, of those that had reported problems, nearly three-quarters reported that the same builder had sorted it out at no extra cost. But 40 per cent of respondents did no checks whatsoever.

The cowboy element also crept in when nonpayment of VAT was discussed. Those who had paid cash-in-hand for their building work were dissatisfied in 7 per cent of cases. But only 3 per cent of those who had paid VAT, or did not need to because the building firm came under the VAT threshold, were dissatisfied with the results.

CIOB chief executive Chris Blythe says: 'The public is clearly responding to consumer advice by making simple but common sense checks.

Those that did not were either very lucky or don't know whether they got a good job or not.'

The cowboy builder is not yet dead, but reputable tradesmen should take heart. He might just be going into intensive care.