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When Home Improvements Go Wrong

When home improvements are badly done, there are a number of ways to get things set right.

Once you’ve settled into a home, you will likely want to make any changes which would make it a more comfortable place to live. Unfortunately, there is always a possibility that the planned improvements will go wrong, leaving you worse off than when you started. In these situations, however, you have recourse under the law to get things fixed.

Problems with building work

The law says that any service carried out, including building work, should be done with “reasonable care and skill”, as stated in the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982. What is “reasonable” can in some cases be a matter of opinion, but in most situations it will be obvious when building work has been carried out to a poor standard. If the builder you hired has done the work poorly, it is their responsibility to put things right. You should not have to pay for them to do this.

Problems can also arise where a builder does something different to what you wanted. You should ensure that you were clear in explaining what the job involved – for example, check your paperwork and any diagrams or drawings which were provided before the work began. If they have failed to do what you hired them for, you can ask them to fix the problem for free.

You will not usually need to pay extra if they have done more work than you asked them to, as you did not agree to have this additional work done. However, in these cases you should check your original contract with the builder, as sometimes they may have stated that in certain situations they may have to do additional work and that the cost would increase accordingly.

If there is no such statement in their original quotation, you can ask them to undo the extra work they have done, for free. Alternatively, if you are pleased with the additional work, you may choose to keep it. You do not have to pay anything on top of the original price for this, as you did not agree to have the work done in the contract.

If you have a problem with the quality or details of building work you have had done, but they are only minor issues and you are not worried about having them fixed, you could ask the builder for a discount instead. However, there is no law covering this, and they may refuse.

Problems with materials

You have the legal right to expect the materials used in building work to be appropriate for the job. According to the law, any items used during construction need to be of satisfactory quality and fit for purpose. “Of satisfactory quality” means that the material in question needs to be well-made and in good condition. “Fit for purpose” means that the items are suited to what they are being used for.

The materials used should also fit the description you were given. If you selected a particular colour or style when arranging the building work, for example, then this is what must be used.

Examples of these problems with materials could include:

  • a pipe being installed which is cracked and leaks water (an example of an item being not of satisfactory quality)
  • the material used on your roof not being waterproof and letting the rain in (an example of an item being not fit for purpose)
  • a fireplace being installed which is not the one you selected (an example of an item being not as described)

Who exactly is responsible for fixing problems with building materials depends on the situation. If the builder you hired purchased the materials themselves, believing them to be appropriate for the job, they will need to sort out the issue themselves; they cannot simply tell you to take up the matter with another trader you have never spoken to. On the other hand, if you bought the materials and paid someone else to install them, then you will need to handle the problem yourself.

If the problem cannot be fixed, you may be able to negotiate a discount or even a refund with the builder.

Building work taking too long

When undertaking building work, there may be a contract setting out the deadline for the builder to complete it; otherwise, they will be expected to do so in a “reasonable time”. The meaning of “reasonable” will vary based on the job being done, and any circumstances which are not within their control.

For example, if it turns out that more work needs to be done than the builder could have anticipated, or if the work can only be done when the weather is dry and it rains continually for a month, you would obviously expect that additional time would be needed.

However, they cannot keep putting off the work for reasons unrelated to the difficulty of the task; for example, if they have too many other jobs to do elsewhere.

If your builder is taking too long even after you have talked to them about it, you may want to consider taking them off the job and getting someone else to finish it. However, unless you had already agreed on concrete deadlines which they then missed, cancelling their service may mean that you still have to pay them the agreed amount, even if they did not do the work.

In this situation, you can set deadlines after the work has already been agreed on. This is known as “making time of the essence”. In order to do this, you need to write a letter to the builder stating that you are making time of the essence and setting out any start or finish dates you have planned. These must be reasonable for the amount of work that is to be done.

If, having made time of the essence, the builder fails to meet the deadlines you have set, you can cancel their service without penalty. It is important to ensure that your deadline is reasonable for the amount of work to be done, however, as the builder may otherwise disagree with your timescale and argue that you are in breach of contract. You will not have to pay for any work they did not do, but anything which is already complete must still be paid for.

You can also claim compensation from the builder for any expenses you incurred due to their failure to complete the work on time, and, if you hire a new builder to finish the job and they charge more, you may be able to claim this additional cost back from the first builder.

Pricing problems

Usually you will have agreed a price with a builder for certain work before they begin. There are two ways in which this can happen.

If you got a quote from a builder and they started work while it was valid, they cannot charge more than the quote says, even if the work ends up costing them more than they thought (e.g. it takes longer than they expected or the price of materials goes up). Of course, if you agreed to pay more for some reason while they were doing the work, then you will still need to pay the amount agreed. Some quotations may also include a caveat stating that the price could increase by a specific amount if a certain situation arises.

If you got an estimate from a builder, this gives them more flexibility in what they charge, and you may have to pay more than was originally stated. However, it should still be reasonably similar to the estimated figure, and if the builder asks for a much higher sum at the end, you may refuse this and instead pay them a “reasonable” additional amount. Again, however, if you agreed to pay them more for extra work during the course of the job, you will need to honour this agreement.

Making a complaint

If, for whatever reason, you have a problem with the standard of home improvements you have paid for someone to carry out, the first step will be to contact the builder and give them the chance to fix things. Do this as soon as possible, as if you ignore an obvious problem for a long time it can be argued that you thought the standard of work was acceptable.

In situations where you haven’t yet paid the builder, you may want to withhold some of the money and say you will pay in full when the problem has been fixed. However, there is a risk they may take you to court over this – a safer option is to pay them under protest and send a letter explaining that you expect them to improve the poor-quality work soon. Give the builder an idea of when you expect them to have fixed the problems by.

If they do not deal with the issue, then you should check if they belong to a trade association and contact it if so, as it may have a complaints procedure you can make use of.

If not, you need to send the builder a letter proposing a deadline for them to repair the problems by. If there is no response to this letter, send another stating that if they fail to respond by a specified date, you will take further action against them.

Should the builder still fail to respond, get quotes from other builders stating how much the necessary work will cost. Send these quotes to your original builder and explain that you will hire another person to do the work if they do not respond by a specific date. If there is still no response, you can go ahead with having the work done and start taking steps to reclaim the costs from the original builder, possibly through the courts.

Construction mediation

If you have registered a complaint and not received a satisfactory response, you may wish to try mediation, a form of what is known as "alternative dispute resolution". Mediation is an option for those on either side of a building dispute. It can help the two belligerent parties work towards a resolution, with a trained mediator acting as an intermediary and facilitating dialogue between the two sides.

Advantages of mediation

Using mediation as an alternative dispute resolution can save much time and money if it negates the need for court action.  Furthermore, discussing the issue in a less formal environment is likely to put the people involved more at ease than they would be in a court room, and may allow a more nuanced agreement to be reached which takes into account the minutiae of the situation more than a black-and-white decision by a judge might. Another clear advantage of mediation over court action is the cost – court fees can be immense and it is best to avoid them if at all possible. Mediation, in contrast to using the courts, is quick to arrange and should not take too long.

Role of the mediator

It is the mediator’s duty to remain impartial at all times and not to divulge any confidential information to the other party. It is not the responsibility or right of the mediator to make a decision on the behalf of the opposing sides, nor to advise on the legal rights of either party. The role of the mediator rather than this is to assist them in arriving cordially at their own decision.

Proceeding to court action

Of course, going through mediation does not preclude the case from going to court, and this can still be done if the mediation proves unsuccessful. Even if this does transpire, the mediation process may still have partially resolved the issue, making a court case more expedient.

Outcomes of mediation

Possible outcomes of construction mediation are:

  • a refund
  • a compensation payment
  • an explanation
  • an apology
  • a replacement of goods and services
  • a change in policy or behaviour.

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