Once upon a time, a very long time ago (well, 12 years, to be precise), there lived near Bristol a solicitor who thought he knew a thing or two about building contracts. He was quite happy in his charming little cottage in a little village out in the country. But the solicitor's wife was not so happy. She wanted to live in a modern house with reliable heating, double glazing and enough room to swing a cat. (One that she didn't have but might one day want.) The solicitor's wife found a house that she thought could fit the bill. It was being built in the next village by a local builder, who had inherited his business from his father and was generally well-regarded in the area. He had built two houses on the site already, and this was the third.
The solicitor went to see the builder and persuaded him to agree to sell the house. The builder was a little reluctant, because he thought he might be put under pressure to finish it, and he was not one for pressure. It was going to take several months, because he had a few important engagements on tennis courts in Lanzarote.
Anyway, the deal was done, and the solicitor was sent a contract for signing. Not being a conveyancer, the solicitor looked at it long and hard. There was something that was not quite right. It said nothing about any obligation for the builder to finish building. The solicitor rang the builder's lawyer, who reluctantly agreed that such a term was sensible and promised to draft an amendment.
A week or two later, a new clause for the contract appeared. "Prior to completion of the sale of the property, the Vendor will complete the construction of the dwelling and garage to the same standard and specification as the dwelling and garage next door." The solicitor, who thought he knew a thing or two about building contracts, was unhappy. Surely the contract should be a little more specific? JCT80 seemed a little over the top, but this was a little under the bottom. He went to knock on the front door of the next door neighbour, who happened to be a quantity surveyor.
"That's funny," said the quantity surveyor. "That's what my contract said as well." The solicitor had a good look round the quantity surveyor's house. Everything seemed to be there that should be there. There were no obvious problems.
Still very unhappy, the solicitor signed the contract, although it felt more like his own death warrant.
There was no mention of any extras, but the solicitor put £5000 on one side hoping it would be enough to pay the bill. Eventually, a scrappy note was pushed through the door. “To extras: £1200. For cash: £800”
The solicitor's wife then got busy again. The patio was a little on the small side. Could it be bigger? The solicitor went to see the builder. "Yes, I suppose so. It'll be extra, mind." Then there was the wash basin in one of the bedrooms. And the retaining wall in the front garden. And the outside lights. And the levelling of the back garden. And the redesign of the upstairs layout. Every time the solicitor went to see the builder, he was given the same answer: "It'll be extra, mind." No mention was ever made of how much the extra would be.
Two trips to Lanzarote later, the house was finished. The solicitor organised his mortgage and paid the original contract price. There was no mention of any extras, but the solicitor put £5000 to one side hoping that it would be enough to pay the bill.
Weeks went by. Eventually, a scrappy note was pushed through the door. "To extras: £1200". Then at the bottom of the page was written: "For cash: £800." The solicitor went to the building society and collected 40 £20 notes. He went round to the builder's house and they counted out the money, sitting on the floor in front of the fire. "Tell you what," said the builder. "Take one of these notes and split it between your two lads – they're mates of mine." At the end of his first six months in his new home, the solicitor who thought he knew a thing or two about building contracts went round his house and noted several cracks in the plaster, the odd creaking floorboard and one or two other little annoyances. He thought about writing to the builder requiring him to come back and make good. He decided against it.
Several regular readers of these legal pages are now waiting for the punchline.
Did the roof fall in? Did the solicitor find blue asbestos in the attic? Did the central heating boiler explode and the resulting claims fail because the builder went bust? Nothing like that happened at all.
It is perhaps too early to say that the solicitor and his wife and his two lads lived happily ever after, but they have done for 12 years. So has the quantity surveyor who lives next door.
John Redmond is a partner at solicitor Laytons.