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Wanted: Slow and Expensive Builder/Tradesman

Craftsman

As landlords we are all equally guilty – how cheaply can you fit a kitchen? Can you get the bathroom done next Monday/Tuesday? We never say, could you take a little longer and do it better or, OK that sounds good but what if I paid a bit more? So it is our fault that very few trades people have the time to take pride in the quality of their work or go the extra mile to do a better job. But does it matter as long as it is good enough you ask? Well, yes it does,you could save money if you ask for a better job. Let me give you some examples….

Decorating

You can have cheap paint applied quickly and repeat the operation in 18-24 months. The cheapest paints tend to have a higher water content – great for a mist coat on fresh plaster but terrible for a high opacity, long term finish achieved with fewer overall coats.

From one of the Facebook landlord pages this month: "Hi, I have recently painted throughout with CovaPlus Blue Zephyr paint. After a few weeks the walls in communal hallways are ruined as the paint marks badly just by touching with clothes or hands. Gets worse if you try to wash😡"

Or you can pay for proper preparation and decent paint and find not only does it last 5-7 years but also, you can wash it down between tenants and make it look as good as new.

Do the math – paying £20 for paint or deciding to pay £40 and get the good stuff. Difference £20. Paying a painter for a days work to paint the room now, £150. Avoiding having to do the same again in 18 months as you paid £20 more for paint – net saving £130. The numbers will vary from job to job, but you get the idea.

Too simplistic an example, then let's look at kitchens. 

Kitchen Fitting

It never ceases to amaze that the old kitchen disappears in just a few hours however sturdy it may have seemed and after a day of 1st fix electrics, plastering, etc the kitchen fitters work their magic and the new kitchen is completed in 2-3 days. How do they do it so quickly?

Well, typically, the speed is honed over a long series of kitchens picking up short cuts on each and applying them all to subsequent kitchens – you could say this is great news, if I can pay 2 guys for 3 days labour to get a kitchen, why would I want to pay them for a week each instead?

Well for a start, labour tends to be one of the lowest costs when you refit a kitchen – units, appliances, electrics, worktops are all likely to cost more than labour so doesn't it make sense to pay a little more and get a better kitchen?

Next time you have a kitchen installed – have a look at the fittings, fixings and panels which are left over. The kitchen manufacturers don't throw in lots of extras just in case – the designer comes up with a design which you agree with and then the factory provide all of the components needed to build that specific kitchen – so how come you have so many bits left?

Here are some questions to ask:

  • When you have a rodent problem in 3 years time and you pop off the plinths to check under the cupboards, why didn't you ask the fitters to seal all of the holes they made in the wall (waste pipes etc), the floor (electrics) or the skirting
  • When you have an infestation in the kitchen and check under the cupboards,why all the sweepings of sawdust, wood off-cuts, bits of electrical wire, builders rubble. There is no need for any of this and it ought to be clean even if it is unseen
  • Kitchens come with instructions. Each range from each supplier is different. Integrated appliances have their own instructions too. Yet rarely will a fitter read any of them, let alone follow them. So you have to ask that they do, and you need to as well – and in advance, you have to make sure it is understood that is what will happen and you expect everything to be installed in accordance with the detailed instructions and that needs to be included in the price.  And you need to check – there should be no fittings or fixings left over and with integrated appliances, watch the install videos most manufacturers produce and make sure that is the process that the fitter uses.  Yes it can usually be done quicker, but will it be done as well as the manufacturer designed it to be?  And will it still be working in 5 years' time as a result?
  • That nice tall tap on the sink. It looks lovely but have you seen how it wobbles and how the sink flexes? You know that before too long you will be replacing some element of that setup due to the broken seal around the sink or some other issue. Why didn't you check the fitters had fitted a kitchen tap support bracket or brace ? (See picture right) At a cost of less than a tenner you would have avoided all of this – but no 'normal' fitter is going to spend 40 minutes fitting a tap with a brace if he can do it in 10 without – so you have to find the ones that spend more time or ask them to do so
  • When the sink started leaking the tenant either never noticed or couldn't be bothered to tell you and unfortunately the 1st you know is when the tenant leaves and you realise the sink unit is on the verge of collapse. Why is that? Well – kitchen units come in various grades, from thin/cheap covered chipboard to thick/waterproof MDF but they all tend to be built structurally strong and designed to last. However, much of that structural integrity comes from its fixings. The legs go on in a specific way so that the weight of the sides is supported by the legs, not just the base – many fitters just fit them without regard to their orientation. Not really a time saving but can make a big difference. Also, if the sides of the unit are tight to the wall and securely fixed to the wall – this provides rigidity and maintains the strength. However, kitchen walls are rarely straight – so to ensure that each unit is in line with the rest, yet also tight to the wall requires that the back be 'scribed' (a process of marking the precise contour of the wall onto the back of the cupboard and then cutting the back of the sides of the unit such that they follow this contour and fit tightly to the wall). Scribing takes time and with units on each side all screwed together, the extra strength is rarely needed (until you get that inevitable leak) so the quick solution is to cut off 95% of the back of the sides of the units, leaving just the bit that touches and is screwed to the wall – this allows fitters to get each unit installed in around 20 minutes as opposed to 40-60 if they scribed it. Again, go back to how much more the labour would cost to have it done properly such that even with an ignored leaky sink, the structural integrity of the units is such that damage is slight…

Bathroom Fitting

Bathrooms are another great example. Most of us have realised that having to replace mastic between baths and tiles (or panels) every 2-3 years is a chore and having a bathroom tiled is not only expensively, but it also adds re-grouting costs to the 'replacing mastic' cost just mentioned. That is why so many of us opt for wall panels these days – a whole wall in 2-3 panels, no visible joins, no grouting, cheaper than buying and fitting tiles – it is a no brainer.

But firstly, not all panels are the same. Some are totally waterproof and others are faced plywood, plasterboard or MDF, none of which fare well if they get wet.  So there is a cost debate here as to how much to spend on boards – when looking at spending £100 or £200, do compare that potential £100 saving with the knowledge that with one you probably have a solution that will last 15 years and with the other, maybe only 4 or 5.

The next thing to consider with panels is how they join. Leave it to the bathroom fitter in a hurry and he will butt boards together and leave them 1-2mm above the bath and run a bead of mastic around the top of the bath. Not only does this give you the exact problem you were hoping to avoid, of having to replace the mastic every 2-3 years but it may actually be less than that if there is any ingress between the boards.

I have known fitters avoid the more expensive boards which interlock where they join as it was 'too hard' compared to butting cheaper boards together with a bit of mastic. Their time-saving (and money saving) preference is really a false economy if you want something that will not leak in 3-4 years and will not need re-grouting or mastic replacement.

Take a look at the video on the right – this is the instruction video for the trim that goes between the boards and the top of the bath of one of the more expensive boards. Having watched it, ask yourself the following questions: if anyone follows those instructions, how could it ever leak? With that amount of mastic sealing every element of the join, how did they manage to do it in a way that means I will never get visible mouldy mastic or need to replace it? Is there a bathroom fitter anywhere who would do all of that when he could save a couple of hours with just a bead of mastic? So the answer is clear – you have to specify what you want and make sure the cost of it is covered in the quotation given. 

If a fitter knows he will normally do a bathroom like yours in 4 days but because you asked for various additional elements, he has priced the 6 days he thinks it will now take, he will happily take the time and do it the way it was designed to be done and you will be better off as a result. And if it means your bathroom last 8-10 years instead of 4-5, it is not just the cost of buying and installing a bathroom that it saves you but also the lost rent while it is being replaced and the reduced rent when it looks tatty...

Electrics

You may think that an electrician who is any good is one who knows the current regulations and gives you a neat, tidy installation that meets those rules when you need it for a fair price.Largely, you will be correct but there is more to a good electrician than that.

Look at the socket on the right.I asked the electrician to install it in one of my conservatories – surface mounted was fine as not worth the extra effort and mess of chased in cables and with painted brick walls, it would still be visible.

The 'average' good electrician would have run some trunking up from the floor into the bottom of the socket.In this case, the electrician ran the trunking up the door frame (much less visible - look carefully and you can see it) and then drilled through the brickwork to run the cable into the back of the socket. End result, a very neat and tidy installation with no obvious trunking and probably a safer installation as a result. Extra cost – probably none. 

By comparison, look at the kitchen extractor on the left. A different electrician this time with much the same brief – can you install this extractor on that wall there, surface mounted cabling will be fine as with tenants in, I don't want the mess caused by chasing in cables, plasteringand redecorating.What did he do? A perfectly safe and acceptable installation which meets all electrical requirements, but it has plastic trunking running from the extractor up to near the ceiling, then parallel to the ceiling 2-3 foot into the corner, then another 2-3 foot over the doorway and then down 7 feet to the plug socket from which he took the electrical supply.Given my spec, what did he do wrong?

Well, in the bedroom above, there is a socket directly above the extractor. A quality installation would have involved pulling up 1 floorboard to tap into the electricity supply to the upstairs socket plus a couple of feet of trunking from the ceiling down to the extractor.Probably a cheaper solution – much less trunking to install, a quicker solution and a safer one too.  

Plumbing

Final example – a boiler is a boiler and it takes 2 days to install, whoever I use, so what difference does it make and why should I worry?

It is true it is even harder to tell an excellent plumber / gas fitterfrom a good one than it is to do the same with electricians. Let me give you one final example – this final photo shows two radiators, one fitted by a very good plumber and one by an excellent one.In both cases, an old radiator was replaced by a new one of the same size – but the fittings were different so the existing pipework had to be altered to fit the new radiator. The 'lounge rad' has been done with a single pipe on each side, symmetrically bent so that they balance and match and the only joint on either is below the flooring.

By comparison, the towel rad has multiple joints and no attempt to balance or match the 2 sides.

The more elegant lounge rad probably cost less (fewer expensive joints), was quicker (fewer joints to cut, clean and solder) and will last longer (fewer joints at risk from passing vacuum cleaners) – but what would your plumber do unless you asked him/her to take a little longer?

Conclusion / Recommendations

The common theme in all of these examples, is that most tradespeople like to think they do a good job but typically feel pressured to do it quickly and as a result, they rush in, get the job done and then get out and onto the next one. If you can make them slow down just a little, and give them time to think about HOW they might do it, you and they will be surprised by how clever and imaginative most trades people can be when encouraged.

Apart from the fact that this will save us money in the long run and leave us with better functioning and more elegant solutions, over time – as long as enough of us encourage it – it will start to become more normal.Just because new house builders think standards are unimportant, does not mean we should too.

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