In the first of a series of guest columns, Jeff Howell, The Sunday Telegraph's construction writer, explains what shocks the public most about their builders
The woman next to me at the dinner party asked: "And what do you do?" I said I was a builder. She looked at me hesitantly for a moment before her next question. "Tell me," she said, "why do builders never turn up?" Well, I can only speak for myself. I always turn up. Except when I have to go and price up the next job. Or the job after that. Or when I have to attend an emergency call-out, or spend a few hours on the phone chasing up materials or plumbers.

But apart from that, I turn up. And when I don't turn up, I phone in and make my excuses. I've got good telephone etiquette, you see. And you can't say that for every builder. When you call most builders at home, their phones either ring out or are answered by grunting teenagers who don't pass on your message. And when you call builders on their mobiles, they answer "Yeah?" or "That you, Dave?"

The problem is, we all get tarred with the same brush. And when builders do turn up, some of them make a mess of things, and we get tarred with that brush as well. Like when builders install double-glazing that mists up between the panes after a couple of years. Or when they use gypsum bonding plaster on basement walls in Victorian houses, and it breaks out in big sweaty damp patches. Or when blokes who call themselves builders knock on OAP's doors and tell them they have to have their roofs "sealed" with red paint, because of "new European regulations".

For the past seven years I have been writing a column in a Sunday newspaper, and in that time I've had more than 12,000 readers' letters. The fact that these people should ask for advice from a newspaper is, in itself, significant. Many of them have been seriously worried, disappointed or left in the lurch by builders, and have no idea who to turn to. They are incredulous when told that there is no legal requirement for builders to be registered, insured, trained or qualified, and that there is nobody that they can complain to.

Anyone who feels like it can call himself a builder, and offer himself for work. And that work should turn out to be unsightly, dangerous or unnecessary, the client has little or no recourse. Trading Standards departments are understaffed and toothless. Building control departments are privatised, fragmented and often struggle to keep up with the constant revisions of the Building Regulations.

The builders I'm talking about do not work for the companies that feature in Building, of course. Often they don't work for a company at all. They're just blokes. But between them, they do about half the building work carried out in the UK, and because they're in people's houses, they are the public face of the industry. It would be to the advantage of all if this public face were given a makeover. House of Horrors-style programmes are made only because we, as an industry, permit the existence of the conditions that they film.

When you call most builders at home, their phones either ring out or are answered by grunting teenagers

You might say regulating the building industry is a job for government, of course. But successive governments have found excuses, or been persuaded, not to get involved. The best the current lot could come up with is the stupid quality mark, an expensive and pointless exercise in "self regulation" that everyone knows isn't going to work.

Building colleagues sometimes say it's the public's own fault, for failing to educate themselves about the facts behind homeowning and building maintenance. But this is dangerous. Any business that allows itself to regard its clients as stupid is heading for a fall. Just ask Gerald Ratner.

Many owner–occupiers have only bought property because – since the Thatcher regime's privatisation of housing – it is the only way to get somewhere decent to live. So we now have twentysomething couples borrowing a quarter of a million to buy a flat conversion in a Victorian house or an old paint brush factory next to the canal – and they can't tell you what the walls are made of.