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Help-needy householders must beware the BBC's Good advice

legal matters

The powers that be spend much of their time and effort trying to improve the lot of householders undertaking building works to boost their confidence in the construction industry.

There are government initiatives to tackle cowboy builders; residential occupiers are exempted from the rigours of adjudication and the payment provisions of the Housing Grants Act; the conduct committees of the various professional institutions labour to uphold standards in the public interest - the list of initiatives goes on.

But despite all these efforts, at the dispute end of the construction industry, we still see a regular procession of hapless householders in a horrible muddle, and their position cannot be overstated. For most, a building dispute about their own home is the stuff of nightmares. So how do these things happen?

It might be something to do with those rather jolly TV home-makeover programmes that inspire many to launch into building works, which seem to have spawned some equally jolly spin-off magazines.

One of these is the BBC Good Homes magazine, the August 2004 issue of which includes, under the subheading 'Financial Advice', '20 ways to save on home extensions - use these tips to keep costs down'.

Some of these pearls of wisdom may raise the hackles of readers of this esteemed journal. One suggests: 'Employ an architectural technologist for small jobs. These are trained architects who haven't completed all the exams, so their fees should be lower.' Or ensure that your architect's fixed fee includes any redesigns as 'this could save you at least £320'. And how about this: a quantity or building surveyor (at a cost of about £90 an hour) 'will work out the cost of your project and prevent you from spending thousands of pounds on pursuing the wrong scheme'?

But to really defeat all the good work aimed at helping householders and whip up a bit of contractual confusion, just try out tip number13:

'Pay subcontractors direct. This will lower the VAT on your builder's bill, but make sure you check who's liable for the work.' Assuming that the basic premise holds water, which is that the main contractor is registered for VAT and their subcontractors are not (which is far from certain), let's explore this idea. The reasons many employers opt for a main contractor/subcontractor structure are well known. There is a single point of responsibility - the main contractor - that is liable for the works, and responsible for organising and paying subcontractors. That single point of responsibility has the benefit for the employer of knowing who to talk to about problems, and having only one potential dispute interface. As soon as payments bypass the main contractor, there will almost inevitably be confusion about who has a contract with whom, who is responsible for coordinating the works, and who is liable for what.

The potential nightmare scenarios are endless but, to invent one example, what if the main contractor lays an underfloor heating system, and another contractor lays the floor over it, and damages the heating? (This scenario, of course, assumes that there is a flooring contractor, which disregards the tip: 'By doing jobs like tiling, painting, and the flooring yourself, you'll shave hundreds of pounds off your builder's fees'). Before anyone realises there has been damage, the householder pays the flooring man. The main contractor says there is a direct agreement between the householder and the flooring man, and it is the householder's responsibility to get the floor lifted and replaced again after the heating is repaired. What is more, the main contractor says, the householder must pay for the heating repairs and try to get the money back from the flooring man. And the disruption has caused delay to the contract, and the main contractor wants some loss and expense.

The householder can go along with the main contractor's view of things, or have a dispute there and then about the contractual arrangements. Neither route is trouble free, and certainly not cheap.

On further reflection, tip 13 might have something going for it. It does contain the caveat that the householder must check who is liable for the work. Who are they going to ask about that then?

But, on second thoughts, they might be better off asking the person sitting next to them on the bus, who probably has minimal overheads and will not charge VAT. Never mind if the answer is wrong.

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