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Too many housebuilders offer poor customer service

Homes under construction
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Housebuilders boast 90 per cent of new homes are defect-free – that leaves a vast number that aren’t, and little recourse for their buyers

Seventeen years ago Stephen Watkins, a director of public health, and his wife Elizabeth commissioned a new home on the shores of Hollingworth Lake, Littleborough. But a series of legal wrangles over defects ensued, first with the builder, and then the warranty provider, and today their house in Lancashire still remains empty as they continue their battle for recompense with the National House Building Council (NHBC). Theirs is a complicated and extreme example of the plight home-buyers can find themselves in when they are dissatisfied with the quality of their new home – warranties aren’t necessarily what buyers think they are, and the law is weighted heavily in favour of the housebuilder.

The Watkinses were just two of a number of witnesses who have been giving evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Group for Excellence in the Built Environment, which is looking at the quality of new homes. The inquiry was set up by the chair of the group Oliver Colvile and his fellow Conservative MP Maria Miller, both concerned by the steady troop of constituents complaining about defective housing and a lack of affordable recourse to get it sorted. Sometimes it’s the builders not playing ball; other times – as many new buyers discover too late – warranties cover structural defects, but not mould growing on the walls. The fact that the new home has been given a clean bill of health from local authority building control or some other approved inspector provides a high degree of comfort that the walls are not about to fall down and that other building regulations are met, but it offers no assurance whatsoever that the downlighters come on and kitchen appliances work.

Anecdotally, housebuilders say 90 per cent of new homes are defect free. But even at modest building rates of 100,000 that still leaves 10,000 new homes that aren’t. As former housing minister Nick Raynsford points out, the number of complaints is extraordinarily high – and that’s before we even get into the thorny issue of homes that fail to live up to the tight energy requirements they’re designed to meet. As skills shortages continue to bite, and housing output is ramped up, it’s not surprising many are asking whether even current quality levels will decline.

The stress of battling to get defects put right wears people down, and damages relationships and health

Architects have campaigned for higher space standards and better design as a mark of quality. But more also needs to be done to ensure that quality means homes that are defect-free, and where they are not there is cheap and quick recourse for putting them right. As was pointed out at the inquiry by the Watkinses, buyers have more consumer rights buying a toaster than they have making the biggest purchase of their life.

Having a sloping floor, blocked drains or doors falling off isn’t life threatening, but the stress of battling to get them put right wears people down, and damages relationships and health.

Housebuilders – not all clearly; there are many exceptions – can offer poor customer service because it’s a seller’s market, and unlike John Lewis or Pizza Express they don’t rely on repeat business.

Sadly, it’s all a far cry from other walks of life, where the internet is awash with public reviews and websites rating everything from hotels to dog food, architectural services to teachers. House-building is ripe for disruption but there’s barely a flicker on the radar yet.

(The news that renewable energy specialist WElink is set to enter the UK housing market by building 8,000 zero-carbon homes, after signing a £1.1 billion strategic agreement with China’s state-owned National Building Materials Group, has been the nearest we have to Uberising the sector. But that won’t have any significant impact on the domestic market unless it’s multiplied five-fold.)

So in the foreseeable future, improvements will only come about by government intervention and a realisation that quality is every bit as important as quantity. Just ask the Watkinses.

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