When newly-retired firefighter Steve Pritchard began a search for a builder to complete long-awaited renovations to his flat, he thought he had done everything he could to avoid a rogue trader.
He sought references from family friends who had used him, inspected his previous work, and met him several times before shaking hands on a price.
But after forking out £13,500 upfront from his pension to refurbish the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom of his flat in Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire, Pritchard was understandably anxious when his builder failed to turn up to finish off the work.
Fearing the worst – and with his flat in an uninhabitable state – Pritchard tried to find out what was happening. “Basically over those three days, he made my home completely uninhabitable but then never came back – I couldn’t get hold of him,” Pritchard told HuffPost UK.
“I spent a couple of days trying to find out where he was, getting updated and so forth. Then eventually on Sunday I got an email from his address, from somebody purporting to be his daughter, saying he had been arrested and that she would update me,” he added.
It turns out that Pritchard’s builder had been arrested and charged in connection with an armed robbery. By coincidence, as Pritchard learned from online news reports, the timing meant the builder was alleged to have been involved in the heist on the day he was meant to start the works.
“He was due to start last Monday, but didn’t turn up. He informed me that he had some illness in the family that he needed to attend to but he would be there the next day,” Pritchard said.
“He did turn up on the second day, Tuesday December 4, and started work, and over the next three days he proceeded to dismantle the rooms that were due for renovation: the kitchen, the bathroom and my daughter’s bedroom,” he added.
Pritchard had been left with no water or kitchen appliances. Pipes were exposed in torn-up floors. He had no bathroom, and in his daughter’s bedroom parts of the ceiling were left missing. Frantic, he scrutinised invoices and receipts he had received for thousands of pounds worth of materials he been asked to fund ahead of the build.
“I received receipts for all these additional things, email copies of letter-headed receipts from companies. I would later find out these were fraudulently generated invoices and receipts,” he said. “I think he is clearly very computer literate and sophisticated, certainly enough to fool me.”
The revelation echoes problems faced by thousands of people each year who fall victim to so-called cowboy builders, rogue traders or unscrupulous operators.
Statistics shared with HuffPost UK from Citizens Advice reveal the consumer charity spoke with some 48,000 people involved in some sort of dispute with tradespeople last year, an increase on the previous year.
Most of those reporting disputes did so over fitted windows and doors, with roofing and kitchens the second and third biggest sources of issues, the figures showed.
Citizens Advice said beyond appealing to a trader for a refund, or for them to attend an approved alternative dispute resolution scheme, many people involved in disputes may need to spend money taking their claims to county court.
There is some protection for people who pay for works on a credit card, while specialist home renovation insurance also exists.
Meanwhile the Federation of Master Builders (FMB), which represents small and medium building firms, said that stories like Pritchard’s were shocking, but not rare.
“Unfortunately this kind of situation is reasonably common. One of the reasons for that is that we don’t have any kind of licensing scheme for builders in the UK,” the federation’s Sarah McMonagle said.
“In places like Australia and Germany, you need to have a licence to undertake building work, but here anyone and everyone can set themselves up as a builder even without qualifications.”
McMonagle said moves to raise the issue with the government were in motion, with a white paper potentially on track to be published next year.
The FMB has argued for an official national three-year personal “licence to build” for traders, which could help tackle criminal abuse by rogue operators.
Hertfordshire Police confirmed that a man had been charged in connection with the armed robbery that allegedly occurred in Much Hadham on Monday, December 3.
“The offence reportedly happened at around 1.50pm at the Londis store in Tower Hill,” the force said.
Meanwhile, Pritchard is looking ahead to Christmas, and is concerned that his daughters Ellie – who returns from university in the US next week – and Annabelle, may now have to spend the holiday elsewhere.
“I have an uninhabitable home and nowhere to spend Christmas with my two daughters,” Pritchard said. In support of the pensioner, a crowdfunding campaign has been set up.
“I’ve basically been living out of a couple of bags at various places,” he added. “I’ve tried to spread myself around on people’s sofas so I’m not too much of burden on anyone in particular.
“I don’t think I’ll get any of this money back.”