A sorry tale of warning….

I don’t know why I’m surprised really, given that I am reminded almost on a daily basis of their shoddy workmanship, but which I usually put down to experience.  Yesterday, however, on taking another barrow-load of old roof slates from the pile for more pathways, my resolve to ‘let it go’ snapped when I discovered a big pile of rubble, laced with rubber door seals, broken ridge tiles and shards of glass, that had been hidden under the slates instead of being taken away by the builders, as agreed…….

When we bought La Biochère, we knew from the start that it would need a new roof.  The estate agent recommended a local French artisan and we had recommendations for English builders too.  In the autumn of 2015 we made arrangements for the work to be assessed…. The quote from the artisan was eye-watering, even given the work is guaranteed for 10 years, it still seemed an awful lot of money and we were a little unsure as the estate agent had told us they were running behind schedule on several of the jobs they had in hand…. So we asked for quotes from two English builders as well.  The first one never came back after viewing the job but the second one came with clip board, tape, notebook and camera to fully assess the job.  He was very friendly and told us all their work was through word of mouth and that the figure quoted would be the final figure, nothing added afterwards.  We were impressed and even more reassured when he came back with his partner to do a more detailed assessment before giving us the final quote.  We also asked them to look at the roofs on the two barns, which may or may not need replacing, plus to quote for making part of the big barn into an insulated studio….

Their quotation came through before Christmas and, after we’d asked them to break it down for parts and labour and agreeing we would source the slates, we decided to go with them.  It was disappointing that they were unable to start until the spring but we thought we’d be ok to wait, especially as they said if anything happened with the roof in the meantime, they would make it water tight…

Our first winter here was cold and wet.  The roof was not insulated and the doors and windows, while double-glazed, let in draughts and water in equal measure.  Despite attempts to seal the glazed panels in both doors and windows, nothing seemed to stop the curtains billowing on a windy day or night, or water seeping through poor seals, only to puddle on the floor or window sill.  It was with regret that we decided all the doors and windows should be replaced, which would ensure better insulation and no more water ingress.  So, we asked the builders to quote for this too, as we’d been told one of them was able to buy the units at cost from the factory and fit them.  Again, the quote came through for ‘English specification and standard’ double glazed units, which seemed very reasonable and the cost of replacing them seemed worth it, given professionals would know what they were doing and would do it quicker than we could….

Come spring, we purchased 6 crates of slates and accompanying hooks.  Our first let down was when we found the builders couldn’t come until mid-May – much later than first anticipated.  Nevertheless, we decided we’d come too far to start looking for other quotations, so we asked for a contract…. Imagine our surprise when they asked what this should include?!!!

We gave them the benefit of the doubt when there was apparent confusion over how many and what size of slates we should buy, how to draw up a contract, lack of response when the old roof leaked, spoiling a newly decorated bedroom and there was  yet another week’s delay to them starting because one of them had booked a holiday…. They finally arrived the last week in May.  Still, we thought, given that they told us the roof would be done in 4 weeks, it would all hopefully be finished just in time before we potentially started receiving more visitors and French students for their sejours…..

We should have seen the way it was going to go on the first day when they turned up and asked to borrow our wheelbarrow…. I somehow don’t think that the French artisans would have been so unprofessional… Neither do I think they would have pitched up without any form of rubbish chute for when they took the old slates off the roof.  Not so our builders – while one levered them off, the other happily lobbed them from the top of the scaffold, roughly hitting a tarpaulin below.  Of course, bits flew everywhere, while large chunks often landed on top of newly planted ferns and other treasures….

One day, unannounced, one of them turned up in his van with the doors and windows that had been made in England for our order.  We didn’t know but he’d intended to store everything in our barn!  Bearing in mind this is open to the elements and hadn’t been cleared in advance to make room, it was a bit disconcerting to see him stacking everything along the back wall and dragging great lengths of the finishing trim from the van, across the floor, to be left in a pile on the ground, without anything underneath or on top for protection….

They started work on the back of the house first, knowing this would be more straightforward than on the front, where lots of cutting would be needed around the three dormer windows.  Having previously spent hours clearing weeds and digging over the bank ready for planting, it was soul destroying to find them trundling the wheelbarrow, up and down it, forming a track as they piled the old slates we had asked them to save at the side of the small barn.  Had I known they would need to do this, I perhaps would have left that section of bank until later, but they never asked, so I didn’t know until it was too late 🙁

However, the roof at the back was completed in just over a week, so we were reasonably happy, despite the mess starting to accumulate around the place.  Before they started work on the front, I asked if they could start using a chute for the slates, as it was now evident that they would still be working on the roof when we had visitors and then children coming to stay.   It was also a way to protect some of our property from becoming damaged!   They agreed but instead of the usual plastic chute builders often use, they came armed with sheets of boarding and lengths of wood, which they cobbled together for a make-shift gulley, propped at one end from their scaffolding and with our wheel barrow positioned at the other to catch the slates….  I suppose we felt grateful that no one was going to get hurt from flying pieces of slate, so we accepted this ‘Heath Robinson’ affair…

So work continued, in a fashion – we made them coffee when the arrived after nine and at other points during the day, they did a bit of work on the roof and were often away before 4 pm.  We had, perhaps, one more week of work from them at the beginning of June before we went to the UK for a short trip and they told us they would also be away for a week, while we were away…. For one reason and another, it was to be five weeks before we saw them again.

So, they returned in July, just before we had friends coming to stay and as the temperatures started to rise.  We had been working hard inside the house to make it more comfortable for visitors, in particular, we were trying to complete the bathroom upstairs and as the window really let it down, we asked if it would be possible for it to be replaced.  They were quite obliging and did this for us, although we hadn’t realised that so much stone work was going to be knocked about, or that on fitting the window and frame, no care would be taken of the newly painted walls in the bathroom – I had to fill and repaint a number of gouges and scrapes in a hurry and it was weeks before the frame was sealed and mortared in from the outside….

Having fitted one window, they decided that they would do others as they went along.  When it came to the dormer windows, it became apparent that the outside facing panels were quite rotten and needed replacing.  In addition, we wanted to paint them white, to lighten the look of the place and to tie in with the windows.  So, while they started on the windows Edward made the new facings while our friends were with us.  We were so grateful for their help and understanding (it was hardly relaxing!).

But as the builders worked along the roof, replacing windows as they went, nothing was ever finished.  Great chunks and cracks appeared in the inside plaster work, where they cut out the old frames and they apparently ran out of ‘small gap’ for finishing off the joins between frames and trim.  Dirty great hand marks appeared on my nicely painted walls and further gouges were seen wherever they hadn’t taken care.  It was clear they had no pride in their work, they were not finishers and didn’t think it inappropriate to tell me all I had to do was repaint the reveals and clean the windows after they’d finished!!  We’re not unused to having new windows fitted, nor to having builders on site for weeks on end, but I have never had to repaint my house afterwards, or, indeed, clear up after them, in fact, a full two-storey extension was built onto our house in England in less time than it took them to replace the roof!  On top of this, we had to listen to them constantly griping about the heat up on the roof and the reflection they were getting from the insulation – it was clearly uncomfortable and too hot to work but then, had they started on time, they’d have been finished by now!

By August, some eleven weeks after first starting the job, enough was enough and although we had said we were pleased with the results (anything was better than the old windows and doors and we were just so relieved the roof was getting replaced), we let them know by email that there were one or two things we were not so happy about.  Perhaps it was a little harsh, and unexpected for them, but then, they never once asked if we were happy with the job, which would have given us the opportunity to tell them when we weren’t.  So, we told them we were unhappy they were still using our wheelbarrow, that while new doors and window were being set into place, none of them were actually sealed or plastered-in, rubbish littered the yard and anywhere else they had been, while piles of old laths with nails sticking out were being left wherever was convenient for them, including on the guest balcony and amongst the old slates we had asked them to save.  Bits of rubble were left in my newly planted borders and they had started to use our pallet wood, which Edward had told them he was going to use for fencing, to make the backing for the slates on the gable ends.  Above all, the lack of progress was frustrating, especially as we were , by then hosting French students for their summer holidays – the place looked a tip and we were unable to finish rooms due to the window fittings being incomplete.

One day, when it was extremely hot, they decided it was too hot to work on the roof so they would replace the kitchen windows instead – no warning, they just turned up and announced their decision before setting to…. I don’t think I’ll ever forget trying to cook lunch for the students while dust billowed into the kitchen, over all the uncovered surfaces as they removed the old frames and windows!  What a mess and we had to try to keep everything running smoothly for the students, while all around there was noise, dirt and chaos….

Our complaint wasn’t well received.  In fact, they came back with excuses for every point we raised and as for the time they had spent on the project so far, well, they had logged all their hours and in actual fact, they were under the 4 weeks they had estimated, if you added them all up!!!  Unbelievable!  So they returned the next day, very sulky and made a big show of finishing off all the windows on the inside and out, barring the ‘small gap’, which still hadn’t arrived.  Unfortunately, they applied the mortar on the outside directly to the plastic frame and the surrounding stone work, in extreme heat and apparently without water to make it stick properly or sealing with mastic first.  Consequently, much of this is now falling out and that which hasn’t has not made a proper seal because this winter, yet again, we have had water ingress through all the window and door frames, staining the interior walls…. bl**dy cowboys!

Having said that, it seemed to have given them the motivation to get cracking and for the last few days they were here, they worked hard and spent full days with us.  I’d say they were desperate to get the job finished, especially when one made comments like, ‘believe me, we are as keen to get the job done as you’!!  Despite telling us that ours was their ‘priority job’, it never felt that way as they disappeared to do work for other people, and then, just a few days before the roof was finished, we discovered that they weren’t going to then start on the barn roofs or on my studio…. Apparently, they intended to come back later in the autumn.  Communication was not one of their strong suits.  I’d go so far as to say that building and fitting doors and windows wasn’t either.

So, we left paying the final balance until one of them returned to apply the ‘small gap’ a few weeks later.  Whilst from a distance, the house looked transformed with it’s new roof and doors and windows, once I’d started cleaning them all, I realised that most of the frames were scratched or scuffed and one of the door windows has a big scratch across it.  The returning builder suggested he could smooth this out with jeweller’s rouge, but of course, he didn’t have any with him when he came.  He rushed around the house, filling all the windows with the runny gap filler.  Done properly, this should leave a nice shiny finish between the plastic joints – we were looking forward to having this finished.  We paid him and he left.  Only afterwards did we realise what a botch job he’d done – in some gaps he’d over-filled, such that the sealant had run into globules, in others, he’d applied too thin a seal, such that these have now shrunk on drying, leaving gaps again.  Over all the frames he’d smudged excess sealant with his grubby fingers and where he couldn’t reach, he’d stood on the window sills, leaving marks on the newly painted wood, along with blobs of sealant that had dripped from his gun….  I could have cried.

And so, we came to the conclusion that as they had given no indication of when they could return and we were quite unhappy with the standard of their work, we would look elsewhere for someone to fix the barn roofs.  We also decided that Edward could build a studio, which would save a few thousand euros in costs and which could probably be done quicker….

It was, therefore, quite a shock to receive an email from them in November, saying that one of them was moving south, hence the delay in getting back to us but that they were very keen to do the rest of the work for us, for which they had quoted, although due to their personal circumstances, this wouldn’t be possible until March!  Laugh out loud!! Call me vindictive, but it was with some satisfaction that we wrote back to tell them that we’d had the barn roofs done by some professionals, who only took a couple of days to repair the two.  Furthermore, as we were so unhappy with the quality of their work, we didn’t want them back, to do any further jobs or remedial work.  An element of sarcasm entered into our response, which perhaps they found insulting – ironic that they felt this way after insulting us with their excuses for promising something they had no intention of delivering!  We did suggest that given their snails pace of working, we might have been able to pay them with our state pensions!

Of course, we have burnt our bridges with them now and I think we have learnt some valuable lessons.  For instance, if it seems to good to be true, it probably is.  We have since found some reliable artisans, who we trust to do the work for us, should we need it.  I suppose that coming recommended, we felt we were ‘safe’ in engaging with these people.  I hesitate to call them builders – one, we later discovered, had been a chef when he lived in England, only working on roofs when he moved to France a few years ago. The other was a sales rep for a double glazing firm, not a skilled fitter.  Perhaps we should have gone to see some of their work first…. Monkeys, indeed….

The upshot is that we have had (and still have) more remedial work to do, to put right their poor workmanship.  Some of the work we can do ourselves, but for the flashing around the chimney, which is letting water into my bedroom, this will need to be done by professionals.  Despite spending a full week of clearing away rubbish and tidying up after they left in August, we are still finding little reminders that they were here – the pile of rubble under the slates being a case in point!

I have written this post mainly to let off steam and to get a few niggles off my chest (I feel much better now!).  But also to record that things do sometimes go wrong and it’s not all a bed of roses…  That said, the sun is shining and we live in a beautiful part of the world.  The cats are happy and so are we.  In a few days, we shall be hosting our next batch of students for the Easter holidays – it’s not a bad life! ♥