Building troubles are a homeowner’s worst nightmare. Michael Green goes on site to unearth the problems and find out how to make sure they don’t happen to you.
Just before 7.30am, Jack Crawford arrives on the job in Clayton. “On a cold morning it would be nice to just stay in bed,” he says, with the easy grin of an old surfer. “But it’s just about throwing that leg out first.”
Today, the 48-year-old builder is working on a pergola and outdoor dining area. Wearing his faded red cap, as always, he unloads his tools and his dog Ned, from the ute. Mr Crawford is a sole trader and he’s been in the industry for 31 years. “I just love being the carpenter and I want to be personal with the clients,” he says. “That’s where I get my satisfaction.”
Building or renewing your home is exciting. It can be like signing a new lease on life. If you see eye-to-eye with your tradie, even the dusty process can be fun. But what happens if your new square bathroom goes pear-shaped?
Tales of crooked tradies are standard fare at dinner parties and the dodgy workman has become a cliché of current affairs television. But it’s more than an urban myth. Building gripes account for about one-in-ten complaints made to the state consumer watchdog, Consumer Affairs Victoria (CAV). In this industry, the dollar values are high so complaints can be serious, both financially and emotionally.
CAV has researched the plight of Victorian consumers across all kinds of products. “We survey the nature of problems they experience in buying goods and services and assess the level of detriment involved,” says Dr David Cousins, CAV’s Executive Director. “More than 30 per cent of that comes out to be detriment associated with building.”
According to Dr Cousins, complaints normally relate to quality and to contracts. “Those are not unrelated at times because often people haven’t got in place a good enough contract to enable them to deal with issues that arise of poor quality,” he says.
Dr Cousins says his organisation has had a focus on shonky construction cases. In the last financial year, CAV prosecuted 34 builders. All up, the tradespeople were fined more than $400 000 and forced to pay nearly $190 000 in costs and compensation.
In one recent case, the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court convicted Wantirna South man Saroush Saeedi for lying to a McKinnon pensioner that he was a registered builder. Mr Saeedi charged almost $70 000 for work that an independent expert later valued to be worth no more than $1700.
Dr Cousins says the case is “not an atypical example” of the complaints received by his organisation. “We have dealt with lots of situations where elderly people have been taken advantage of by sometimes itinerant tradespeople,” he says. But the CAV chief is quick to note that when thinking about the number of complaints, we should keep in mind the high level of construction work on the go.
Mr Tony Arnel, the state Building Commissioner agrees. “For the most part, consumer satisfaction is really high in Victoria. The quality of building is high and the number of disputes is low.”
“Our focus is on making sure the building industry does operate at a high level,” Mr Arnel says. The Building Commission is an independent authority charged with overseeing the building control system. It conducts regular surveys on industry performance and its latest results show that nine out of ten people have high confidence in their builder, a slight improvement from the last set of figures.
Back on the job in Clayton, Mr Crawford and his apprentice Joel have spent the morning digging out the earth below the pergola and getting ready for concreting. The builder says he gets a thrill from jobs that go well. “If you get customers at the end who are really excited about what you’ve done, then that’s more than the payment you need. It’s almost like, ‘Well don’t worry about paying me’.”
To get the best results, Mr Crawford believes clients should try to take pleasure in the building process and not worry too much at the untidy early stages. “The eggs have to be broken,” he says. “There’s going to be a bit of dirt, there’s going to be a bit of mess, but if they enjoy that then we all feel more comfortable and more excited about turning up to work.”
He understands that clients can feel frustrated if a project drags on and tradespeople aren’t available. “Often what clients don’t realise is that their job is not the only job we’re doing…and that’s where a bit of angst comes in,” he says. “In an ideal world we would love to start and finish a job for one person then start the next, but the continuity of other tradesmen doesn’t allow you to do that.”
For people beginning new work, Mr Crawford’s main advice is to do your homework before choosing a builder. “Even if you do select someone out of the paper you can still say ‘Give us a list of your clients, and we’re going to go around and chat to them.’”
Mr Robert Harding, the Housing Industry Association’s (HIA) Acting Chief Executive for Victoria, agrees. “If you’re searching for a tradie from scratch then it can be a good idea to get a few quotes for greater piece of mind and to ask lots of questions about the process.”
He advises that clients get a written quote before agreeing to anything and also make sure that their tradesperson has the required licences or registration to do the work (only registered builders are allowed to do jobs worth more than $5000).
If something does go wrong, the first step is to talk about it directly to your tradesperson. “As with all things in life, sometimes work goes to plan, but sometimes it won’t,” Mr Harding says. “Always communicate: if you think something is going wrong say so, rather than letting it fester and blow up at the end of the job when it is possibly too late.
CAV advises straight talking too. “That’s best for both parties,” Dr Cousins says. “We find that often where disputes arise, communication breaks down and they become more intractable.”
If discussions fail, Dr Cousins says, your next stop is to contact the builder’s association (like HIA or the Master Builders Association Victoria), because if problems crop up the association’s reputation is at stake too.
Another option is to call Building Advice and Conciliation Victoria (BACV). Jointly run by CAV and the Building Commission, BACV offers free advice and help to resolve disputes. Where quality issues come up, it can organise for a technical inspection of the work.
“If we still can’t get a resolution of those issues then what we suggest to people is that they can take their matter to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal,” Dr Cousins says.
In the afternoon, Mr Crawford and his apprentice pour the concrete and then prepare for paving. He organises for delivery of new sand and cement and sets out levels for the next morning’s work. Finally, he arrives home at 5:30pm and then heads out again for Ned’s nightly hour-long walk.
By 9:00pm he’s at his desk plugging away at bookwork and quotes for upcoming work. Except for a few bad apples, Mr Crawford is sure that tradies do try to do their best for their clients. As for the secret to a smooth job, “it’s all about communication isn’t it?” he says. “That’s the key thing.”
Tips for trouble-free building
Invest time and effort at the start to save money and trouble if things go wrong. Check out your builder’s work record by contacting Building Advice and Conciliation Victoria, or the Building Practitioners Board. Talk to previous clients. Remember, if a quote seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Choose a registered builder
For work worth more than $5000, your tradesperson must be registered with the Building Practitioners Board. For work worth more than $12 000 your tradesperson must take out builders warranty insurance.
Don’t sign until you’re ready
Know what you are getting yourself into. Your building contract should list all costs, including fixtures and fittings. Make sure you understand the exact details of your plans and your contract. Avoid agreements that lock you in with a builder before plans and specifications are finished.
Ask independent experts
Before signing any contract – including the standard contracts developed by industry associations – get independent legal advice. Hire an independent building surveyor to check that the project will satisfy the regulations and your standards.
Don’t pay until a stage is done
Pay on time, but before each stage payment make sure the work has passed the surveyor’s inspection and all contractual requirements have been met.
Act immediately if things go wrong
If you think something isn’t right, talk to your tradie about it. Take photos of the problem and take notes of the conversation. Confirm any new agreements in writing and be sure to keep a copy of the letter. If you need help to resolve a dispute, call Building Advice and Conciliation Victoria on 1300 55 75 59.
Take an interest in the job and in the skill of the tradespeople. Everyone enjoys positive feedback, so compliment a job well done. And remember: a nice cup of tea or a glass of water can do wonders for your tradie’s enthusiasm.
Tips adapted from Consumer Affairs Victoria, Building and Renovating Quick Tips.