#G0651* – Renovation is quote + 200% + Repair!


as Lee and I renovate, modernise and improve the new home we can clearly empathise with our friend Alice’s experiences!

Many will remember the extensive work I did myself on the building in Chepstow now however – health and anno domini having taken their toll builders & labourers are needed for this house ;-(

You too may be able to empathise with both our plight and the experiences of Alice:


‘It almost fits’ the carpenter said, holding a t&g plank up to the beam in the corridor. It was short of the walls on either side by at least an inch so I didn’t share his opinion –
‘….and then’, he continued brightly, ‘ you can get your plasterer to plaster up to it.
! I was fairly new to the world of builders and carpenters, but learning fast. The
Chapel I was renovating was literally awash with various lengths of t&g, dowels and any
other bits of wood the carpenter, aka Alco Dave from Cwmbran, would need.

! ‘Or,’ I said, unclenching my teeth, ‘ you could take a longer piece and cut that to
size. Exactly. Like the plank on the other beam’.

! This clearly opened up an entirely new avenue of thought for Dave. He scratched
his chin and pursed his lips, grunting thoughtfully, possibly disappointed his suggestion
had fallen on stony ground.

! ‘Then you can take a dowel and cut that to size as well’, I said encouragingly. ‘To
the same size. With a saw.’ I was tempted to spell the last word.

! Earlier that morning I had picked Dave up from Cwmbran. He had been highly
recommended by friends in the village for whom he had done a lot of work. Recently , he
had lost his driving license and he was prepared to do a number of carpentry jobs around
the chapel for a reasonable price as long as I could pick him up and take him home. He
thought it would take him about a week. We were an hour into his paid day and so far he
had wandered round the place with a dazed look on his face. I could already see the week
stretching into months.

! To be fair, it wasn’t a run of the mill semi but a Georgian Baptist Chapel and
graveyard complete with tombs, gravestones and a small obelisk. I had bought one half of
the building, the part with the balcony which had a lovely cast iron balustrade. I wanted to leave the interior as much intact as I could by creating a kitchen, bathroom and bedroom underneath the balcony and to leave the main room, which by now had a wonderful stone fireplace, open. I loved it, my BBC monitor Rogers speakers were on the balcony and the acoustics were fantastic. All the builders whom I had the misfortune to engage, tried to persuade me to create at least four bedrooms. The man who invented plasterboard partitions should have been shot in my opinion. Until I started this renovation I thought walls were made of bricks or stone, inside and out. I was going through a vertiginous learning curve.

! In the space of two days Alco Dave managed to bodge every job I asked him to in
such an intricate way that it took at least twice the time and money again to put it right.

He was a natural with a penchant for screws.

! Other carpenters, he informed me, didn’t use anywhere near enough of these to
secure one piece of wood to another. In a square foot I counted about 20. Countersinking
was another thing Dave frowned upon. How could you take the screws out again if you
were going to hide them? He tended to bodge for about an hour before he sat down
expectantly in the kitchen, waiting for me to provide him with coffee, tea and even lunch.

I gave up after two days, which was two days too late.

! ‘How did you get on with Dave?’ asked Anne – a soon to be ex-friend who’d
recommended him. This was a few days after I had dropped him off – not at his home
where his wife was lurking – but at his pub to drink the money I had already paid him.
! ‘Not very well’. I said, not wanting to hurt her feelings. Anne said she was surprised
as he had done wonderful work for them and eulogised his works.

! ‘He assembled a four-poster bed for us and a wardrobe – and then’ – she paused for
effect – ‘he even went upstairs and screwed them both to the floorboards so they couldn’t fall over.’

! For once I was dumb. If she didn’t hear herself say that the estimable Dave couldn’t
get things to stand up by themselves, I could hardly disillusion her. They moved house
some years later, I don’t know how. Possibly the floorboards came too.

There is a strange relationship between builders of any kind, plumbers, carpenters,
bricklayers and the women they work for from time to time. Almost invariably, the woman in question finds this ‘wonderful man’ and he sets out do all these manly things involving masses of tools and materials. He uses terms she has never heard off in her life, such as noggings and studdings. Plumbers speak of yorkshire fittings and other mysteries.

Building regulations are frequently referred to and work from earlier and incompetent
predecessors is reluctantly put right – or in my experience – put wrong in a different and
newly creative way.

! An otherwise sensible friend of mine, whose husband was often away, decided she
needed central heating in her house. She hired the local builder and his plumber and was
immediately on first-name terms with them. A grave mistake. The work done was adequate but came at twice the normal price. A week after completion the boiler exploded.

! My friend was oblivious to the situation. ‘It wasn’t Mike’s fault’, she explained, ‘he
was given the wrong valve.’

! Now call me intolerant, but when I pay a specialist to do a job, I expect him to know
the right valve. That’s what you’re paying him for. But she wouldn’t have it and Mike got
praise and thanks – worse, he got paid again.

! My very first experience with builders was also my worst. It took about four months
before I realised I was being swindled big time. By Easter I sacked the highly
recommended builder who was known to me as Alec Evans, but by everyone else as
Leaky Evans. I found out much later that he was a plumber whose work was so bad that
even Newport Council had sacked him. You have to have a real inverse talent to get
sacked from any council as I found to my cost.

! Despite taking advice from friends and ‘experts’, I was taken for a very expensive
ride. Nepotism and the incestuous relationships that pervade small communities took care
of all that. The reason the woman had recommended Leaky Evans was simple: she ran a
chaotic B & B as well as an equally chaotic love life. One of her ex-husbands rented a
room from her for which he rarely paid, only when he got work. He was a plasterer. Leaky was willing to employ the plasterer as long as she got him a high paying project. I was ideal: a foreigner from London, a woman to boot: all their birthdays had come at once.

! The woman, Janet, also needed money for vast quantities of cider and men she
consumed. I had got to know her because I stayed as a guest there whilst looking round
the neighbourhood for houses whilst I was selling my house in London.

! She would regale me with stories of lodgers making passionate love to her in her
lace-draped four poster bed. I thought she was joking, she was about 60 and looked like a
toad. But it turned out to be true insofar that any man in the house who rejected her
advances got his marching orders. The biddable ones stayed free.

! No wonder she needed money and I was going to provide it, lots of it. Even better, I
was very busy in London and could only come down every few weeks. So I drew up plans and order of work schedule and asked for estimates. I thought I’d taken the right advice and the Chapel would be finished and habitable within a year.

! Disastrously optimistic would be an accurate description of my state of mind.

! To begin with, Leaky had trouble reading plans, or perhaps just reading. Thanks to
my archaeological training I drew excellent plans. One of the first things he scrapped was
the spiral staircase I wanted to install.

! ‘Illegal’, he said, ‘building regs. Pregnant women, see, can’t go down, it’s regs.’
He had me there, I knew absolutely nothing about building regulations and adjusted my
plans. What he really meant was that he didn’t know how to do it.

! The next job was to build two new supporting walls for the balcony as the existing
ones were too far back to leave room for the kitchen and bedroom underneath. He
removed the brick walls and replaced them with two plasterboard walls. These were
incapable of supporting a balcony and two tons of cast iron balustrade. The corners
buckled almost immediately.

! He replaced the side windows with a pair that bore no relationship to my carefully
scaled drawing. There were no mullions, the 5’ x 10’ windows were constructed by fitting four 2’6” x 5’ windows on top of each other, the middle horizontal was a 7” wide plank, installed to hide the balcony floor level. Thanks to the planks, you couldn’t miss it.
! Extending the floor of the balcony was accomplished with left-over bits or wood,
mostly 2” x 3”, which he attached to the respectable existing beams of 4” x 7”. Anyone
weighing more than 6 stone ran a grave risk of falling through the floor.

! There were occasions when I’d been too smart for him, such as the time he gave
me an estimate for knocking plaster off the walls, charging £ 100,- per square meter. I did a quick calculation and told him I’d come down for the weekend and do it myself. It took me a day. The stuff was practically falling off the walls by itself and it saved me about £ 5000, – .

! It was then I started to doubt his honesty. There were other indications. Outside in
the graveyard the pile of rubble was growing faster than could be accounted for by the
work inside. Inspecting it, I found the complete contents of some other houses he’d been
working on, including a dinky pink bathroom. My garden was turning into the local dump.

! For his next trick he tried to charge me four times the price of a combi boiler.
Although he was very much against such new-fangled hardware in the first place. The
ones he installed for the council leaked, he said. No doubt they did but he may have
missed a vital clue there. He put them in.

! ‘Combi boilers’, he said, ‘ were dangerous.’ Did I realise I that when the hot water
tap was turned on, the radiators weren’t going to get any? What I needed was a cold
water tank in the loft and an immersion heater downstairs. Much better. But Leaky quoted £ 2000,- (his favourite number it seemed) for a combi boiler I found new in Exchange and Mart for £ 500,-.

That was the beginning of the end for him.

! I’ve never been happy about a cold water tank resting above my head. I’d heard too
many stories of pipes springing leaks in the winter or dead rodents floating in the drinking
water. Long before I had anything to do with builders, I ‘d wondered about the waste pipes sticking out of most houses. In winter they often burst and stalagtites of ice would decorate the sides and backs of many houses. It was explained to me that this was a perfectly good system. If the pipes were inside the house, they would flood the interior – the British way was much better. All the flooding would be on the outside and easy to repair. ‘But’, I pointed out, ‘if they were inside, they wouldn’t freeze and then they wouldn’t burst at all.’

A patient smile told me a foreigner would never understand – the British way was best. I
begged to differ, bursting pipes are rarely an issue in the Netherlands.

! The provision of hot water in British homes is another mystery. There is more than
adequate water pressure in most areas to use combi boilers. That way, you only pay for
hot water you actually use. The antiquated system of electrically heating a tank – it often
takes up to two hours before the water is at a decent temperature – is beyond reason. If
you want a bath, there may be just enough hot water to run one, but never enough to top
it up once you are in it.

What do the British do? Do they float in the cooling bathwater for hours until the tank can provide a hot top-up? By that time it must be too late, for the bath would by then be well below body temperature at which stage hypothermia sets in.

The last flat I stayed in before I left for France had just such a system and I used to boil several pans and a kettle of water to have next to the bath for the top ups.

! Meanwhile, Leaky had not rested on his laurels, I’d asked him to stop work until I
could come down for two weeks at Easter and arranged for a builder to do an inspection.
! Undeterred, Leaky carried on ruining the place to his own specifications. He made it
impossible for me to stay in the chapel by removing the loo and ripping the electricity box
off the wall. However, I’d camped in worse places and the look of surprise on his face
when he found me there after Easter was worth the discomfort.

! He immediately demanded a payment of £ 2000,- for materials and work done. I
tricked him into laying a cement floor under the stairs whilst I went to the bank. it was the first time I’d actually seen him do any work himself. When I came back I told him I’d already paid him over £ 20.000,- for work which all needed to be done again. He could go.

! I ‘d fallen for the story that he couldn’t work for me unless I paid cash because he
and I would otherwise have to pay VAT. I knew I had no chance to get any of it back. I had insisted on a record which we would go over every time I came down from London but never got the promised copies. In the space of five months he had swindled me out of over £ 20.000,- . He didn’t take it well, appearing at my door a few months later demanding money. By that time, I’d had a major back operation and was living in my little ruin as well as I could.

! A few weeks later he turned up again. ‘Pay up or I’m coming round with my rugby
mates to do you over’. His threats fell on stony ground. I just closed the door in his face
and logged the threat with the local policeman. In my weakened state he could have
managed the proposed beating quite easily by himself and I didn’t even have a big brother
to threaten him with. Leaky wasn’t unique – at a later date I employed yet another local
specimen, equally highly recommended, equally bad at his job and just as abusive when I
rumbled his schemes.

! Via a friend in Usk I found a general builder who was very capable and also honest.
Just not fast. He did the plumbing and I acted as a builder’s mate in everything he did.
Learned to mix cement, quite a lot about plumbing and nothing about electricity, which
always frightens me stiff.

! We refitted the french windows which Leaky had managed to set flush with the
inside walls and also hung the wrong way round. Therefore the lock was on the outside –
which should have given him a clue. The putty was on the inside and the door opened
inwards as well. Leaky’s reasoning for this was inspired: Got to have a ledge to step out
on, putty can be scraped off by burglars (his putty probably could) and opening inwards
was normal. For him at any rate. Short of putting them in upside down, there was nothing else to bodge on this particular job.

! The electrical wiring was a deathtrap. None of the wiring was insulated in plastic
tubes, it ran diagonally across walls, being the shortest distance between two points.
When I started to drill holes above the french windows to fix a curtain pole, I missed the
wire by half an inch. We had to rip it all out and start again.

! Leaky had a nodding acquaintance with central heating installations. A few pipes
had been installed under the floor boards in a way which made airlocks a certainty. By the
time I sold the chapel I could have qualified with honours in plumbing and general

! Luckily, I now had a lot of spare time, because my recovery from the back
operation resulted in a years’ sick leave. This eventually turned into indefinite leave due to
a number of subsequent operations and the realisation by my employers that I had
actually done a lot of work. I was replaced by two marines and it took years to establish my rights – my own liberal country wasn’t interested in human rights when they applied to their civil servants abroad. But that’s another story.

! Over a period of two years I worked on the chapel as and when I could, allowing for
health and money. I had scaffolding in the main room for so long that I missed it when it
was finally taken away. It was jolly handy to hang my clothes on.

! At one time an elderly friend offered to help me out with the bathroom. Humphrey
was not a typical plumber, ex-public school and inclined to talk about plumbing rather than doing it. When he finally got down to it he was given to muttering random bits of poetry and reminiscing about his youth and wartime experiences. Connecting two sets of taps to the pipes took a week and by that time a good deal of chrome was stripped off the expensive Victorian taps and shower, my patience was paper-thin and the bathroom a mess of tools and detritus.

! ‘What I like about plumbing’, said Humphrey with a beaming smile from amidst his
desolation ‘is that it is so mysterious to most people’. It certainly was to him. The pipes
sprang leaks as soon as the taps were turned on. I got rid of him, got a set of mechanical
fittings instead of the Yorkshire ones he had been using and fixed them on myself. For all I know, they’re still there.

! The new and improved builder recommended to me by my dearest friend, was a
close second to Leaky. He employed two labourers, one of whom actually did some work
and an older one, who asked me at regular intervals how old I thought he was. I said
about forty-two to let him surprise me with his revelation of 62. He looked about a hundred.

! Builder mark two had an Italian name, turned up in a tracksuit, t-shirt and Gucci
loafers and brought a theodolite with him. This was merely to impress me, since he didn’t
have a clue how to use it. Unfortunately for him, I did. Surveying is a fairly integral part of archaeology and I had done loads of it. We didn’t need anything so sophisticated to do the job, which was to lower the level of the 6’ x 12’ yard in front of the chapel. The manhole cover needed lowering as well and a low brick wall had to be demolished.

! Over the course of a week, they threw the old bricks any old how into the garden,
lifted the flags in the yard and then started to relay them at exactly the same level.
Somewhat piqued when I pointed this out the builder said he was following my instructions to the letter. When I came home at the end of the day, the brick structure underneath the manhole had been dismantled and the old bricks replaced with brand-new ones. To exactly the same level it had been before. Once again, I stopped work.

! The following day, Pistachio (I could never remember his real name) stormed in
waving a bill. ‘Terry’, he said (Terry Jones the builders’ merchant – I was not impressed that he was on first-name terms) ‘Terry wants to be paid, he only let me have the material upfront, because we play golf together.’ I had no interest in the dizzy heights of what passed for society in Newport and looked at the bill. Amongst a lot of items which I had never seen at the chapel was an entry for 144 bricks and I wanted to know what he’d done with them and why they’d been necessary in the first place since the whole garden was covered in my own, perfectly useable ones. Besides, all he should have done is to take about 12 bricks off the top. According to Pistachio, they were all used on the job.

! We went outside and I counted 36 bricks. So where was the rest and by the way, I
would have to take the top course off and that would make it 24 new bricks. Seemed
reasonable to me that I should not pay for a gross.

! I have never seen anyone so tomato coloured. ‘Get Gray to count them!’ He was
trying to intimidate me by shouting and all but stamped his feet. My own fury was building up nicely.

! ‘I have a science degree,’ I said between clenched teeth, ‘ and I can add up to as
much as two hundred without help from grown-ups. I’m not paying for the bricks.’ Wasted on him of course. Foreigners and women are so much white noise to the building fraternity.

He left, I eventually paid about half the bill, which was still way more than he had used.
There seemed to be no end to this learning curve.

! Finally, after years of toil and misery, the chapel was finished to some standard of
local excellence. I sold it as soon as I could but not before the building trade threw me
another curve ball. The house painter.

! I had learned something. Like getting a number for the job and sticking to it. Never,never let them call you by your first name. The housepainter came with an
impressive quantity of ladders, pots of paint and brushes and started work the same day.
All he had to do was to paint the outside of the chapel. His stamina tended to give out
after about an hour and he would walk into my kitchen. ‘What comes after the letter s in
the alphabet?’ He’d smile broadly at his own wit and after a while, when I didn’t reply had to finish the dialogue all by himself. ‘Tea! I’d like a nice cuppa.’ This ritual took place about six times a day. Unlike Alco Dave, ‘Tea Thomas’ brought his own lunch although I went through a gross of PG tips.

! I was very lucky to have a friend who liked nothing better than to turn a graveyard
into a garden. The graveyard was a level terrace just about twelve feet wide. From there
on it sloped very sharply. The idea was to build a revetment of dry stone walling with a
staircase to the lower level made out of the large stone slabs of various tombs. The whole
garden area had long been deconsecrated. Only half the graveyard came with the chapel,
one area was designated to create parking spaces for the residents of the Manse and the
two halves of the chapel.

! Further down was a narrow strip which belonged to the builder who had sold the
chapel so that he could build a terrace of three houses. This wasn’t due to happen until the last grave in the corner could be deconsecrated. But the aptly named Gerry (builder) drove into the graveyard with his JCB’s well in advance of this date and started to bodge on a much larger scale than I had previously witnessed.

! By this time the chapel wasn’t anywhere near finished, but my friend was turning my
garden into a dream. His dream though, I like wild gardens. Even so, I loved everything he did. The terrace was taking shape beautifully and we would sit out there every evening, watching the Folly, as we affectionately called the building work down the far end.

! It was an education in itself. These builders had everything,a JCB, tractors and
staff, including a rottweiler. Just no plans. They filled an old well with empty beer cans and rubble, put some steel sheeting over it and then laid bricks directly over that to create
secure parking for future residents.

! They rendered the walls before the electrics were installed and when the front doors
arrived, they were too wide for the apertures. For some reason they found it easier to use
an angle grinder to widen the gaps, rather than to get other doors. From time to time
something would fall off the building whilst they were constructing it. They spent a long
time working out what to do with the baptismal font, a sort of stone plunge-pool which was a listed feature. It was too large to fill with beer cans and the residents, baptists to a man, were campaigning to have it preserved. One night it disappeared. The police was notified that it had been stolen but they didn’t even bother to make up a report.

! The still legal grave was incorporated in the balcony of the end house. The
recession was beginning to bite hard at the time and it turned out that the builder himself
would live there until he could legally remove the grave.

! By the time they were ready to put the roof on, they discovered that the roofline was
far from level. We’d already seen that weeks before from our vantage point on the terrace
but didn’t want to spoil the fun. Besides, there might be another creative solution like the
too wide doors. But the angle grinders came out again and with a bit of cement and a bit
shaved off there it was almost, but never quite level.

! Once I’d sold the chapel, I moved to an old schoolhouse near the Herefordshire
border. It was all I could afford to buy and here again, lots needed doing, but at least I
could manage whilst I worked it all out. It was an adorable place, a lovely village in a
fantastic setting and I was very much happier there than in the chapel.

! Most of the work I did myself, stripping paint off wood panelling and anaglypta
wallpaper of perfectly good plastered walls. But I needed a woodburner installed and a
worktop next to the sink. A local team of father and son came – again highly recommended by a local woman. My education paid off. I gave them a small job to see a sample of their work.

! To start with they nailed, not screwed, an upright 3” x 3” to the concrete floor and
took the trouble to secure it to the worktop with a couple of screws. They didn’t try to get the get it plumb so it always leant at a slight angle. I hid the whole thing from view with a blue gingham curtain. Best not to look and hope it stayed up. This effort took the two of them a day and left the woodburner to be collected and installed the next day.
! It was a small Villager stove and they had to connect it to the existing pipe in the
chimney. This took all of ten minutes and they left, assuring me that it would work fine.
Once lit, it poured smoke into the room, although when I checked the chimney outside,
some of it did escape. I called the happy double act again as they only lived down the
road. Next day they rolled up with a roof ladder and adjusted the cowl to the prevailing
wind, which is what they should have done in the first place.

! ‘Not a cheap job’, the father said, looking grave.’ The roof ladder alone, you know,
cost over £ 300.-’ . He sighed soulfully and started to write out a bill.

! I had no intention to let him charge me: ‘I type letters for people from time to time,
but I don’t charge them for the computer and when I make a mistake I correct it at no extra charge.’ I explained, smiling sweetly as an ignorant foreign woman should but ready to scream if they needed proof of my state of mind – ‘ and I’ve already paid for the installation of the stove, so we’re all straight now. Thank you.’

! It worked. From time to time they would ask if I had work for them but I was right
out of money and patience. Like Jack Nicholson in ‘As good as it gets’ I’d had enough
crazies. I’d had all the crazies I would ever want.

! The schoolhouse needed rewiring and I took considerable pains to search for a
jobbing electrician. The first one who came to look at the job took the trouble of ringing my doorbell at 11.00 in the evening to give me his estimate. Then he launched into a potted history of his life, his recent divorce and his plans for the future. I had only one plan for the immediate future and that was to kick him out. His plans had no doubt included me and my property. He was looking for a home or even better, a woman and a home.

! I’d asked him which part of his estimate was material and which labour. This was a
great trick I’d learned. Either you get a number for the job, however long it takes or the
estimate is broken down into cost of materials and labour. That is the only way to find out what hourly or daily rate you are paying. Reasonable, I think, most people don’t do this and pay way over de odds.
! I finally found the marvelous but talkative Peter, who had worked at Llanwern

steelworks until they closed. We bought the required materials which came to less than
£ 300,00 and he finished the job in two days. Instead of £ 2500,- it cost me all of £ 500,-
and not a marriage proposal in sight. At the school I didn’t make too many mistakes,
mostly because I ‘d run out of money in any case.

! ! Behind the school was a large playground. I wanted to turn it into a garden and asked for estimates to break up the tarmac. I finally collected about five estimates, ranging in price from eight hundred to twelve thousand. I already knew what the cost of a JCB plus driver per day was. At the time it was a mere £ 100,-. The chaps who would draw
in their breath, look at me condescendingly and then give me their favourite numbers,
were all surprised to find me so well-informed.

‘Then’, said one of this happy band, ‘there’s the cost of transporting the hard-core and
dumping it. That’s a lot, a lot of money as well. He’d already quoted me six thousand
pounds for a day’s work with the JCB and cheerfully added another four thousand for
carting it away.
! I smiled my brightest. ‘ Don’t you worry about that, I’ve arranged with a local farmer
to collect it free – he needs hardcore for his driveway.’ Unwisely he confessed he was in
need of hardcore himself, forgetting that this freeby for him would be charged to me.
! Not long after I took possession of the school, I cleared out a storeroom near it. One
of the items in there was a magnificent rope. As thick as my arm and at least thirty feet
long. It needed drying out so I laid it on the grass of the side garden.

After that I was away for a few days and when I returned the rope was gone, along with
several zinc and tin pails from the previously locked store. But mysteriously, the long grass of the garden had been neatly mowed.

! It took a good week before I got to the bottom of the mystery. At first I thought the
council might have done it, still thinking the school was theirs. Not the case, so I asked
around the village – finally one of the jolly band of would-be builders said he’d cut the grass for me as a friendly gesture. I asked if his friendly gesture had included stealing from the store and by the way, I’d better have that rope back.

! On the dump, he said, to save me the trouble. In that case, which one, because I
want it and I shall have it back. I might even involve the police. The chapel had taught me
well. Apparently my threat worked and Monty brought the rope back with a wonderful tale of having gone to the dump and rescued the rope just in time. To please me. All he
probably did is to get it out of his garage.

! With the chapel I’d started out innocently, not believing for quite a while that anyone
would be so ungentlemanly as to take advantage of me.
But builders aren’t gentlemen, in fact there is no interbreeding between the species at all.


“In politics, stupidity is not a handicap.” Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)

Greg L-W.

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