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I expose cowboy builders – here’s how to spot a dodgy tradesman & the Line of Duty-style trick customers always fall for

COWBOY builders are a homeowner’s worst nightmare - but how can you tell if a tradesman is dodgy?

More of us are becoming targets in the wake of rising costs for building materials and cash-strapped consumers looking to save their pennies, with bodged work costing £1,600 on average per job.

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You can't always trust a tradesperson because you have their phone number warns Clive HollandCredit: Getty

But there are a few simple ways to avoid falling foul of rogue rip-off merchants, according to radio broadcaster Clive Holland.

Here the building and property expert, who spent 25 years in the industry, reveals how to tell if a tradesperson is dodgy as well as the dos and don'ts that could save you a fortune.

Dodgy suitor

Many of us let our guard down when confronted by a sharply-dressed, smooth-talking salesperson – but they are not always who they appear to be.

“Unfortunately, a cowboy builder doesn’t walk around with a cowboy hat and boots, so they are not always the easiest to spot,” Clive, 58, from Burton-on-Trent, told The Sun.

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“Looks can be deceiving and while builders should be smartly dressed, sometimes they may have just come from the site or a job.

“They may look a bit messy or their builder's bum may be on show, and while no one wants to see that, it doesn’t mean they are a bad tradesperson.” 

Be wary of the builder from 'down the road'

Clive claims most people get lazy and forget to do their due diligence when it comes to arranging renovations and repairs.

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Clive Holland, who used to present the TV show Cowboy Trap, tells Sun readers his top tips to avoid rogue tradespeopleCredit: BBC

This tardiness, he says, is behind many of the unfortunate tales of people being conned out of thousands.

Clive, who presents on Fix Radio, said: “If you’re looking for a builder, don’t immediately trust the person working on a house down the street.

“Go to your local builders’ merchant and ask them for the three best people they know. You’ll be surprised by how helpful they can be.

“The workers they recommend will be solid tradespeople, who are nice and pay the merchant on time – proving they are trustworthy.”

Ask to see their work

Clive explains that “any tradesperson worth their salt” will have worked on similar jobs to the one you are asking them to complete.

“Always ask to see a like-for-like job and then go to visit it to ensure everything is legitimate,” he said. 

“If they give you an address don’t be afraid to go and knock on the person’s door and ask them what they thought of the work. 

“If they have red rings around their eyes or are in floods of tears, you have definitely found a cowboy builder.”

Be sceptical of door-to-door builders

Clive remembers one chilling tale about a retired university lecturer who was conned out of £36,000 by a rogue trader.

He recalled: “Some guys came around to say they noticed he had broken roof tiles and he thought they were genuine.

“Before inspecting the work they said it would cost a couple of hundred quid and he thought, ‘Great!’

“They went up a ladder and pretended to inspect it. Some cowboy builders take something heavy to break one of your tiles.

This poor guy made a few mistakes like not signing a contract or getting a second opinion

Clive Holland

"He came down with some straw in his hands and claimed squirrels were nesting up there and it would cost £5,500 for a whole new roof.

“They told him he couldn’t be in the house while they were working because of the dust and so he went to stay with a family member.

“When he returned the bill was £36,000. He was devastated but paid it with his life savings – instead, he should have called Citizen’s Advice. 

“Later, a real inspection revealed they hadn't done any work and the tiles were exactly the same. Nothing was wrong with his roof in the first place.

“This poor guy made a few mistakes like not signing a contract or getting a second opinion. He didn’t go up the ladder himself or use binoculars or a camera phone to check the damage either.”

Don’t say how much you can afford

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Clive Holland warns against telling tradespeople how much you have to spendCredit: Getty

Talking about money with a builder isn’t easy – but when you do, Clive advises keeping your cards close to your chest.

“When someone comes around to give you a quote, do not tell them how much money you've set aside for the job,” he explained.

“If they know, they will definitely make sure the job costs that exact figure or a little more when it could be considerably cheaper. 

“It’s like playing cards, never show a person your hand because they will take the lot.”

Rule of three

According to data from Checkatrade, a quarter of homeowners get just one quote before work is carried out – and Clive warns this is a major faux pas.

He insists you should always get at least three quotes to ensure you are getting the best price - and be wary of very cheap quotes.

Clive recalled: “One lady paid £10,500 for work on her driveway because it was £5,000 lower than the other quotes – alarm bels should have been ringing.

“Within four months it had started to sink because it wasn’t done correctly and when she tried to call the person their phone line was disconnected.”

He also warns homeowners to be wary if someone offers to take off the VAT if a person pays in cash or doesn’t sign a contract – because it's a common scammers' trick.

How to spot fake paperwork

Before hiring any tradesperson for a job it’s important to ensure they are qualified, registered and insured. 

Clive said: “Ask for a copy of their liability insurance and proof from official bodies that they have the right skills to complete the job. 

“They should be registered with different agencies - call them to ensure they are registered and do have the qualifications to do the work.

"You should also call the underwriters for their liability insurance to make sure it's still valid.

“If they make an excuse about not having documentation with them don’t hire them until you see it because they could be a rogue trader.”

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Some rogues tradespeople (posed by model) used fake paperwork to try to con youCredit: Getty

Never give money upfront

Cowboy builders often manipulate multiple people at once and speed is often the name of the game.

“You should never give builders cash upfront,” Clive insists.

“If you went to a restaurant you wouldn’t pay for the meal before you ate would you? You want to be sure of the quality and that it's real.

“It’s a tradesperson asks you for money upfront alarm bells should be ringing because if you have paid them before the job has started why would they do it?

“Every bonafide tradesperson has 30 days to pay their merchant for materials so they should not be in a rush for cash. 

“The only exception to this is if you are having bespoke furniture made because they will have to pay this immediately.”

Don’t trust flyers

Cowboy builders often produce letterheaded paper as proof and are willing to give customers their 'personal mobile number' – but you should be cautious about taking it at face value.

“Rogue traders use burner phones and pay-as-you-go sim cards because they are cheap and they don't have to register an address," Clive said.

"Then after they have made their money, they can chuck them away. It's the same with leaflets – they are not proof and they are inexpensive."

Always sign a contract

Clive says one of the best protections you can have is a Joint Contracts Tribunal (JCT) document, which outlines the work, materials needed and payment dates.

“A JCT protects you both by giving a start and estimated finish date, as well as the tradesperson's working hours and when they will take breaks.

“Sit down and go through each stage of the project: itemise everything they need and how much it will cost and both of your expectations.

“It may sound tedious but you’re paying a lot of money – everything from how many planks of wood to the number of doors."

Ways to save money

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Hire your own tradespeople to help with the job and you could save a fortuneCredit: Getty

One way homeowners can potentially cut costs is to buy building materials and hire everyone needed for the job themselves. 

“Got to the merchants and ask them what the best types of material are for your job are and how much they cost,” Clive said. 

“Tell the workman that you will provide the electrician, gas engineer etc because it will save you money if you hire people. 

“That way you can make sure you have the best people on the job and it could save you money rather than taking the tradesperson’s recommendations.”

Photograph their licence plate

Clive advises customers to be wary of tradespeople who don’t leave their vehicles outside your property – but there is a solution.

“Sneakily take photograph of your their vehicle's registration plate because there will be records of them and they can be traced if things go wrong,” he said. 

“Some rogue traders deliberately drive plain vehicles without any advertisements for their business to avoid being caught.

“Some even turn up on bikes, which can be a red flag.”

Stop wasting builders’ time

While many homeowners think they are being kind by offering refreshments but it could work against you.

Clive said: “It’s good to have an open dialogue with the person you are working with but don’t be in their face or talk to them too much.

“If you keep bringing teas, coffees, cakes and sandwiches you are slowing them down and that will make your job more costly.

“The odd hot drink is fine but don’t have long conversations about your day or finding out about their life story as it will prolong the job. 

Document the progress

Clive recommends photographing the different stages of the project to ensure all is going to plan and asking if you are concerned about something that looks wrong.

“Don’t be intimidated, politely ask them to explain what is going on,” he said. “If you are concerned, you can get a second opinion”

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Clive advises people to document the progress of work being done as it could be used as evidence if things go wrongCredit: Getty

‘Never tell your tradesperson to leave!’

Sometimes jobs can go wrong and if that does happen it’s vital to remain calm and not to lose your temper, Clive advises.

He said: “Never tell the tradesperson to 'leave your property' or words of a similar effect.

“The moment you say that the contract is officially ended and they will not have to return to complete the job.

“Some cowboy builders may try to secretly record you saying it as proof or trick you into sending it to them in writing.

“The correct phrase you should use is ‘Cease and desist for now’ – that way you are not ending the contract and they will have to complete the job."

‘Don’t be lazy!’

Despite rising concerns about cowboy builders, Clive insists they are in the minority and tarnish talented builders across the UK.

He said: “I personally believe Britain has the best tradespeople in the UK. I’ve travelled and have seen a lot of bad workmanship overseas.

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“There are good builders out there who carry out incredible work, but you have to do your research, your due diligence and don’t be lazy. 

“This is your hard-earned cash so make sure you’re getting the best work possible otherwise you will pay for it down the line.” 

You can listen to The Clive Holland Show on Fix Radio, which airs Monday to Thursday from 12pm.

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Clive Holland now hosts shows on Fix Radio and regularly takes calls from people who've been conned out of large sums by cowboy buildersCredit: FIX RADIO - Clive Holland
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