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Frontline Scotland
Tricks and Mortar
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Tuesday, 1 May, 2001, 23:13 GMT 00:13 UK
Frontline Scotland: Tricks and Mortar

This is the transcript of the Frontline Scotland programme Tricks and Mortar broadcast on 1 March, 2001. Reporter Ross McWilliam, Producer Phil Wright.

ROSS: Everywhere you look in Scotland new homes are springing up. Around 20,000 are sold each year.

DEBBIE RILEY: It was just a nightmare, and we knew we'd parted with the money then, and there was no going back.

SIMONE LEDRAW: It certainly isn't our dream home.

RODDY RILEY: I think I could have built the house better myself.

LEE-ANN WATSON: I hate it. I absolutely hate it. I can't wait for it to be fixed properly and then we can sell it.

ROSS: The house builders' profits are up, and most people are happy with what they get. But a national survey shows that in Scotland a third of new home buyers were critical of their builder, and wouldn't recommend them.

CHRIS LORENZEN (National Association of New Home Owners): They just can't build houses properly. There is no requirement to use skills. There's no proper inspection of their houses. They're not required to comply with regulations realistically, so people are getting more fed up with the situation. After all, a home is your life, and if that's defective you've got every reason to shout, and when you find you've got no protection, you've got more protection perhaps buying a can of baked beans from a supermarket. Well, that's ridiculous.

ROSS: The attraction is obvious. Everything is new and shining. You're the first people to step through the door and make this into a home. You've invested a lot of time, money, energy, and a fair bit of emotion. It's should all be perfect, like this. But sadly, sometimes, it's not.

LEE-ANN WATSON: At first we noticed that the house wasn't what we bought. It looked totally different. And just from day one, problems from day one. From when we come in the door we noticed problems.

COLIN CROOKS: There's about five/six pages of A4 full of faults, and it's just terrible.

ROSS: Colin and Lee-Ann wanted the best for their young daughter. A move to a quiet estate in Dalgety Bay near to a good school seemed to be the perfect move.

LEE-ANN: We thought, yes we'll buy a new house, new start, etc. Em, our dream home supposed to be.

COLIN: We fell in love with it, with the plans, it was what we wanted, and we thought we'd be so happy.

ROSS: But they were unhappy from the moment they saw the completed house in November 1998. The style, and the roof in particular, was very different to the one that Colin and Lee-Ann thought they were getting when they paid 70,000 for the semi-detached house. But worse was to come. The brickwork was so bad the builder, Wilcon, agreed to take it all down and rebuild it. It was no better. In fact, Colin and Lee-Ann's surveyor said it was some of the worst brickwork pointing he'd seen in over 30 years. He said it should be taken down, yet again, and rebuilt a third time.

LEE-ANN: They actually moved us out for a couple of weeks so that they could rebuild, and we come back to it actually being worse to what it was in the first place.

LEE-ANN: If you look at all the cement on the brickwork. It actually looks like they've used different batches of brick as well.

COLIN: Yep, we've got all these problems. The joins are all different sizes, there's cement all over the window, on the ledges. Cement all over the brickwork. The box was damaged. It's a bloody mess.

LEE-ANN: This is a major problem, this is an electric cable which actually should be under the house. They've not put that under the house.

COLIN: Here's another thing that's unsafe in the house. The slabs are not even down properly.

LEE-ANN: This is another one of the major problems as well in the garage. If you look up there the brickwork, it's all crumbling, and they've not even wiped the cement off when they put the bricks down. And as you can see here we've got a few added features, some nails popping through the walls. We've actually got these in every room. And as you can see here this banister is not secured properly. And as you can see in here, if we have any problems with the boiler at all then....we're not going to be able to get it fixed.

COLIN: What about that for perfect joinery. All the doors in the house are exact same.

ROSS: Most new homes are built by large and national companies. They have years of experience. Let's face it, putting up a house isn't exactly a groundbreaking feat of engineering. There may be some teething problems, but these will be minor, and quickly put right by the builder - right?

COLIN: They just try to fob us off hoping we'd forget about them, and they'd forget about us, but it's been a long road to nowhere so far. We've had various meetings with various people. The actual managing director came out and visited with us, and his attitude was just terrible. It was, basically, we sold you a house, you bought it. It's just ridiculous.

ROSS: You would think that you'd go to the company, they would take some pride in their product, and they would help you out, is that what's happened?

LEE-ANN: No definitely not, definitely not. Wilcon has me they've not helped us in any way at all. Any problems we've had they just try to say it's not major problems, when in fact it is major problems. They try to get out of it all the time.

ROSS: The list of problems got longer, and longer, and longer. Through the wall their new neighbours were compiling a similar list. Having watched their dream home take shape moving in turned out to be a huge disappointment. Two and a half years on they still haven't decorated or put down carpets because of the problems.

DEAN: I can walk through the house and things shake, it makes a noise, it creaks awfully. As we said there and then we knew there was problems and wanted to get them sorted out, that we would not put carpets in straight away, we'd get things sorted first and then put carpets in.

SIMONE: We just feel that we want the house that we paid the money for. We deserve a house worth the money, and at the moment we don't feel that it's worth anywhere near what we paid for it, and it certainly isn't our dream home.

ROSS: Wilcon Homes told us the list of outstanding work is minor in nature and the company is keen to resolve matters as soon as possible. Wilcon Homes had a huge rise in profits last year - up 18% to 71m. But other big builders did even better. Persimmon Homes made 104m, a rise of 28%. Barratt were up 25% to 63m, while Wimpey's profits rose by 20% to a staggering 120.7m. But the balance sheet as far as customer relations is concerned showed several points where the companies were in the red. A national customer satisfaction survey found that while most buyers were satisfied with the overall quality of their new home almost half were unhappy with the way builders dealt with problems when they did arise.

Problems are the last thing on your mind at you gaze at the glossy brochures and tour the impressive showhomes. They've obviously been build to the highest standard by fully qualified craftsmen. Well, this one certainly has, but that's not always the case.

Tom Woodhouse has been in the building industry for decades. He's an independent consultant employed by the private and public sector to check standards and safety. We sent him to carry out random visits to half a dozen Scottish showhomes. He wasn't impressed.

The homes varied in price from 57,000 to 145,000. There were faults in all of them. The most common was squeaky, loose-fitting floorboards. Other problems inside the houses included wobbly banisters; doors that didn't close properly; and poor finishing in kitchens and bathroom; in some cases dangerous, sharp edges had been left.

Outside it wasn't much better. Poor brickwork was commonplace. Guttering pipes were too short, and the lead flashing wasn't fitted properly.

TOM WOODHOUSE (Building Consultant): I was very, very disappointed at the standard of showhomes that was presented today. And the worst one was 90,000. It was a bungalow. And to be offered that was a showhouse that was a disgrace. The faults we found in there was just unbelievable. Every house we went into, with the exception of none, every house had squeaky floors, and these houses are only two months old, so what like are they going to be when you start moving in and the central heating is on for a while and you're getting fifteen and sixteen stone people walking about. It's going to be horrendous to live in these places. The noise would be terrible. And that was a common fault.

ROSS: Our survey looked at showhomes. You would expect them to be the best the industry can offer. But Tom Woodhouse says sadly they're just reflecting a general drop in standards. He blames the pressure on everyone to make money.

TOM WOODHOUSE: Joiners get so much for putting up a kit. Bricklayers get so much for building bricks, and the faster they can to and the more bricks they lay the more money they get.

That's what motives everybody is money, and that's at the end of the day it's the rate is as fast as you can go.

You'll get a good house which good tradesmen are in, and he's reasonably fast, and he's making good money. But, speed....quality goes out the window.

PIERRE WILLIAMS (The House Builders Federation): In very occasional cases, like the cases you may cover in this programme, yes, there are problems which we accept. But you have to look at the overall majority of people are very satisfied with their new homes, and satisfied with the speed at which any minor defects will be put right.

ROSS: The House Builders Federation may argue that standards remain high, but it agrees a skill shortage is putting pressure on the building industry. Nowadays the industry is unregulated and open to abuse by unskilled workers operating in the black economy, a situation that concerns the Construction Workers Union - UCATT.

ALAN RITCHIE (UCAT): Buying a house is the biggest investment by a lot of people, the biggest investment they'll ever make in their life. Now I think it is only right that we should make sure that it's property tradesmen that are working on the house building that's getting done. Unfortunately, you know, the problem we have in the construction industry now is a lot of the major contractors do not actually employ anyone. They subcontract. And if you go by a major site you'll see the hoarding up of a major contractor. But when you go on site you'll find that that's subcontracted to a subcontractor to a subcontractor, right down the line to the cheapest price. And, unfortunately, sometimes the cheapest price means that people aren't even employed on the site. And when you don't have people employed you don't have apprentices, and nobody's paying the proper National Insurance which you should be, they're not paying the proper 23% income tax like everybody else pays.

ROSS: Alan Ritchie showed us just how easy it is to get a job on a building site - no questions asked.

And is this advert for general labourers or tradesmen?

ALAN: It's for tradesmen.

ALAN: Hello, I'm phoning regarding your advert in the local paper, you're looking for joiners.


Could you tell me what the prices are like....right.....7.50 an hour....what is it, the weekends, any weekend in hand....right....thank you, bye.

He said there's no problem, to give him a call back, and eh....he'd start me.

ROSS: So they didn't ask for any qualifications, and they were quite happy just to pay you without going through the books.

ALAN: Yes.

CHRIS LORENZEN: Most of the reason for the developers using totally unsuitable labour is purely profit. If you pay peanuts you get monkeys, and frankly I think some monkeys could actually build better houses than some of the people that we see building them.

ROSS: But the house builders claim that using subcontractors doesn't mean substandard homes.

PIERRE WILLIAMS: Well I'd say that's....not right, because they have ultimate control over their subcontractors, and it's up to the subcontractors if they want to continue working for that house builder in the future to make sure that the job's property done. In fact, if they were all employed then you would find that the skill shortage would become more acute. I don't agree that subcontracting is a lessening of standards, on the contrary.

ROSS: Would you buy a new built house?

ALAN RITCHIE: You've put me in the spot....(laughs)....I think that there is some companies out there who, yes, I would look at seriously, who would be employing their people direct. And I think, you know, what people have got to be aware of, and they should check how their house is constructed, how the people have been employed, and if the company doesn't employ anyone, if they subcontract, and the so-called bogus self-employed, then no, I wouldn't touch that type of house with a barge pole.

ROSS: Lack of control over the workforce has also raised concerns about safety. Accidents and death rates are up. Construction workers are six times more likely to have an accident than other industries.

Tam Watson, from Leven in Fife, knows only too well what it's like to be one of those statistics.

TAM WATSON: I was walking back the way and there was no hand rails on the roof section I was working on, and I stepped back into a skylight and fell through, and fell 30 feet and broke my back. And then I found out that I was paralysed from the waist down, and that I would never walk again.

ROSS: The building firm he worked for was fined. But five years on Tam hasn't received a penny in compensation.

TAM: They cut corners that much that there isn't really safety....the only safety that is there is yourself. If you don't think it's right don't do it, but if you don't do it they just take you off the park, so you've no choice. They are cutting corners all ways, and eh....that's....they're not risking their own lives, they're risking the people that's working for them. They don't bother, as long as they get the job done, no matter what happens to anybody

ROSS: The Government and Health and Safety Executive were so appalled at the rise in construction accidents they called a summit with the industry's leaders. They've been told to make health and safety their number one priority.

Whether it's safety or standards, there are many others who also think the industry should get its house in order. Roddy and Debbie Riley were another young couple with a dream. This new home in Fife was all they'd ever wanted.

RODDY: I couldn't wait to move in. I just....great....I wanted all this, all the rooms, room to move about in, having my study room for my computer, and another room for studying in for Uni, all these sorts of things, just to have something new that was ours, we weren't going to get disturbed. It was just a....I don't know....just like a....wee adventure.

DEBBIE: It was like a dream really, you know, it was really was, watching it getting built and thinking well that's mine, it was excellent.

RODDY: The very first night we were here it got dark, we put the lights on, and as soon as we put the lights on it was just....we couldn't believe it, what we were confronted with.

DEBBIE: There was holes everywhere; there was two of the toilets weren't attached to the walls; the sinks weren't attached to the walls, the bits....we call them pedestals, they just lifted away, they were just sitting there; em....the windows, three of the windows were cracked, cracked right across the panes of glass. It was just a nightmare, and we knew we'd parted with the money then and there was no going back.

RODDY: The problem at the front here what I wasn't very happy with is we've got lead flashing which has just been glued to the wall rather than raggled in, as it should be; we've got broken parts of wood which have just been nailed on in place. And overall the general standard of workmanship has been very poor, they've used damaged materials, etc.

DEBBIE: What caused us particular worry up here is the beading; the stairway was moving away from the wall, and the beading has been put in place to hide the movement.

RODDY: This cracking has developed down through the wall here. Now it's OK in here where it's followed the joint along here. When we get to here it actually starts to crack down through the block itself, and I think this is related to a problem which manifests itself in the room above the garage.

DEBBIE: The floor has dropped away from the wall here, and the surveyors has connected the two obviously with the garage what's happening is the stairway is moving, and the floor is dropping on this side, which causes us particular worry.

RODDY: We have water staining all the way across the floor here from the back room right to the edge of the room. All the fixings that have held the ??unclear?? are all rusty, etc.

DEBBIE: I mean, just look at this.

RODDY: I can open the door very easily. When I go to close it....I can hardly get it closed, there's definitely a problem there.

As for the builders who built this house I believe that, with the help of a bricklayer, I think I could have built the house better myself. I wonder if people who worked on the site have been trained, properly qualified. There isn't any aspect of this house which I can say the work has been done to a good standard. In this house here the builders have been in breach of contract for two-and-a-half-years. There seems to be no way that we can actually enforce them to do what they should have done in the first place.

ROSS: Like hundreds of thousands of other new homes in Scotland this house was given a Warranty by the National House Building Council. It sets standards, regulates builders, inspects homes at key stages, and provides insurance cover. The NHBC told us it sympathises with the home owners in this programme. It had looked closely into each case, and it will take immediate action to sort out the problems as soon as possible.

CHRIS LORENZEN: People think that the NHBC is some for of guarantee that their house is going to be satisfactorily built. That is absolutely not the case. The NHBC is nothing other than a general insurance company. What they're doing is actually selling a policy to their members, who are the developers and the builders, who are then imposing that policy on the purchaser of the home. What it's actually doing is unduly protecting the developers, and leaving the purchaser of the house very vulnerable indeed. It doesn't even approach a guarantee.

ROSS: To make matters worse for the Rileys the local council, who is the planning authority, has to say the house is officially fit to live in, haven't given it a completion certificate because of the outstanding problems. It means they, and their neighbours, can't sell their homes.

RONNIE COLLINS: We never expected any problems. We thought straightforward, we'll move in, and that would be it, everything would be OK. But the problems just seemed to get bigger and bigger. The more you find out once you've actually bought a new house and what you're entitled to, and it just went from worse to worse. We've got to say to ourselves if anything goes wrong we've got to sell this house, this house....we can't, it's just....we're lumbered. We can't sell this house, we can't do nothing.

ROSS: Morrison Homes, who funded the development and took over responsibility after the original builder went bust, told Frontline Scotland:

"The level of works still outstanding disappoints us, and we are making every effort to bring these to a conclusion."

If you had a problem with a new cooker or a fridge it would be a nuisance, but consumer protection laws would come to your aid. It would all be sorted out. Now, you pay a lot of money for a new house. The least you would expect is the same kind of protection.

JOHN GEDDES (Fife Trading Standards): Buying anything brand new we would expect it to work, and expect it to be free from minor defects, etc. Houses, however, don't seem to actually have to comply with that. Once you've actually bought your house the builder seems to....seems to take an attitude that 'we've got the money, we will fix your problem, but we'll do it in our time, and when it suits us'.

ROSS: When you buy a new home and hand over the money there's no legal obligation on the builder to sort out any problems you find when you move in. Fife Trading Standards, worried about the level of complaints, approached local building companies to try to come up with a better arrangement.

JOHN GEDDES: We put together a few points into a Charter, which we thought....we introduced, if you like, some fairness into the contract between builders and buyers of their houses. We put that to several of the builders who have been active in Fife, and we've had very little response so far. As of today we've had one response which said that they didn't feel that they could sign up to the Charter because they felt that it put the balance too much in the other direction.

ROSS: Signing a contract for a new home also means you have no control over when you can move in, George and Nancy Tracey found to their cost. A quick house sale in England brought with it the prospect of a return to Scotland after 20 years south of the Border. They set their hearts on this new development by Carvills by the seafront at Ayr.

When did it start to go wrong?

NANCY: From the minute we signed the contract. It just....they told us we would be expected to move in in June, and from then on it was another couple of weeks, and another couple of weeks, and it's been like that since.

GEORGE: That was June's been a catalogue of errors all the way through the last 12 months. The only time we first knew there was a problem was after we had sold up in England and moved here, and walking round the site one evening we actually met another couple. That was May/June time last year, and they've then explained to us that they'd been waiting since November '98, and that's when we realised there was problems.

ROSS: I mean you've stuck with it so far, but you must have thought about walking away.


NANCY: We can't, they'd probably sue us, we'd have to probably have to sell the flat on.

GEORGE: That's the anomaly of it, the way the contract is that we're entered into they can do this to us, we, legally, because we've sought legal advise from various lawyers, local MPs, MSPs, legally there's nothing we can do. We're fighting Carvills on a moral stance. But if we could pulled out of it they could sue me, or sue us.

ROSS: Carvills told Frontline they regretted any delays but it was due to reasons largely beyond their control. Negotiations are continuing with the local council to get Habitations Certificates for the flats, but no date for entry has been agreed.

A dream move can, and does, for many people have a happy ending. For others, though, all this is just an illusion. Buying a new home is a nightmare they wish they could wake up from.

GEORGE: It's tarnished, it's not the dream that we thought it would have been.

NANCY: We'd never ever buy another new house again, never.

RODDY: I'd say to anyone who was going to buy a house, never trust the builders, you can't....they're not to be trusted at all. Once they've got your money, that's it, they don't want to know any more. Anything that they do after that is a reduction in their profit.

DEBBIE: We would never, ever consider buying another new property.

ROSS: Would you ever buy a new house again?

LEE-ANN: Never, never. No way.

CHRIS LORENZEN: Their attitude is once they've got that exchange of contracts you are history. They've got you in the palm of their hand and you can go to hell.

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