How to Spot a Cowboy

If rainy day summer holiday film matinees taught me anything, it is how to identify a cowboy. You only have to picture John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, or Clint Eastwood and you are half way there. Watch them walk, hear them talk, see the subtle flex of fingers in that inevitable close up of a hand poised by their hip holster and you’ve pretty much got the cowboy thing nailed down.

Periodically, we even see them drive cattle across the wide open planes. Though not that often, oddly enough. I suppose a single two-minute scene where you see a multitude of closely packed longhorns pushing dangerously past each other and their horse riding companions is enough to justify ‘cowboy’ on their CVs – more than that might get a bit tedious, especially when there are guys out there they haven’t yet thrown through a saloon window for larks.

It’s quite a fun trip down memory lane, or browse through your current DVD collection if the seemingly endless Western programming of your childhood wasn’t enough to sate your appetite for the drawling, glowering, bow-legged, tobacco chewing fellas.

It’s less fun if we encounter cowboys here and now. In dear old Blighty, a land not overabundant with dusty open planes where fresh pastures are hundreds of miles away, cowboys of the John Wayne variety are pretty much non-existent.

Here, we associate the term with the shoddy workmanship, crooked builders, and people filmed ripping off the unsuspecting public in grainy, awkwardly angled footage on TV.

None of us wants to fall foul of these unscrupulous people. But when you employ a builder, it’s sometimes very hard to tell at first if they are trustworthy and reliable.

Thankfully, there are some tell-tale signs that can help you spot the difference between a cowboy builder and the genuine thing. Citizen’s Advice are always there to lend a hand and offer the following warnings.

Be very careful about taking on a builder who:

·                offers very cheap quotes or estimates – this could mean they are a cowboy, or not experienced enough to give accurate figures

·                is unwilling to put a quote or estimate in writing – this could mean they don’t intend to stick to it

·                is unwilling to offer references – testimonials and recommendations are the best guarantees of a trustworthy tradesperson. And if they give you references, call them.

·                is too keen to start the job straight away – cowboy builders often do lots of work in one area before moving out of the area altogether. They often leave very poor or unfinished work behind and are impossible to track down

·                is unwilling to offer you details about their business – for example an address or landline number

·                claims to be in a trade association when they are not – you should always check if the builder does belong to that trade association. If they don’t after they said they were, it means they’re dishonest, probably committing a criminal offence, and who knows what else they are lying about

·                claims to work for a company with a good reputation when they don’t – check they work for who they say they do. If they don’t, this means they’re dishonest and you’d be better off not using them

·                doesn’t offer you a contract, or doesn’t sign the one you give them

·                asks for money up front – a reliable builder won’t ask you to do this, not even if they need materials. If they run a business, they should have enough money to cover these costs themselves and only ask for payment once they’ve completed the job, or done a reasonable amount of work

·                gives a detailed quote and schedule of work but then not follow it

·                doesn’t charge VAT when they should – if they are a small or new trader, they may not need to register or pay VAT. It depends on how much work they do in a year. If they should be registered, they could be avoiding paying it, to save money and charge less than others. This is dishonest and against the law

·                only accepts cash – if a builder only offers to accept a cash payment, they could be acting dishonestly by not paying VAT

You can report problems to Trading Standards direct or via the Citizen’s Advice consumer service.

A new building project should be exciting, not stressful. You don’t want to have worries about the budget, about schedules and timetables, or about the standard of work. If you have any doubts about someone, ask them questions, apply the above advice and then step away if you’re not happy. Check websites and social media and ask around. For your new project to be a success, you need the right people looking after it.

Remember the wise words you may have heard a weathered-looking elderly woman wearing a crochet shawl and a formidable expression drawl, “Just ’cause trouble comes visitin’ don’t mean you gotta offer it a place to sit down”.

Where have all the cowboys gone? Far, far away, I hope.

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