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22 Apr 2020

Home improvement during lockdown: your questions answered

Some households in need of urgent repairs are struggling to find traders, while many non-essential jobs are being postponed

Whether you've got a leaking pipe, a broken fence or a lack of hot water, finding a trader to fix urgent home improvement problems mid-coronavirus lockdown can be an unwelcome stress.

Some 6% of people we surveyed needed to call a trader with an urgent problem in the last two weeks of March*. But three quarters of those (73%) could not find someone to do the work.

Problems included gas leaks, water supply issues, electricity outages, problems with heating and boilers.

Meanwhile one in 10 people (11%) were mid-way through having home improvement work done when the lockdown began. Three quarters (74%) of those who had work in progress or scheduled to begin told us that the trader is no longer attending.

Traders are permitted to continue works, provided they can maintain social distance while they work. However, they should not enter households that are isolating or contain an individual who is being shielded, unless the work is essential to the safety of the people living there.

In practice though, it's not feasible for many projects to go ahead at the moment.

Keep reading to find out your rights if building work is delayed, whether you should allow a trader into your home, how to protect yourself against rogue traders and how you can help traders through this difficult time.

    If you need emergency or essential work during the lockdown, use Which? Trusted Traders to find a trustworthy trader in your area.

    Work being put on hold or postponed was the most common home improvement problem faced by Which? members surveyed at the same time**. More than 15% of respondents mentioned this happening, while 4% said their scheduled building work had been cancelled completely.

    Are traders allowed to work during lockdown?

    In short, yes. That's provided they are well, and so are the people in your home.

    The government's latest advice for tradespeople (published 9 April) states that 'work carried out in people's homes, for example by tradespeople carrying out repairs and maintenance, can continue, provided that the tradesperson is well and has no symptoms'.

    The trader must keep a two-metre distance from any household occupants to keep everyone safe.

    The guidance then states that 'no work should be carried out in any household which is isolating or where an individual is being shielded, unless it is to remedy a direct risk to the safety of the household'.

    Examples of this include emergency plumbing or repairs. In these circumstances, whether or not the work can go ahead will depend on whether the trader is willing to do it, as it will be at their discretion.

    In practice, most jobs are unlikely to be feasible while maintaining social distancing. For example, anything where more than one person is required to lift heavy objects, or where space is confined.

    The National Home Improvement Council (NHIC), which represents around 100,000 home improvement professionals, is advising its members to stay at home. It says: 'only works which are essential and/or for vulnerable households should be continued. Even then, only when social distancing rules can be safely adhered to'.

    The Federation of Master Builders (FMB) recommends that its members agree a temporary suspension of works with its clients during the lockdown period.

    We've heard from many people whose non-urgent works have been postponed.

    Case study: Our plumber initially only carried out emergency repairs

    During the lockdown, Which? member Mr Harrison, from Cheshire, found bits of his kitchen ceiling falling onto the draining board owing to a leaking pipe above. He contacted a plumber who he has known for some time. They both considered the leak to be an emergency and the plumber came out to repair it.

    'He was very concerned over the possibility of virus transmission and obeying the 'stay at home' rule,' says Mr Harrison. 'He told us he was limiting his work to emergencies only, so he fixed the pipe but did not repair the ceiling.' Nor did he do other non-essential jobs.

    In fact, not repairing the ceiling turned out to be 'just as well'. Two days later, a different pipe started leaking, leaving water dripping through a kitchen light fitting. The same plumber came out and fixed the leak.

    In the last few days, the plumber has been able to come back to finish the remaining jobs. 'We kept well away from him while he worked and wiped down the surfaces with antibacterial spray after his departure,' Mr Harrison explained. 'He didn't have any symptoms at the time, and we agreed that he would call us if he develops any in the next couple of weeks.'

    How to stay safe when a trader is working in your home

    To protect both you and your trader or engineer, you should maintain a safe distance (at least two metres) between them at all times. Ideally, stay in a different room for the duration of their work, with any conversations taking place briefly and at a two-metre distance. Ensure good ventilation in the area where the trader is working, including opening the windows.

    Government advice for tradespeople states that they should wash their hands using soap and water for 20 seconds on arrival, regularly during work (especially after coughing or sneezing), and at the end of the day before they leave your home.

    Traders are advised to carry hand sanitiser to use if there is nowhere to wash their hands.

    Read more about staying safe when a trader is in your home and what big companies are doing to protect customers and staff.

    Case study: Make sure an engineer doesn't need to enter the house unnecessarily

    Electric car plugged in to charge
    Just as lockdown came into force, one Which? member needed an engineer to repair the charger for their electric car. The charge plug was jammed in the holster, making it impossible to remove and charge the car.

    'It took a lot of phone calls and emails to get the right parts,' the member told us. 'Once I had the parts, the engineer from the installer was organised to come in the next couple of days.

    'I thought he might not be able to come as he was due just after lockdown had been declared. The company rang me and asked whether I'd like to go ahead, and I advised that I would.

    'When the engineer arrived, I operated the main fuse switch. That meant he did not need to come into the house to carry out his work. I did not touch the repair for some hours, and then only after disinfecting it.'

    Your rights if building work is delayed due to coronavirus

    Many home improvement and building projects are being put on hold during the lockdown period. If your works haven't started yet, consider whether you still need or want to go ahead with it. If it isn't urgent, could you delay it until later in the year?

    If work is already underway, either you or the trader may wish to delay the work. For example, you may be self-isolating or unsure if it's feasible to maintain social distancing in your home. The trader may be unable to continue with work owing to their own isolation, materials being unavailable or suppliers closed, staff sickness or other reasons.

    Speak to your trader or engineer as soon as possible about what your options are, and check your contract to see what it says about changing the schedule of work.

    Delays won't necessarily entitle you to cancel your contract. Estimated completion dates won't have taken into account the pandemic and its effect on supplies, resources and company policies on isolation. Where work is prevented by something unexpected that the company can't control, the time frame can be extended.

    If the trader decides not to finish your project at all, you may have the right to cancel without penalty, depending on the circumstances and terms of your contract.

    If work has stopped, the trader should have left the area tidy, safe and secure.

    Find out how to resolve disputes with traders and get problems fixed.

    Case study: Our plumber is still working but the parts weren't available

    It took a fortnight for Which? member Rob Roy, of Norwich, pictured above, to get his leaking boiler fixed, despite his plumber being available to carry out the essential repair.

    'Our plumber took the decision to continue working on emergency repairs to domestic heating and hot water after the lockdown as he saw this as essential work.'

    On visits he kept at least two metres distance, wore plastic gloves, and used sterilising wipes on items and surfaces he came into contact with. Rob removed and replaced items in the airing cupboard so the plumber did not need to touch them and washed his hands after touching anything the plumber touched.

    However, he was restricted because of the reduced availability of spare parts. 'The lockdown has not closed his trade parts stockist, but it has caused manufacturers to reduce production to levels only sufficient to meet emergency demand, which has lengthened delivery times.'

    'While we were waiting for the parts, the leak had been getting worse and hot water and heating intermittently failing.'

    Fortunately the parts arrived, and the plumber was able to fix the boiler, the day after the boiler stopped working altogether.

    How to support your trader during coronavirus lockdown

    Tradespeople and engineers face challenging times at the moment. Postponed projects, lack of supplies, staff sickness and more could put them at risk of problems with cash flow, and losing skills and resources if they have to lay off staff. Ultimately, some may go out of business.

    But many small firms are still working remotely where possible, and trying to get things set up for when they are able to return to work as usual.

    We've heard from Which? members who have had advice over the phone to help fix a problem. If your job is urgent, try contacting a local business to find out what services they are still able to offer during lockdown.

    Some traders are doing video appointments in order to quote for work set to begin once the current restrictions are lifted.

    If you have recently had work completed by a trader, take the time to review them online - at Which? Trusted Traders if they're part of the scheme. Feedback will help businesses improve and other customers find the best trader for them in future.

    A trader or engineer holding a toolbox stood at th

    Case study: My electrician helped me fix the problem over the phone

    Which? member Bob Alexanderdiscovered that the plug for his water heater was overheating. 'I touched the plug pins and whipped my finger backu2026far too hot.'

    He called a local electrician for advice. 'Because of the coronavirus lockdown, my electrician was not allowed to attend work. But he advised me freely on the phone, and has not charged me at all.'

    Bob used to work for an electrician, so he was able to identify the problem and fix it with the electrician's help. 'I had learned some of the practical side to house wiring. Without that, I would have not attempted any work.'

    Initially it looked like the plug on the heater cable was at fault. 'Then I realised the heat was on a pin on the timer that plugged into the socket. I took the socket apart [u2026] and saw one of the leads had overheated. I rang my electrician again with more information and he told me it needed to be replaced, and what parts I needed to order in.'

    Has a trader gone above and beyond to help you out? Tell us about it in our conversation about celebrating the unsung coronavirus heroes.

    How to stay safe from rogue traders

    With lots of reputable professional traders not working due to social distancing rules, the NHIC has warned that there is a greater risk of rogue traders offering to finish jobs.

    Consumers may face higher charges, poorer-quality workmanship, or have non-compliant products fitted, or installations that don't meet standards.

    NHIC's survey of 596 home improvement traders found that 25% said they'd seen a significant amount of opportunism targeted towards vulnerable households (online survey between 26 March and 2 April 2020).

    If you're concerned you have been mis-sold building work by a doorstep seller and want to cancel your contract, read our doorstep selling advice. When we vet our Which? Trusted Traders, they agree not to engage in doorstep selling.

    If possible, you should avoid agreeing to any work offered by a doorstop seller, especially if they're demanding immediate payment. Before engaging any trader, take the time to speak to a few different companies for quotes and, where you can, check verified reviews or recommendations from previous customers.

    Which? coronavirus research

    *Between 3-7 April 2020 Opinium conducted an online survey of 2,001 members of the general public.

    **Which? conducted an online survey of 12,900 members of the Which? Connect panel between the same dates.

    Keep up to date with all the latest news and advice from Which? on the coronavirus outbreak.