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Recently MyBuilder organised two kitchen renovations for the winner and runner up in ‘Britain’s Worst Kitchen’ competition. It was a chastening reminder of the potential pitfalls of any building project…

 

You don’t know the cost of a project until you see it

Taking on ‘Britain’s Worst Kitchen’ rather than just any kitchen meant it was well nigh impossible to produce a really accurate estimate for the prize costs up front.

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Paul Currie in his original kitchen

The trouble was that until you got into the kitchen, you just didn’t know what you’re going going to uncover. I mean, how do you budget for the fact that wiring that looks fine on the surface is dangerous – or the possibility that a homeowner is going to fall through the ceiling. How were we to know that Jeanette from Colchester had no bedroom floor? The costs can mount up once you scratch the surface, so coming up with the quote means walking a tightrope between the client’s expectations and potential problems.

Change is a fact of building life

On building sites things change all the time and often for very good reason. We originally planned to board out the Liverpool kitchen and skim (‘dot and dab’) but when our plasterer turned up he recommended ‘float and skim’ (putting on a cement based backing with waterproofer and then skimming over that).

Changing the way we were going to plaster meant changing materials, all very inconvenient but worth it in the end. Fortunately our supplier at Travis Perkins, Gavin Ledder, has the patience of a saint and we could rest easy knowing that we’d done the best possible job on Paul’s kitchen.

Paul Currie's new kitchen

Paul Currie’s new kitchen. L- R Liz, Paul’s Mum, Claudia, Paul Currie and niece Emily

Delays are preferable to errors

Delays are inevitable so you have to factor in some slack and manage everyone’s response when there is a delay, particularly on a build like a kitchen where you are juggling a number of different trades and a homeowner.

On day one in Liverpool, our plasterer was absent due to unforeseen circumstances and we had to find another one very quickly. Fortunately we found a gem of a tradesman called Ged Parsley from Woolton Plastering and Rendering, who saved the day but by then we’d already lost a day!

Ged Parsley

Ged Parsley of Woolton Plastering and Rendering

Ged worked his socks off and juggled other jobs but the plastering wasn’t done until the end of the first week, not the entire kitchen as previously planned. All the other trades were left waiting and luckily Paul the homeowner was very understanding but we still had a nail-biting three days to sit out before the plaster was dry enough to continue work. If we’re honest, it was tempting to press on regardless – don’t think we didn’t discuss it, after all we were a week behind schedule and all our well laid plans were shot – but in the end we knew we had to do what was best for the build.

Cleaning as you go along can help massively

When people are living in the house that you’re working on it can be tough. Plastering and joinery create mess, there’s no way round it!

Clearing up as you go along helps relationships on site but some tradesmen prefer to leave it all until the end. It can be really hard on the homeowner that way and it’s testament to Matt Woodgate of Propertytlc, that Colchester homeowner Jeanette prepared to get married during all the work without having a nervous breakdown.

Kitchen Units taking up space

Benchmarx kitchen units filling Jeanette’s lounge!

Space is another issue. In the case of both kitchens, neither house had much frontage or a big enough garden to work in, meaning our fitters had to do all their sawing either inside in a very small space – or out on the street. Working in a compromised space is stressful and tempers can easily fray, particularly if people get under your feet. Somehow you have to keep the inconvenience to a minimum but get the job done and that isn’t easy.

In Colchester, our problems were compounded when the Benchmarx units turned up ready-built. They filled the lounge to overflowing and frankly if we’d been the homeowner we’d have gone mad!  However, Jeanette was very chilled and having made-up units meant that we were able to shave a day or so off the time it took to install the kitchen. So despite the headaches and delays, the changes of plan and the budget juggling…

It was worth it in the end…

Jeanette's new kitchen

Jeanette and son Aiden in their stunning new kitchen

With two kitchens we can be really proud being used by two delighted families, we’ve learnt a lot and we’d like to know more. If you have any tips for other tradesmen or homeowners, or observations to share, post a comment…

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I recently read this article ‘The day I took on the tradesmen’s guild’ by Simon Read, the Independent’s personal finance editor, that raised an eyebrow. He hired a roofer for a small repair and was shocked to see that he had been billed for the roofer’s travel time.

“…a roofer had submitted an invoice for an hour and a half’s work replacing a couple of roof tiles that had blown off, when he had only been at my home for 45 minutes. That, to me, seemed unreasonable.”

He goes on to say:

“I don’t begrudge paying the going rate for expert work, but it didn’t sound fair to be charged around £90 an hour while the roofer was sitting in his van in traffic.”

I can relate to this because I know what it’s like to travel great distances for work. When I was working as a stonemason in Bristol, I did a job in Dorset that was a 2 hour drive each way. The travel costs took a lot out of my wages, not to mention the fact that I was leaving the house at 6am and returning as late as 8pm. I didn’t charge for travel and I put up with it because it was a big job and at least I could get a full day’s work in. But what of the tradesmen who do travel great distances for small jobs?

The main question is whether a tradesman should charge a client for travel time. I think the answer is no, personally.

Now, let me be clear that I’m making a distinction between that and a call out charge. Call out charges are a necessary and good thing. Urgent plumbing, heating, roofing and electrical problems, as well as locksmith work necessitate call out charges. Why? Because on a job that can be done in minutes, the hourly rate would be so small that it wouldn’t be worth the trip. Clients simply have to pay a call out fee in order to get someone willing to do it.

Getting to work in rural Cumbria frequently takes over two hours

There are two important differences between charging for travel time and charging a call out fee:

1. The client knows up front that there is a call out fee, and how much it is.

2. The fee is the same for every client, no matter how far away from the tradesman they live.

 

The first point is the bigger one, and if Mr. Read knew about the extra fee up front, he wouldn’t have taken issue with it. One of the most important rules for any kind of tradesman is to be clear about your fees upfront. There’s no excuse for doing otherwise, and any ill will generated as a result sits squarely on the shoulders of the tradesman.

The second point is more nuanced. Why shouldn’t a tradesman charge a larger fee to customers who are further away? I will argue that it’s not in the tradesman’s interest to do so.

Firstly, the client has no control over how long it takes you to get to their house. Nor do they have an easy way to choose tradesmen who have shorter travel times to their home. Yes, you can look for a local tradesman, but why would they necessarily be coming from their home when they head over to yours? Tradesmen who do small jobs pop from one job to the next, and it’s down to them to optimise their schedules for travel time.

Secondly, travel time accounting is open to abuse. As if to prove the point, Simon Read’s roofer eventually came back to say that he had ‘misread’ the clock in his van. Customers have no way of verifying travel time, and they know that. The biggest problem from the tradesman’s point of view is that billing for travel time leads to a lack of trust. And as we all know, you won’t get repeat work and referrals from a client who doesn’t trust you.

My conclusion is that Simon Read has a point around not being told upfront, but tradesmen who do small (especially urgent) jobs should charge a call out fee, and roofers after the recent weather are a prime example. It’s completely fair and reasonable. This is what Mr. Read’s roofer was trying to do in essence, but he handled it very poorly by adding travel to his hourly rate and not stating that up front. A storm in a teacup perhaps, but also a good learning experience.

 

Stone arch

Me working on a stone arch at Le Mazel in the Ardeche

Stonemasonry was an accidental career choice but one I have never regretted. When I started off in the building trade I was living in the South of France, in a little hamlet in the Ardeche.

I was 25 years old, and a professional artist. I’m proud to be able to use the word ‘professional’ because I did earn a living selling my work… up to the point when I landed in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language. Earning a living got that little bit harder.

I moved to France from NYC to help start an artist’s commune. I was always up for a bit of adventure, so I bought a one way ticket, and off I went, with my easel, my mountain bike, the rest of my painting stuff and a change of clothes. All my worldly possessions, in other words.

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The farmhouse at Le Mazel before it was restored

Le Mazel was a wonderful place, magical even. And while I didn’t have any rent or bills to pay, I did have to eat and by the end of summer 2000, my money was running out. To say it was difficult to sell art out there was a massive understatement. Most of the houses were ruins (not that there were many to begin with) and the Sanglier didn’t seem to have much cash.

A cash-strapped Sanglier

The owner of the commune-to-be embarked on some renovation and hired a German Maçon named Dieter. Short of help, Dieter saw a strapping young lad and enlisted him. I was already doing some bricolage around the property, so I was thrilled to be able to learn more.

After a few faux pas, like using kitchen measuring cups to mix mortar and not knowing how long 20 cm was (both of which made Dieter go completely nuts), I started to get the hang of it. I already knew that I loved working with my hands, but I also realised that building work was creative and extremely rewarding. And working outdoors in a beautiful setting like that was the icing on the cake.

Dieter

The keystone: I am operating the crane for Dieter

One of the highlights of my time working at Le Mazel was helping to build a stone arch that spanned 4 metres. We reused stones from another arch on the property that we demolished and then built a concrete load bearing arch behind it. When I go back and visit, I still feel an enormous amount of pride in being involved in the project. That feeling of having an impact on a place, helping to make something beautiful is what I loved most about being a stonemason.

With hindsight, I can see that it’s the same feeling I got from being an artist, and now the same feeling I get from MyBuilder. I’ve created something I can be proud of, and that makes me happy. It also helps to elevate work to something that’s timeless and priceless, well beyond just making money. That’s why I love my trade.

 

The other day I was having a conversation with a couple of my friends who are carpenters. They work as subcontractors and I was trying to convince them to start doing private work. Some of their reluctance to take the plunge was around financial risk, but they also found homeowners frustrating to work for.

They told some amazing stories of bad workmanship by other trades and how the customers just stuck with these guys as they did more and more rubbish work, simply because they were nice, or good bullshitters. It was clear that they worried that the quality of their work wouldn’t speak for itself in the eyes of homeowners.

They told me about the plumber whose shoddy workmanship caused a leak that made the ceiling fall in. He blamed a faulty pipe and then had the nerve to charge the client to fix it. My friends suggested that the client get a new plumber, but the angry response was that the plumber was a nice guy and they should mind their own business.

Ceiling ruined by bad plumbing

Then there was the story of the idiots who installed a washing machine at one of their kitchen fitting jobs. They neglected to take out the transportation bolts that fix the drum in place. And then they didn’t have a hole cutter big enough for the waste water hose, so they cut a smaller hole and heat shrunk the hose to fit. The resulting flood ruined the kitchen and the new floor, which my friends were called in to fix.

And then there were the shocking pictures of a skirting board being painted so badly that it made me want to cry. There was white paint all over the brand new dark hardwood floor they installed. I just can’t fathom this sort of vandalism.

These stories are so frustrating, you can see why some tradesmen want to avoid this crazy world and simply get on with their work.

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But we have to take the world as it is and for better or for worse, homeowners can be manipulated by unscrupulous tradesmen. It’s difficult to tell the good from the bad when you’re not in the trade. What this means for good tradesmen is that being good at your trade is just not good enough. You also need to master the ‘soft’ people skills that are required as a part of your job. It’s not easy to understand people. But boy will it help you succeed in life.

We have very similar challenges at MyBuilder, in fact. We have to balance tech prowess with good marketing and solid customer service. Some people take the attitude that as long as we have the best website, that’s all that matters. Others think that the website isn’t important as long as it works – all you need to succeed is good marketing. Yet others think that it’s all about customer service and sales. The truth is that you need all of these things to be successful.

For tradesmen, it’s the same. You need to be good at your trade (technical), you need to convince clients that you’re good at your trade (marketing), and you need to be responsive, communicative, and likeable (customer service).

Few tradesmen have all three of these nailed. Those who do are easy to spot. They’re the ones getting all the work on MyBuilder.com.

The 2013 Hero Project has been up and running for 2½ weeks and so far 338 tradesmen have pledged their support. This really shows how generous MyBuilder tradesmen are, and how they can make such a difference to people’s lives.

80 hero jobs have been posted so far, and entries will continue to be open until midnight on Sunday, December 15th. All homeowners have to do is post their story with a picture, explaining what they want done and why they deserve a hero like you.

Brooke Cornwell’s story and video

In the course of this year’s project we have come across lots of touching stories, which make us glad that we started the Hero Project and proud of our tradesmen – but there is one particular story that we want to share because this family have been through so much.

hero-job-christine-castle

Eight years ago Amber’s daughter, Brooke, was born with a potentially fatal form of anaemia. Every day has been a battle to keep her alive and give her a normal life.

Brooke has a sister, Felicity. Managing two children can be hard enough but when one is sick, it is even tougher. Her Mum and Dad, Amber and Nick, have had to work all hours to keep the family going. Often Amber would do a night shift at a bakery, sleep for a couple of hours and then get up to take Brooke for one of her regular blood transfusions.

Recently the family suffered a huge blow. Doctors told them that Brooke needed a bone marrow transplant as soon as possible, so in January she goes into hospital for the complicated and, at times, unpleasant treatment. Before she can come home, the house has to be stripped – carpets and all – and sterilised to avoid risk of infection. Brooke’s much loved dog, Rosebud, will have to go to live with Grandma.

Sorting the house little by little

When you are as stretched as the Cornwell family, the first thing to go is the house. It’s something we see all the time on MyBuilder. You don’t have the time or the energy for repairs or renovations when you are coping with financial or emotional upheavals – but sorting the house will be a matter of life and death for Brooke so it will have to be done.

Luckily Grandma Christine is a practical and positive sort. She believes in breaking problems down into small pieces that can solved bit by bit. Amber’s power shower hadn’t worked for ages so when she spotted the Hero project on our site, she took the initiative and posted a job. A few days later, plumber James of Rothwell James turned up on Amber’s doorstep, ready to help. He donated two days to the family and for the first time in 2½ years Brooke can take a shower.

A MyBuilder Santa, yesterday.As the counter ticks away on our 2013 Hero Project site and the number of volunteers goes up, it confirms something we’ve always known: that tradesmen really do make the best Santas.

 

The world is divided into those that make and those that don’t – and the makers have the edge in the ‘giving’ market. How much better is it to get a present that’s been homemade and to a high standard? It costs less, it’s bespoke and it’s often far better quality than anything you could buy off the shelf.

My Dad carved me a pair of mahogany stilts when was I eight and while other presents came and went – even the stilts themselves have been long-lost – that present has stuck in my memory. Beautiful, practical and made with enormous amount of thought, love and care.

So that’s where our tradesmen have the edge. They have a skill they can share to make other people happy and their lives a bit better. How many of us can drive around any town or city in the UK and point out what we have done for the people living there? Builders can.

I’m not denigrating charity fun runs or fundraising at local fêtes as acts of charity. They have their place – but when a tradesman wants to help someone out, well, all he or she has to do is pick up his or her tools and go. No organising committee. No months of preparation. Just a lifetime’s learned skills, a good deal of nous and a person in need.
a row of Christmassy housesThere’s something else that makes the tradesman special and that’s the fact that his workspace is right in the centre of your life: he or she doesn’t just magically pop in and out like Santa down the chimney. The tradesman is there, in amongst the mess and muddle of family life, by your ‘hearth’. When your teenage daughter throws a hissy fit, or your husband is berating you over lost car keys, the tradesman won’t show it but he’ll have heard it – and he’s the soul of discretion. But when we asked if MyBuilder tradesmen could help out needy homeowners, the answer was loud and clear. This year’s Hero Project only went live at at 6pm yesterday and in less than 24 hours we’ve arranged over £4,000 worth of building work that will go a long way to making things better for people struggling this Christmas. So if you know someone in need or you’re a big-hearted tradesman who wants to volunteer, join the 2013 Hero Project now and help show everyone what we already know here – that tradesmen really are the best kind of Santa!