What are your rights if a maintenance or repair job goes wrong?
Cowboy builders and other types of rogue tradesmen are a well known and distressing problem for home owners, but what if you’re a landlord?
As a landlord, you’re not simply responsible for the maintenance and repair of your property, but bear the much greater responsibility of ensuring that your tenant’s home is maintained in good order – after all, a decent home is what the tenant is paying you a large proportion of their income for. Moreover, the rent from your tenant may make up a sizeable proportion of your own income, so it is in the interest of both landlord and tenant to keep the property well maintained.
There is plenty of advice on the internet about how to avoid the cowboys, but it’s been my experience that much of this is meaningless. For example, “never pay anything up front” – a lot of tradesmen are sole traders, paying for materials out of their own pockets, and at the moment, may be getting both less work and finding it harder to obtain credit. Moreover, unless the tradesman knows you well, how does he know he can trust you? We landlords usually demand both a credit check and a deposit before we take a new tenant – why should we expect other small business owners to take risks that we wouldn’t? Another standard piece of advice is “always ask to see previous work”. I had one particular workman (highly recommended and subcontracted by my then managing agent) who did an exemplary piece of rendering for me, on his Sunday afternoon off, as an emergency when I had tenants moving in. However, six months later, this same person came back to do another piece of render, among other jobs – on this occasion, his behaviour was so unprofessional the agent had no choice but to dismiss him halfway through the work. Moreover, the work he did manage was of such poor quality that builders I called in afterwards just couldn’t believe their eyes.
A couple of weeks ago, one of my tenants called to say that the hot water supply to the shower wasn’t working – 14 months after I paid for a completely new shower fuse box. I have used the company, a large well established TrustMark rated firm, several times for emergency electrical jobs. As the fuse box is fairly new, if it had been my own shower that wasn’t working, I would have waited and obtained alternative quotes – not least because I had my doubts about possibly paying the same people a second time for work that may not have been up to standard the first time. However, I could hardly expect my tenants, who pay me £700 a month, and have been extremely patient and understanding about an ongoing damp/condensation issue in the property, to go without something as basic as a shower. For this reason, I called the same firm who came the same day, fixing the shower albeit I had to pay dearly for repairs to the earlier work (I will be getting another firm in to check the entire electricity supply and the shower in particular). To add insult to injury (or perhaps injury to insult) a few days later my credit card company rang to confirm an unrecognised transaction – someone had used my card to pay £100 to a mobile phone company I have no dealings with. I only use my card to pay online through trusted sites, always use chip and pin in shops, and never give my card details over the phone – except to the emergency electrical company! Of course, I’ve no way of knowing for sure, but it seems too much of a coincidence.
Just two examples of how landlords can be particularly susceptible to rogue tradesmen, or just bad workmanship.
In 2004, trading standards officers in Surrey set up a “house of horror” to trap cowboy tradesmen, over the course of six months. They called in 44 random tradesmen in total, from several different trades. Their findings were that one in four carried out substandard work, and this excludes those that just tried to over charge.
So what are our rights if we fall victim to a rogue trader? I mentioned above that this particular property of mine has damp and condensation issues – this is in the bathroom. I recently called in a local damp specialist – a limited company established for 20 years, members of a professional body, who guarantee their work. They replaced a small area of internal plaster and installed an extractor fan – within weeks, my tenant advised that the fan wasn’t working (it’s the type that turns on automatically when the humidity reaches a certain level so it wouldn’t be immediately obvious). The plaster also failed to dry – possibly because the fan wasn’t working. I emailed the company twice – no response. I telephoned the owner – he didn’t think they’d received my emails, but if I could re-send the details again, he would look into it – I duly re-sent – nothing. All this was within 4 months of the work being completed. The owner then went on holiday, and both my tenant and I were also busy with other things – so unfortunately, it got forgotten about for a while – it remained a worry at the back of my mind though, and I was beginning to realise I might need to resort to legal action. By the time I contacted them again they still wouldn’t commit to even coming around to take a look. I told them I expected an answer within a week – when they failed to respond, I sent a letter before action – they came back immediately, claiming they were no longer liable as the fan manufacturer’s warranty had just expired – the fact that I had raised the issue with them, and had proof that I had, well within the warranty period and that therefore made it their responsibility made no difference to them. Their final answer was that they would now come out to take a look – at a cost to me of £75!
Aside from raising the issue with the professional body that the company belongs to, I now know for certain that I’ll be taking them to the small claims court. However, before doing this, I wanted to be absolutely sure of where I stood. After trawling the internet for specific information on English Consumer Law and something resembling my situation in particular, and still being none the clearer, then ringing the NLA legal advice line, and of course being told they only cover landlord and tenant law, not consumer law, I consulted a solicitor.
Sale and Supply of Goods to Consumers Regulations Act 2002
The solicitor explained that the fan manufacturer’s warranty was irrelevant, as my contract is with the damp proof company and is covered under the Sale and Supply of Goods to Consumers Regulations Act 2002. I hadn’t realised that under this act, during the first six months, any faults are automatically assumed to be inherent as opposed to having been caused by damage or negligence on the part of the customer – so the onus is on the supplier or service provider to prove the item or work has been damaged, not for the customer to prove that it is inherently defective. The customer must of course give the supplier the chance to remedy the situation, the number of chances given isn’t specified, but would be whatever was reasonable under the circumstances – in practice, 2 – 3 chances would normally be considered reasonable. After the first six months, the responsibility becomes the customer’s to actually prove the item or work is faulty but the customer still has six years under the Limitation Act 1980 to file a claim – though naturally this is relative to the reasonable life expectancy of the work or item in question. I should say, for the record, that the 2002 act only applies to individuals (or legal natural persons) not companies or other legal non natural persons.
The solicitor summed up by saying: “Because you have copies of the emails you refer to and you contacted them within the first 6 months you can rely on the above regulations for them to prove that the fan is not faulty rather than you having to show that it is. It is not relevant whether they claim not to have received the emails. This is not credible and the emails were sent to the correct email address and therefore deemed service will be presumed by the courts. Because they supplied the fan nor can they draw a distinction between the plaster and the fan being at fault. Whether it is the plaster and/or the fan, the buck stops with them because they supplied the materials.”
Just to be on the safe side, I ran a test against the email address I had sent the emails to – the result returned is the address belongs to a live, functioning email account.
I therefore look forward at least metaphorically, to seeing at least one lot of cowboys in court.
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