How to pick the right tradesperson
The electrician's got the stomach flu that's been doing the rounds. The builder still hasn't come back to fix up the cracks in the new plaster. And the plumber's at his grandmother's funeral - for the second time this month.
The headaches caused by bodged jobs and delayed renovations are almost enough to drive you to DIY.
There are plenty of good, honest tradesmen out there - it's just a matter of avoiding the shonky ones.
Back in the day, if you didn't have a personal referral you'd look for the company with the biggest advertisement and hope for the best, says Jason Carboni, general manager of NoCowboys.co.nz.
But in the internet age, there's no excuse for pulling out the phone book and plonking your finger down at random.
"It doesn't matter if you find the business on Yellow, whether your uncle recommended it or you just happened to drive past it," says Carboni - check it online.
NoCowboys is one of several free service review websites where you can read what others have said before you commit to anything.
It's word-of-mouth on a grand scale. The website has over 25,000 ratings which rank contractors in each category from best to worst.
Most of the reviews are positive, but if someone's done a bum job, everyone will know about it:
"A skill saw was used in our bedroom 'because it was raining outside' leaving thick dust all over our bed and bedroom," wrote Maree, irate after a bodged window installation.
"Our bedroom is 2m from the bedroom where two babies sleep ... this is unhealthy and unprofessional."
She "felt ripped off" that materials were marked up 600 per cent, and that no-one had been back to fix a funny lump in the carpet after a door jamb was replaced.
End result: Two stars out of five, and a red flag for future customers.
Do Your Homework
A few minutes of background research to weed out the cowboys and fly-by-nighters could save you a whole world of pain later down the track.
Building industry veteran Mark Trafford knows this. As director of property maintenance company Maintain to Profit he's constantly dealing with tradies, and has more than 40 individuals and businesses contracted at the moment.
"I've seen the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between," he says.
Trafford reckons the online reviews do have their place, but talking to current customers or references is key.
"And if you're going to spend a lot of money, ask to see the work they've done."
Beyond that, he says the three crucial checks to make are:
1. Are they licensed to be legally able to carry out the job?
2. Do they belong to a Masters or trade association, and what exactly does that mean?
3. Do they have insurance and a health and safety policy?
Of course, the full Spanish inquisition routine isn't always necessary.
"If you've got a handyman coming in to nail a paling back onto a fence, it's likely that he may not have a full health and safety policy," says Trafford.
"It's horses for courses, but it is worth asking those questions."
Jack of all Trades, Master of One
Most trades have some kind of industry association for the licensed and proven reliable operators, which gives them a point of difference over the rest.
"You don't just pay your fee and get in," says Brian Miller, chief executive of Master Painters NZ.
A Master Painter has to submit a body of work, agree to abide by a code of practice, and be covered by public liability insurance.
Anyone whose workmanship or behaviour doesn't scrub up can be held to account and ultimately given the boot.
"That's the most powerful sanction we've got," says Miller. "Guys fight hard pretty hard to keep their membership."
He reckons 95 per cent of the complaints the head office receives are from people unhappy with non-members.
"Usually they've said to us, 'he was a wee bit cheaper, so we took him'."
Trafford always checks out trade association membership, though he says it's not essential.
"For me, it just enhances the quality of the company that you're working with."
He does warn that the consumer benefits vary between associations, so find out exactly what they offer.
Value for Money
Ringing around a bunch of builders and asking for quotes is time consuming, so it's tempting to simply take the first reasonable-sounding offer.
Once again, the internet comes to the rescue. On a website like BuildersCrack.co.nz, you can submit a detailed job description for free and get quotes from interested contractors.
"When they can see they're up against three or four other guys, they're going to go in with the best offer right from the beginning," says co-founder and director Mark Dickson.
But that doesn't mean you should always go for the low-ball offer. Dickson submitted his own job recently and ended up going for the more detailed middle quote.
"We looked at the record of ratings and had confidence that the guy was going to be good."
Watch out for a suspiciously cheap offer- it may not be GST inclusive, or cover everything you think it does.
Trafford's rule of thumb is two quotes for a small job, three for a big one. Six is overkill and a waste of everybody's time.
Write it Down
In finest Kiwi tradition, many deals are sealed with little more than a firm handshake.
But if it all goes belly-up, see how well that handshake holds up in court.
Dickson reckons it's a good idea to have a written agreement that covers payments, timing, and expectations right from the outset.
He says every now and then the cost will blow out for a legitimate reason mid-build, or the job will change in size- which also needs to be written down and agreed upon.
Timing is also important to agree on, given that tradies are almost as good as journalists at stretching deadlines.
When you're trying to wrangle multiple contractors at once, and one's being held up by another, it can set your project back months.
Some people even agree to set penalties for missing deadlines on bigger jobs- it all depends on the individual agreement.
One thing all our sources stress is to never fork over all the cash immediately.
"People pay a little bit more upfront than might be wise," says Dickson.
"A deposit in the vicinity of 10 per cent, or maybe a little bit more, is often appropriate." Another good way to keep things moving along smoothly is to feed the money out on a schedule, with payments tied to reaching various milestones.
Beef with Chippies
Rubbing a tradesman up the wrong way is not a smart idea, unless you feel like sleeping under a tarpaulin in a half-renovated bedroom for the next six months.
But if the work's not up to scratch or there's confusion over payments, it might all fall to pieces.
Trafford says the first thing to do is sit down and try to hash it out face-to-face.
"Sometimes it can just be a genuine misunderstanding."
If that doesn't work, you can pay an independent mediator to try and smooth the waters. And if the contractor belongs to an industry association, it might have an in-house process you can use too.
The Master Builders Association, for example, can't get bogged down in contractual disputes, but it will look at some situations and intervene if they think it will help both parties move ahead.
The final recourse is going to the Disputes Tribunal. That costs very little – between $30 and $120- but takes up a lot of valuable time.
It can also only hear claims up to $15,000, or $20,000 if both parties agree, which means you'll have to go to court for a really big stuff-up.
Consumer NZ helpfully provide a whole lot of form letters [http://www.consumer.org.nz/reports/letters-about-services/final-notice] to cover most dispute situations- just fill in the blanks.
If you do your due diligence and pick the right tradie for the job from the start, hopefully you'll never need them.
- © Fairfax NZ News