Here’s the story of a hot-shot construction lawyer, his fussy wife, a builder who was never there, a bizarre contract and a house in the country …
Once upon a time there was a solicitor who lived with his wife and two small boys in Somerset. He thought he was pretty hot stuff on building contracts. So much so that he wrote the occasional article for Building. His wife fancied a move and saw just what she wanted being built nearby.
It was going to be a few months before the house would be finished. The builder found playing tennis in Tenerife more interesting than building a house in Somerset, and apart from himself, the total workforce was an elderly carpenter who was also a bricklayer and a plumber, and one labourer. This was no problem because the solicitor needed time to sell his house and so they agreed to exchange contracts and then wait to complete.
The builder’s conveyancing lawyer sent a draft contract for approval. It was on the Law Society’s standard form used for buying and selling property. It didn’t say anything about finishing the building, and the hot-shot construction lawyer thought it should. He rang the builder’s lawyer explained his concern about the omission. The builder’s lawyer realised he was speaking to an authority and was apologetic. He said that he would send an amended draft.
Eventually it arrived. Now the contract contained a clause providing that before the sale went ahead the builder would “complete the construction of the dwelling house and garage to the same standard and specification as the house next door.”
The construction lawyer had not seen that sort of contract before. He was expecting several lever arch files of bills of quantities, performance specifications, JCT forms with amendments and collateral warranties. He was worried. Fortunately he knew the person living next door, who happened to be a QS, also experienced in putting together contract documents. He had moved in the year before (the builder only built one house a year).
A few weeks later, just as the solicitor had feared, a list of additional items arrived in the post
The solicitor went round to see him and explained the position. “That’s funny” said the QS. “That’s what he put in my contract as well.” After having had a good look around the QS’s house, and despite a terrible sense of foreboding, the solicitor signed the contract.
The months went by. The builder took several trips to Tenerife while the multitasking tradesman and the labourer got on with the job; progress was not helped by regular visits by the solicitor’s family during the school holidays. The solicitor’s wife came up with improvements – a larger patio here, a retaining wall there, light fittings everywhere. “It’ll be extra, mind,” they said. Nobody discussed how much.
Eventually the house was finished and the builder’s lawyer sent a completion statement. Nothing was being charged for the extras. The solicitor kept quiet and paid the agreed price. A few weeks later, just as the solicitor had feared, a list of additional items arrived in the post. To his astonishment the solicitor found that they were reasonably priced and several had been missed off the list. At the bottom of the page there was a note in pencil that there would be reduction for cash.
The solicitor went to see the builder with a bundle of £20 notes. Just as he was about to leave the builder gave him one of the notes back: “Here, split this between your two lads – they’re mates of mine.” The solicitor didn’t have the heart to call him back at the end of six months to fill in the shrinkage cracks.
These days we would call that partnering.
John Redmond is a partner at Osborne Clarke