Monday, December 19, 2005

Hire the Neighbour's Builders?

I have often written of the similarities between choosing a builder and choosing a mate. Both are high-risk games of chance with no guarantee that things will work out OK in the end. I have always assumed that people spent rather more time and care on mate selection than on choosing a contractor but recently I have started to have my doubts. There was a witty little aphorism in The Week recently which stated that it doesn’t really matter who you marry because they invariably turn out to be someone different. Maybe it’s the same with hiring contractors.

To hear some people complain about their builders, you’d think they were talking about their estranged spouses. And as for going off and starting another job mid-way through yours — well, it’s adultery by any other name. But what is even stranger is to hear some men complaining about being “done over” by their ex-wives in ways that sound just like a good old building dispute.

The standard routine for hiring builders is something akin to an arranged marriage. You check them out, you ask them to tender, like inspecting the dowry, and you refer to your elders (architect?) for reassurance. This all stems from the fact that we have been taught not to trust our own judgement about builders and that somehow an assortment of other routines will make a better job of it than we will. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t.

But yesterday I took a call from Clive Fewins, a fellow journalist on Homebuilding & Renovating, who was telling me about an article he had written about a couple who wanted an extension built onto their house and they rather wanted the neighbour’s builders to do the work. These guys were working right next door so they could see what they were like and the neighbours themselves weighed in full of praise. The builders were interested and produced a quote that looked to be OK. But then the couple had an attack of the wobbles and decided that they really ought to check out some other builders, just to make sure they weren’t being ripped off. So they put their job out to tender to four other builders. One came back with a much higher quote, the other three didn’t bother to come back with any quotations at all. But they spent about three months waiting for all this to become clear. During which time, the neighbour’s builders had got busy on other work and instead of starting seamlessly on their extension after finishing with the neighbours, they now had to wait nine months for them to come back. Oh, and the price had gone up.

So the net result of all this tendering process was that the job was delayed by nearly a year and it cost more than it would have done if they hadn’t bothered with it.

There is a sneaking admiration for the institution of the arranged marriage among us Anglo-Saxons. We seem to be so bad at keeping marriages together these days, that we suspect that it would be better for all concerned if our parents chose a mate for us. But I have my doubts. If building disputes are anything to go by, your parents are just as likely to select a useless spouse as you are yourself. And if and when anything goes wrong, they’d be the ones in the firing line. I am not sure the chances of forming a lasting relationship can be made any more favourable by letting the head rule the heart in such matters.

The question is how much difference does due diligence and the tendering process really make to the successful outcome of a building job? There is ultimately no way of knowing because there is no way of measuring outcomes. But, as this little story shows, sometimes it must make sense to throw caution to the wind and just hire the obvious candidates, rather than phaffing about with all the rigmarole of a professionally run beauty contest.

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