Mark Keenan: Tricksters of the trade alert
A HOME improvement tax credit is among the few stimulus measures Finance Minister Michael Noonan is considering for this budget. Already successful in Germany, Italy and Canada, it allows homeowners to write off some of the costs of hiring tradesmen for certain home improvement jobs.
However, consumers will need to be careful in a tough climate which has seen many 'by the book' tradesman forced out of business by less scrupulous and corner-cutting cowboys. Home owners who will be encouraged under the new credit system to get big jobs done will need to ensure they can avoid those who come tooled up with their own tried and tested tricks of the trade for conning homeowners and extricating extra spending where it is not warranted.
Getting caught by a tradesman can cost you anything from a few hundred euro to thousands – including the additional cost of having a dodgy job redone properly.
Julie Fogarty (not her real name) narrowly avoided being stung by two plumbers recently when she called in a plumber to sort out a hot tap water flow problem in her kitchen, to install an outdoor tap and to replace a gravity-fed shower unit upstairs.
Sourced on the internet, her man diagnosed the water flow problem as the result of a twisted pipe located under the concreted and tiled kitchen floor. The floor would have to be torn up to sort out the problem and helpfully, her plumber had just the building contacts to do the job.
He also said the surround doors would have to be removed to install the new shower and, because of how they were made, they couldn't be refitted. He advised a new set at a cost of €370 including labour.
"It was when he bodged the outdoor tap by leaving a big open hole in the wall around the pipe that we started to get suspicious. He had also been asking to borrow basic tools from us, like wrenches. So we decided to call in another plumber," Julie said.
The latter arrived in a luxury car and immediately criticised his predecessor's work. "He solved the kitchen tap problem straight away by removing a simple blockage in a pipe under the sink. He also told us there was no reason why the existing shower doors could not be refitted. We thought we had finally got the right guy for the job.
"But then he started pitching us to upgrade the work. He said that a new gravity-fed shower wouldn't feed the same pressure as the old one and urged us to get an electric power shower at the cost of €200 extra. He also said he would have to replace the existing shower tray at a cost of €400. But there was nothing wrong with it.
"In the bathroom shop, the assistant told us that the plumber was taking us for a ride. He said a new gravity-fed shower would be fine and so too would the old shower pan. All in all, we could have been done out of thousands if we'd listened to the first guy while the second guy tried to rope us into spending €600 unnecessarily. It didn't leave us with much faith in Irish tradesmen."
As in any businesses, there are good and bad. When hiring a tradesman, be it a plumber, painter, carpenter or electrician, there are simple steps to take to avoid being stung.
Architect David O'Shea of ODOS said, "I work with top class people and thankfully they're in the majority. But when you don't know what you're getting into, it's much easier to get ripped off. The first rule of thumb is to get three quotes for every job. Secondly, get references – good tradesmen are proud of their work and have no problems letting you talk to previous clients. Always look for tax-accredited people because while it might be tempting to save on the VAT, you have absolutely no comeback on the work. Finally, keep an eye on what they're doing – make sure they're not sitting around in the attic, having a smoke and stretching out the hours. If it's a big job, take pictures of the work as it progresses in case you need them for reference afterwards. Make sure pensioners and vulnerable people have a family member present when agreeing on the job, older people in particular can be bamboozled into taking on work they don't need."
Queries through the construction industry show that there are some common scams which are perpetrated by different professions. Here are a few pointers to be aware of:
1. When fitting new bathrooms or kitchens, don't be persuaded to opt for more expensive options once you've made up your mind. Talking clients up is a way for plumbers to generate additional cash.
2. If a plumber says you need to replace a heating system or a water tank, always get at least one other professional opinion; persuading homeowners to replace systems which can just as easily be repaired is a way that crooked plumbers make money.
3. Ask to see a price list for the fittings which will be installed and check out the prices online or at the supplier to make sure they match up. Make sure that these are the fittings which have been installed. Big price mark-ups on fittings is a way crooked plumbers make money. Expect 10 to 15 per cent to compensate for sourcing bother, but no more.
4. Watch out for switching. Some crooked plumbers will list prices for expensive fittings but later incorporate much cheaper versions.
CARPENTERS AND JOINERS
1. Ask for receipts for the materials purchased and tally the details with what arrives – overbuying materials charged to one client and salting them away to sell to another is a way that crooked carpenters can make money.
2. Make sure you are not billed for expensive materials only to have cheaper versions used. "There's a lot of substandard stuff coming in from China at the moment," said David O'Shea. "When it comes to sheet material, the good stuff is normally stamped with marques of recognised industry standards."
1. Be there at the start of each room to ensure that the surfaces are prepared adequately when sanding or sugar soaping is required. Skipping prep work is a way that unscrupulous painters can con their clients.
2. Paint replacement – The price difference between standard and quality paint can be 100 per cent. Crooked painters will often buy one or two cans of expensive paint to start the job, and then pour much cheaper paint into the cans as they proceed. Ask for receipts and check in the bottom of bins, or skips or bags, for empty containers pertaining to other brands.
1. Don't fall to "pitching up" – many electricians boost their earnings by selling work which is not required, like additional fittings and outdoor lighting.
2. A good electrician will look at ways of saving you money rather than costing you. If he is pitching you 20 downlighters for a room and six halogen sensor lights for your back garden, then be suspicious.
"Absences: Be suspicious of those who spend long periods off the job sourcing materials and tools. Good tradesmen come equipped with the right tools and know where to get what they need quickly, they shouldn't be gone longer than an hour, especially when you're paying them by the hour," said architect David O'Shea.
"Who's working?: "When you hire an accredited professional, make sure they are the one ultimately doing the work, not an apprentice or a less qualified sub contractor," added David O'Shea.
Age: Sometimes age makes a difference.
One contractor adds: "I find that older tradesmen are generally much better at what they do. That's down to the fact that they trained properly under the old apprenticeship system. They have more pride in the finished work while some of the younger guys are more interested in the bottom line – the cash, and getting in and out as quick as they can."
Payment: Never pay all the money upfront, pay in stages and always try to keep a substantial chunk of the money back until after the job is completed, if even to stop them wandering off to another job while they're undertaking yours.
Guarantees: Insist on a "warranty" – good tradesmen are happy to come back and fix any faults with their work.
Sunday Indo Business