Cowboys and Gunslingers: The struggle to find workmen

They say we will all remember where we were when Obama was inaugurated as President of the United States. Well, I was in deepest darkest Essex, getting my tyre replaced which, while not quite as historic or glamorous, was still satisfying from a frugal point of view.

It’s foolish, but I’ve always had a deep-seated fear of mechanics and other skilled tradespeople. I believe that they can see into my mind and know that every word they say is translated into Martian as soon as it enters my ears. It goes against the grain as a feminist, but I accepted long ago that I have absolutely no talent for cars, DIY or fixing things whatsoever.

As I have always experienced good service at my local Kwik Fit, despite entreaties from my neighbours to visit pastures new, when we got a puncture I was sorely tempted just to visit Mark there because he always takes care of me. He just smiles and gets on with things and doesn’t ask me complicated questions about carburettors I can’t answer.

But this time I decided I must at least investigate an alternative outlet that came highly recommended. It did involve a little bit of extra work on my account. Well, I mean, all I actually had to do was look at my tyres and find a serial number on the side, feeling pretty silly as I was obviously so stupid I had to ring them back twice until I got it right. Unlike Kwik Fit, they didn’t automatically know which tyres I needed. But instead of just offering expensive Goodyear tyres, they had a range of options to suit different budgets including budget tyres, part worn and mid range ones. Previously we’ve paid over £100 for a new tyre and fitting. Hardly ideal when we seem to average about two punctures a year. However, this time we plumped for a mid range tyre and paid £64, including VAT and fitting. I was impressed. The tyre down, the washing machine repairman still to go…

It’s surprisingly that with all our technology, finding a decent  workman who isn’t Basildon’s answer to Jesse James is still very much down to word of mouth or luck. Reaching for the Yellow Pages to find somebody always fills me with a sinking feeling. Sometimes they turn out ok, but often in my experience either they show up late, charge the earth, make a mess, don’t do a decent job unless you stand over them, or if you’re really unlucky, all four. I’m sure there are plenty of good workmen out there, I just don’t always seem to have the luck in finding them!

So it’s easy to see why DIY can be an attractive option if you are talented in that direction, as DJ is when it comes to decorating, laying laminate floor etc.. Not only do you save money, but you also save on the aggravation factor.

I’ve stumbled across a few interesting websites this week – one helping people find trustworthy workmen through customer review called Rated People and another teaching you how to fix things yourself, if you’re able, called How to Mend It. Both great ideas. But I have to say, I’d always feel more comfortable asking a neighbour or friend for a recommendation rather than someone on the web, but maybe you disagree?

How do you find good workmen? Would you hire somebody through a recommendation on a website? Do you have a formula for keeping repair costs down?

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22 Responses to Cowboys and Gunslingers: The struggle to find workmen

  1. Christine says:

    If you have a couple of neighbours who have had good service from a trader that is always a good way to go. The small trades person can\’t afford to lose a good local reputation as this is what gets him or her work. All the advertising in the world won\’t do you any good if you have a rubbish reputation in an area. Our local Older Persons Forum keeps a list of trades people who have given good service at a decent price. Perhaps you can tap into such a list locally. Just a teeny comment. I do feel that your headline to this article smacks of tabloid journalism – you don\’t give examples that back it up, just general comments. Not like you at all me dear. You are usually much more appropriate with your articles – you are much more apt to give examples to back up what you write.

  2. robert says:

    if you were prepared to pay a decent amount for a reputable tradesmen,then you would get a reliable and 1st class job,ive been in the trade 30 years and its always the same.clients/customers want it at rock bottom price,you get what you pay for,you pay peanuts you get monkeys,and the term cowboys a cheap jibe obvoiusly youve used them but not all are. ive been in business for years and seen the fly by nights come and go,and left the customer in the lurch because theyve fitted cheap jack gear,and as well lost out on quotes because of get a reliable tradesman ask him how long he,s been in the trade ask for customer references and remember youre paying for a profesional service! therefore you require a profesional competent tradesman who gives customer back up service for years to come

  3. Kerri says:

    Obvoiusly the title of this post has caused a bit of controversey but what I feel Piper is getting at is that many people, rightly or wrongly, do feel that it is a minefield out there when finding good, reliable tradesmen. I am sure that programmes on ITV and the BBC that show so-called \’cowboy\’ tradesmen doesn\’t help in adding fuel to the fire. I remember one that ITV did not long ago called Bobski the Builder where they compared a Polish builder (who wasn\’t actually a builder by trade) vs an English guy who had apparently been in the business for years. Whilst I am in no doubt that there are equally bad builders no matter where they are from – the job the english guy did was appaling, he cost more, took longer, there were weeks where he didn\’t turn up as he was working on a more lucrative hotel job, and, despite hims apparently being in the business for many years, the extension he built looked like something a 5yr old had put together in art class. No wonder people worry about parting with their cash.It is daunting to look at the yellow pages and see lists and lists of names – I tend to try and choose ones that have smaller ads – if they are that good then they likely as not don\’t need to pay out for a full page bells and whistles advert. If you can\’t get someone word of mouth, do get at least three quotes for a job so you can guage what seems to be a resaonable price. As Robert points out, cheapest is not necessarily best, but also don\’t expect that you will get the best job by paying the top price. If a tradesman offers a fair price, then it\’s a good sign that he will do the job needed to a decent level. The other thing I would suggest is, don\’t be afraid to ask questions if you are unsure about anything you are being told, any tradesman who wants the job and has nothing to hide won\’t mind answering them. Lastly, if you feel inclined to do so, why not spend a bit of money on a short DIY course that covers some basic things. I don\’t mean anything like plumbing a house, but I needed a light fitting changing before Xmas, luckily we have a friend who is a Sparky and it took him 5mins (literally) – otherwise I\’d have been look at a £30+ bill, for a £25 light! Seeing our friend do it, it\’s something I could have easily done but just didn\’t know how.

  4. john says:

    hi i have beeen a "skilled tradesman" all my life ,a 5 year apprentiship as an electrical fitter,further skills obtained are plumbing pnuematics ,hydraulics,brickwork,welding etc,metal working computor programing and other skills.So why is it difficult to find good tradesmen?(1)you want your son or daughter to go to uni,not jim bloggs and co the local builder,(2)you want your son or daughter to earn at least the average salary(i never did in 46 years of skilled working.)(3)almost by definition if you are to thick to go to uni.WE will give you a skill!!!! big deal.

  5. piper says:

    No offence meant on the \’cowboys and gunslingers\’ title – it was mean to be light-hearted. I recognise that there are plenty of decent workmen out there. But yes I have experienced plenty of cowboy workmen and I won\’t apologise for using that term as far as these individuals were concerned. As for examples, where do I start?! The guy who did some work in our house a few years ago – DJ had to stand over him and make sure he re-did various parts of the painting because he hadn\’t bothered to sand the walls and ensure the finish was good. He told us he would have finished by the time we came back from holiday (foolish on our part to go, but we\’d already booked the trip) but needless to say it wasn\’t. We woke the morning after he\’d fitted the bath to find water pouring through the ceiling of the kitchen below and smoke coming out of the light where the water was dripping. He tried to fix it but it continued to leak and eventually we got a plumber out who managed to fix it, although he said it would probably start leaking again in six months. Also, he used to tell us that he would arrive at 8am to start work (at the time we were both commuting to work and left the house at 7.30 so we wouldn\’t have known if he did) but when we both had days off (on different days) we realised that his start time was more like 11 and he finished at 3.30…!The flat where I used to live, my parents paid for two guys to come round and fit new kitchen worktops and a breakfast bar and the edges were so badly done that DJ had to finish the work himself. The day they were meant to come round they didn\’t turn up for hours and my Dad had to ring them up and shout at them. What else…? Oh yes, when I lived with my friend N, she got her next door neighbour who was a builder to come and do some work (a bad idea). He sent his boys round to sand the floors, fit a new bathroom window and a shower. The window was well done but everything was covered in sanding residue – they didn\’t clear up after themselves – the flooring was poorly done, oh and then smoke started coming out of the shower a few months later when my friend was in it! Needless to say they don\’t speak anymore! Perhaps you get what you pay for, but I\’ve never deliberately picked cheap workmen. But next time I will definitely ask for references as you suggest, Robert. The other problem is that while DJ can usually understand what skilled tradesmen are talking about when they explain what they are going to do/what the problem is with the appliance, for all my A-Levels and degree I can\’t understand a word, so not much point me doing a DIY course! It\’s impossible to be skilled in or have a talent for everything. As for people wanting their kids to go to university, what on earth is wrong with actually learning how to do something useful? Maybe it\’s different elsewhere but in Essex it isn\’t frowned upon for someone to become a builder/electrician etc. I remember when my mum was a teacher here her saying that some of the kids parents who were builders came to parents evening had huge expensive cars and didn\’t think it much worth their kids going to uni so they could become a teacher and drive an old mini metro! But I have had plenty of good boiler servicemen and electricians round. I always check their corgi registration before I book them. It\’s the luck of the draw.

  6. neil says:

    i agree,good tradesmen like myself find that to a new customer – tradesman trust has to be gained,but on the other side of the coin,a good customer is hard to find as well.Some times getting money out of people can be a real nightmare,especially if i have outlayed money for materials in the first place.The people want to start bartering the final bill down,or if something unforeseen (rotten timbers that were hidden behind plaster or tiles ),they think your trying to scam them.I have even arrange to pick up the money owed to me on a date and time,only to find out they have gone on holiday for three weeks….with my money…So just like the cowboys.there are the bad customer to….Neil sole trader joiner for 6 months !

  7. Neil says:

    Another Neil here. I agree with the former comment, but then I would, since I run my own \’Handyman\’ Business. 1. Because I was fed up of Family and Friends getting ripped off. 2. Because I was looking for a change of life/career/direction. 3. I want to be my own boss.But before you think i\’m yet another \’cowboy\’ I was a Toolmaker Apprentice. Won many awards and Prizes during those years. But after the bottom fell out of Manufacturing engineering in first the 70\’s then 80\’s, I thouoght I\’d put my skill with my hands to good use. So I trained up in as many Trade skills as possible over the years, with reputable \’Training Providers\’.What many \’lay\’ / DIY experts fail to realise is that very often a job does end up taking longer and being more expensive than first thought. I get equally frustrated when a job takes longer than I want it to.I always give my customers the full facts of what may be entailed. This isn\’t to \’blind\’ them B.S. but to give them the full picture.We have sadly lost the generation when usually, a Dad knew how to take apart and fix most things around the home/car etc and would hand it down the generations.there are websites out there, but I would also say to take caution with these too since its easy for \’a tradesperson\’ to register and his friends and family make \’recommendations\’…tryMy Workman. My Builder. My Hammer, etc, etc……..or look around locally…..and chose someone that advertises their FULL details eg an address that you can trace. If need be, do a drive by of the address and see what house they live in, car they drive. If the place/car/van is a mess then guess what their workmanship is going to be like???But if they live in a massive house with several Porsches in the drive, guess what the prices are going to be like??Its not Rocket science…. just Due Dilligence….and Yes there are Cowboy customers. A Friend who had his own Garden Centre installed decking and shed for a Chinese lady…only to be told the bill was too expensive and she wasnt going to pay…."You come back to my shopo for chips every week until bill is paid"!!!

  8. Christine says:

    Piper I firmly believe that everyone can understand the basics of what needs to be done by a tradesman you are employing. Most tradesmen can explain very simply what they will do for the price. To go on holiday whilst work is being done in your house is a tad unwise – you could have come home to an empty house and no furniture. And to have work paid for is lovely but it\’s hard for your parents to check references of workmen if they don\’t live locally. They were probably expecting you to check. I do appreciate how hard it is to rely on your other half to understand – however it might well be wise to watch him and see what you can learn in case, like me, you end up without the resident handy person. I\’m afraid that the days of ladies like my grandmother and mother who were trained to cook, sew, make and mend clothes, play something musical, sing a little, paint a little, arrange flowers, clean the house and weed the flowerbed are well and truly over. A DIY course will give you practical understanding even if you can\’t do the job afterwards. I\’m arts trained too with no understanding of car engines or boilers or electrics but over the years I have watched and learned simply by refusing to switch off when people start talking technical. Now doing maths is quite another matter – even when things are carefully explained she says laughing.

  9. John says:

    Stick with LOCAL tradesmen/woman, they are far more reliable, if not you can ruin their business by putting the word round!

  10. David says:

    Trading Standards promote a consumer \’Buy With Confidence\’ programme which promotes companies that have been thoroughly vetted for quality, high standards of work and can be recommended confidently. Well worth visiting..nationally promoted programme.

  11. piper says:

    Thanks for all your suggestions. No Christine – they were workmen my parents had used before!!! Trading standards programme sounds good, will check that out. That\’s interesting although awful to hear, Neil and Neil, about the dodgy customers too. I can appreciate it – in my line of work I\’ve occasionally worked for cowboy magazines who haven\’t paid up either or have after months of chasing (not ideal). One I had to threaten with the small claims court and write to their MD. So it must be difficult to know which customer will actually pay up if you\’ve not worked for them before. What we did get right with the previous workman was paying in agreed installments. He was happy as he got some of the cash as he went along, but we knew he would at least finish the job as he wouldn\’t get all of his money until he did so.

  12. S says:

    Why is it that builders and tradesmen always get given the title COWBOY or in your case Gunslinger? I\’ve yet to find a civil servant with half a brain, title – numbskulls. A lawyer/Solicitor that doesn\’t think £150 for a letter is extortionate title -the piranhas. A doctor that would rather I \’sweat it out\’ than prescribe something title-Butchers with stethoscopes. It\’s infuriating, when people harp on about tradesmen not being good, it\’s simple, what you really mean is, you dont\’ want to pay the going rate, and therefore, the bloke that\’s just come out of the nick down the road offers to do it for you and you ask how much? He guesstimates, and you shout hallelujah! and then cry foul when he buggers it up. There are plenty of trade associations that mean if work isn\’t completed to a set standard, tradesmen can seriously end up in trouble, so the number of rogue traders is really down to the public, and their willingness to do thier research ( know what qualifications are necessary for the work they require) and then pay what a tradesman is worth. Just because a person walks with a stethoscope around thier neck, doesn\’t make them a doctor. use your noddle!

  13. Michael says:

    To all persons who look down their noses at so called workmenWhy is it that no body wants to pay for a decent job so employ people who dont know what they are doing at the lower price are you surprised so much when you want to pay lemonade money for champange quality work, its time all those who think they are so informed know so much about any work that needs doing about your house then try doing it yourself. Or you could pay the going rate for a proper qualified tradesman.Until then may i suggest you do the work yourself instead of wasting your time typing out an article on the subject.

  14. David Aka Devlin says:

    Not all workmen are cowboys & gunslingers, I\’m a fully qualified service/repair engineer, I charge reasonable rates I NEVER lie to a customer as I beieve that honesty IS the best policy,I\’m always polite, considerate & Knowledgeable, If I run over my alloted time I DON\’T Charge an extra hour by over running by 10 minutes, am I a rare creature….you bet I am, can I sleep peacefully….hell yes My motto "advice is free if you require me to do the work…I will charge," there are people out in my industry who don\’t have a clue, who think they know what they are doing,who may even have a semi good reputation, Who can get it wrong, I\’m no angel I don\’t pertain to be, what I am however is some one who takes pride in my job, so if you want a skilled worker, shop around, ask friends family, neighbours, ring citizens advice/trading standards as they will know the true cowboys……but above all trust your instincts…remember YOU are wanting their services…YOU decide who does the job…..YOUR the person paying their wages!!!!!

  15. piper says:

    Hey – I would put more than a couple of solicitors I\’ve had the misfortune to know in the cowboy bracket too. In fact there are worse things I would call them than that, believe me..As for fixing the washing machine myself…mmm…to quote the words of Clint Eastwood…"a man\’s gotta know his limitations"…I don\’t really want to burn our house down for the sake of a few quid…I don\’t look down my nose at workmen, Michael – quite the opposite.

  16. Ally says:

    I work for a reputable maintance firm! pls check us out at, my pic is also up there!

  17. Derek says:

    I once ran my own flooring company and advertised in the local paper, all was fine for about 10 months a was getting most of the jobs i quoted for and all customers were very pleased with the workmanship i left . At the time was charging the going rate for fitting laminate which was around £5 per m2 . Then to my surprise i wasnt getting as many of the jobs, people i was estimating for started to tell me i was too expensive. Puzzled by this i started asking what had been quoted and started to match it, then the same thing happened again. To my surprise someone who was advertising in the paper was fitting laminate for £2m2. After time i started to see people who were advertising along side me had stopped advertising. Probably for the same reasons as me. Its hard to charge very low prices when you are running a small business and trying to keep a van on the road also. In the flooring game we are finding that more and more people are buying a couple of stanley knifes out of B&Q and are now claiming to be floorlayers and carpet fitters. Probably a lot of trades are finding the same thing happening and its killing most of the trades.

  18. steven says:

    Steve , regarding "finding descent" tradesmen? I had a Plastering Business in South East London for many years, and advertised in Yellow Pages every year, at 2 Grand a time? also running a large van, and employing local lads as spreads. I started in 1968 as an apprentice boy for 5 years and learnt the trade properley. But the influx of cheap labour from the Eastern block countries led to my prices being reduced until i was working in 2005, for 1989 prices? The only problem with that was the Banks still charged me 2009 Mortgage rates. After long and difficult time thinking , i decided to pack the game in. Also young lads have a 6 week course and call there self Plasterers. Now i live in Spain and am glad that i do, the English here and some Spanish are truly happy for an old sod like me to do a proper Plastering job for them. More a way of life now than a job.

  19. Brian says:

    Hi I thoughtthat you moight be interested in my views I run a small two person building maintenance business in somerset and pride myself on my honest and trustworthy reputation but lately i seem to be undercut by unskiled and uninsured people who profess to be professional it makes it hard to compete

  20. John says:

    It`s obvious that the type of tradesmen that are prepared to read and comment on a blog such as this AREN`T the type of fly-by-night merchants that are in operation. There are legions of bad ones though. If you need your house redecortaed for example, give the decorator the smallest room first to redec. That way you can see the standard and value of his work before giving him a bigger job. Websites that profess to offering `vetted professionals` aren`t always reliable. I was working up a ladder last summer when 2 guys got out of a car offering to put me on their reknowned tradesmen website for around £70 a year.They knew nothing about me, just wanted me to send in a cheque and I`d be on the database. Recommendations are always the best route. John

  21. ray says:

    try a website called "my builder" but stick to the people who have feed back from customers on the site,and not jack of all trades master of none,who claim they can do everything without proof,its a very easy site to look at and you can get tradesmen local to you,so if there is a problem…! they can come back

  22. Billy says:

    if your unsure on who to call phone trading standards they can not name the bad ones but they can recommend a good reliable one i have been a scaffolder for 22 years and seen some proper piss pore work (for the want of a better phrase) con men are convincing and bold get an estimate then check their company name on the web if there is any dirt on them it will be there some where

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