Posts by Author: 16 posts by ryan

traffic-jam
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.

As I popped into my local newsagent for a pint of milk, I was intrigued to see the Daily Mail’s front cover headline: “Tape Record Your Builder”. Jo Swinson, a government minister, unveiled a new ‘consumer bill of rights’ and encouraged homeowners to record conversations with their tradesmen to hold them accountable. See article.

On the face of it, the idea of recording conversations with your tradesmen might seem like an effective, if uncomfortable way to get a verbal contract in writing, as it were. But in fact, it’s just another daft government idea that attempts to solve a complex problem with a simple solution.

Firstly, a conversation is just that, a conversation. Agreement in conversation is often followed by another conversation with a more nuanced version of the agreement. Things change. People change their minds and in a complex building project, unexpected challenges come up. That’s just the nature of the game.

But that’s not to say that you shouldn’t make formal agreements. Part of the point of writing a contract is that you’ve given it thought and discussion and settled on something concrete. A contract is a clear distinction between conversation and agreement. You can easily refer back to the contract and if it needs to be changed or updated, you can agree to tear up the old one and write a new one. Seeing what has been written and putting your name to it is a crucial step. See our article about contracts.

There is another problem with the suggestion of tape recording our conversations with tradesmen. It’s why the whole notion feels uncomfortable to us when we imagine ourselves doing it.

What’s the most important thing in a business relationship? Trust. What are you saying to someone when you record a conversation with them? You’re saying that you don’t trust them. The relationship can only go downhill from there. Signing a contract does not convey lack of trust, it conveys professionalism and fairness. There is a copy for both parties, who have had a chance to review and sign. It cuts both ways as well: as much a benefit to the builder as to the homeowner. Recording a conversation is completely different. It can present a misleading picture of the agreement and it can only be used against the other party. It is, by its nature, an act of aggression.

Considering that lack of trust is one of the biggest problems that plagues our industry, this is about the last thing we need.


Our first garden competition has been a topsy turvy ride. We didn’t know whether we’d get any entries, and if we did, whether anyone would bother voting. Much to our delight, we got 219 entries and more than 10,000 votes. Wow. I then had the difficult job of choosing a winner from the 12 entries with the most votes. Here they are…

The shortlist

  1. Jon Mason (765 votes) – a stroke victim who recently relocated to a Devon jungle.
  2. Laura Mott (584 votes) – wanted a level and tidy garden for her disabled son.
  3. Tracey Hancock (441 votes) – has a soggy Welsh garden that her handicapped son can’t enjoy.
  4. Claire Pearman (430 votes) – a beautiful photo of her son blowing a dandelion captured our hearts.
  5. Lee Barter (374 votes) – needs his garden cleared so his 2 year old son can play safely.
  6. James Swadling (372 votes) – needed a safe and secure garden for their 2 children.
  7. Natasha Betinis (361 votes) – It’s pretty safe to say that Natasha and family have Britain’s worst fence!
  8. Katja Von Schweitzer (351 votes) – Rocco, aged 3 made a touching appeal to get some garden greenery.
  9. Emma Kirwan (342 votes) – New turf would really do wonders for Emma’s dirt patch.
  10. Paula Butler (338 votes) – It looks like Paula is growing lettuce in her garden, but what she really needs is a path for her wheelchair and some decking.
  11. Angela Evans (322 votes) – Having spent all her money renovating her house, Angela needs help with her garden.
  12. Lauren Murray (311 votes) – A heartbreaking appeal to build a memorial for her son, who passed away last year. It made me cry… many others probably felt the same way.

The Winner – Jon Mason 765 votes

Having a stroke at such a young age must have been extremely difficult, and living on disability allowance doesn’t leave a lot of spare cash to hire a gardener. Jon received a lot of support and votes through Facebook and Twitter, with some famous names from the world of sport helping to spread the word. All votes were carefully screened to ensure fair play and Jon’s entry passed with flying colours.

The runners-up

Thanks to generous support from The Horticultural Trades Association, the remaining 11 shortlisted entries will each receive a £50 National Garden Gift Voucher.

So finally, a big thank you to everyone who entered and voted and congratulations to all of those who made it to the shortlist. Lastly, a big congratulations to Jon, our winner. We look forward to helping Jon transform his garden and turning that frown upside down.

It started out with our offer to help a homeowner in need by paying for a small project as a Christmas gift. We got so many moving requests from homeowners in our initial blog post, that we decided to go beyond a single project and try to find a way to help more people.

So we asked our tradesmen if they wanted to help and got an amazing response. We decided to call this the ‘Hero Project’ and offered to pay the materials cost for every project that had a tradesman hero volunteering.

We’re now coming to the end of the Hero Project, with several of them wrapped up. We thought we’d share a few of the completed jobs with you.

Emma Hazlett and her mum

MyBuilder Hero Project

Emma Hazlett’s mum’s bedroom before the work

 

“My mum is a wonderful person, and has worked hard and been a great mother all her life. She suffers from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (similar to M.E.) and depression and bi-polar, especially after losing her husband (and dad to me and my sister). Since then she has struggled with illness as a widow, living on an extremely low income, she can’t work any more and spends a lot of time on her own since me and my sister have grown up and moved out, and has now developed ‘frozen shoulder’ which means she is not only in a lot of pain but she also can’t drive, which isolates her even more.

Her house is tiny and my dad pretty much built the inside himself before he died but it’s falling apart and for years she has lived in the tiny box room which just about fits a bed in it, while mine and my sister’s old room has been filled with stuff that we have just managed to clear. Our plan is for mum to move into the bigger room and try and make her surroundings better for her, but the room’s walls need a tradesman – they are peeling chip board and dreadful children’s nursery colours, it’s a depressing sight, and I wish for someone to help give the walls a make over and a lick of paint, to give mum a happier place to live. I wish, for Christmas, I could fix the bigger problems, but I’m afraid I can’t, and for now this would be an amazing step towards helping her be happier.”

MyBuilder Hero Project Jan 2013

The same bedroom after Homecraft UK completed the project


After the transformation, Emma expressed her thanks: “
Homecraft UK offered to do a ‘Hero’ job for me and my mum and I couldn’t believe their kindness. John Black sent his team round and in one day they transformed the bedroom and did a great decorating job in rather difficult circumstances. The guys were so polite and nice, too! It was an incredibly quick response and turnaround, and we are very grateful.”

John Black from Homecraft UK said “I would consider helping others and yes, the job was a little harder than first expected but that’s life. One day every now & then it should not be hard to help anyone in need. Who knows, I might need help one day.”

Harriet Shepherd

“I am Harriet, Mum to baby Poppy, 7 months, and George, 3, and wife to Steven. We recently moved house and have lots of home improvements to do but the one that is the most pressing is we have no kitchen! We have managed to buy a kitchen online but have run out of money to pay someone to fit it. Steven has put together the units and had some help to hang a couple of cupboards but that is as far as it goes. I have a camping stove to cook and that is it, we don’t even have a microwave! Washing dishes in the bathroom is getting very tiresome and I am really struggling to cook nutritious meals for the children and us. The thought of Christmas with no kitchen is too much to bear, to have the kitchen put in for us would be the best present I think I could ever receive, in my whole life! Steven and I both work really hard, me from home, but struggle with all the debt and bills of modern life, this really would be a dream come true!”

After the kitchen was completed, Harriet said “I am so pleased to say, I have a kitchen!! Thank you so much to MyBuilder for organizing the whole thing it really has been a god send. Paul and his team were lovely and did the job in no time at all! Many thanks again for making our Christmas.”

MyBuilder Hero Project Jan 2013 Feature

Harriet and George with KitchensFit4U

 

Paul from KitchensFit4u who undertook the work added “As a family man I understand how difficult the Christmas period can be, and how important a kitchen is for preparing those festive feasts. My team and I decided we would love to take this opportunity to make this special time of year a little easier for someone using our knowledge and skills. It made sense to do the two things that we are passionate about which are our workmanship and our ability to help out where possible at once. As KitchensFit4U grow, we hope to be able to do more for people who need a helping hand. Fortunately the job went very smoothly, due to the hard work and Steve (Harriets husband) had put in, trying to provide his family with a kitchen in the home they have only recently moved in to. Minor mistakes were easily rectified with our professional experience and the kitchen was completed and fully functioning.”

Trudi Borsberry

“Hello I am a single mum on a serious budget and I have a hole in my bedroom ceiling where water is coming in through the roof. I simply do not have any money to fix it – and I know it will only get worse and worse. My daughter was unwell the other day and lay in the bed with me and the water starting to drip through. I also have a front fence which is down and the neighbours and understandably unhappy. I know there are people with worse things, but I thought it was worth a try. Thank you for listening.”

Trudi wrote to us after the work was finished: “Neil and Joseph were totally fantastic. Friendly, efficient and genuinely nice chaps. They have helped me so much and went above and beyond to repair a hole in my roof and a broken fence. Without their help I would still be putting towels under the hole when it rained! I would recommend NW Building without hesitation. The Hero scheme is wonderful and I cannot thank you all enough. I cannot explain what a difference their work has made to myself and my young daughter. As I write, it is raining and windy. Before the work my fence would have blown down and the rain would have been coming through the roof and through the hole in my ceiling and now I can finally relax. The gentlemen from NW Building were fantastic and I can never ever express my gratitude in my circumstance I could never have got these jobs done. Thank you again.”


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