How to take on the cowboys

My problems began with a cracked pipe under the kitchen sink. Without the tools or expertise and with a large number of guests due for dinner, I reached for the phone book to find a plumber willing to do a weekend callout. Big mistake.

I gulped as I agreed to the company’s eye-watering charge of £80 per 30 minutes. Even my accountant does not charge that much, but I was desperate and I thought it was a simple job. Second big mistake.

How much I would have to pay quickly became clear. It took the plumber two hours of prevarication and fiddling, including a 40-minute trip to a local DIY store in New Malden, Surrey, to buy the wrong parts before I called a halt and asked him to leave.

Had I left it there, things would have been bad enough. But my third big mistake was to allow myself to be talked into letting the plumber come back the next day. ‘Don’t worry mate, I won’t charge you extra, I should have had it all fixed by now,’ he insisted. ‘I’ll be in and out in five minutes.’

But the next visit dragged on into a two-and-a-half hour epic as he struggled clumsily and swore mightily at my plastic piping. His work was interrupted by a lively half-hour phone exchange with his soon-to-be ex-wife over the baby he had just fathered with his girlfriend.

The final bill, £707, was accompanied by an anecdote about a customer who’d refused to pay. Intimidated, I wrote out a cheque. My self-pity turned to rage barely 20 minutes after he left when the repair failed and the kitchen, which is being renovated, flooded with grey water.

A series of phone calls and letters secured only vague promises of more visits at ‘no extra charge’, a familiar-sounding ruse that I was determined not to fall for again. Demands for a refund were also refused.

I issued proceedings online through the small claims court (moneyclaim. Thousands of people fall foul of dodgy plumbers every year, but according to trading standards officers, the cases they deal with are just the tip of the iceberg.

Many people never complain as they are too embarrassed to admit they were taken for a ride. But the law is on your side if the work is sub-standard. And proving you’ve been ripped off can be easier than you think.

The company chose to ignore the entire process, and when I secured judgment in default two weeks later, I assumed it would claim not to have received any correspondence, prolonging the whole process.

In fact, it couldn’t have been easier. I received a cheque for the full amount of my claim within days, including the court fee and the cost of paying someone else to put the job right.

The second plumber proved remarkably unsympathetic. ‘Looks like you did a really bad bit of DIY there,’ he said accusingly. ‘I don’t do journalism, why do you think you can do plumbing? You need to call in the experts.’

I didn’t have the heart to admit that I was paying him to put right a fellow tradesman’s bodged efforts.

And sharing my tale of woe with colleagues has since produced a saviour in the shape of George, a reliable and recommended local plumber whose hourly rate is a modest £30 and who even knows what he’s doing. With luck, my nightmare experiences with cowboy tradesmen are behind me.

• If you want to make a claim through the small claims court, you can also do the paperwork by hand. Easy-to-complete forms can be found at your local crown court, magistrates’ court or small claims court office. You can also pick them up at the Citizens Advice Bureau or the Trading Standards Office of your local council.

This article was first published on on 13 March 2005.