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Building rip-offs!

02 Dec 2010

There is little more rewarding than putting a business together from scratch and then making it work for you. The control, the decisions, the accountability and the pure fun of it can sustain most people beyond the pure thrill of having money streaming into your account.

Paddy Hartdegen writes a regular column for Property24.com

South Africahas many examples of small and medium businesses that have developed from one person's vision, dedication and attention to detail. Major organisations such as Pick n Pay, Nandos or First Rand Bank.

Smaller firms such as MoneyWeb, ITWeb or The Daily Maverick. South Africa has inventive people with great ideas, the attention to detail that's required to make a business successful and the commitment to see it through to the end.

But South Africa also has its share shiesters, crooks and rip-off merchants and, often, these chaps emerge in the building and materials supply sectors of the property market.

Earlier this week I received a letter from Patrick Byrne, a Pretoria businessman who had embarked an on ambitious project to restore and refurbish a wonderful property in Julius Jeppe Street, Waterkloof.

This is a prestigious address and the home (which is currently on the market for about R5-million) looks really splendid now that it has been completed. The problem was getting the work done.

Based on a series of quotes, Byrne appointed a contractor to install aluminium windows and doors at his refurbished property. He contacted Giel and Michele Vermeulen of Skyscape Aluminium to do the work and supply the fittings.

Extensive correspondence from Byrne outlines that his dealings with Skyscape Aluminium and the Vermeulens started in May this year when they visited the Julius Jeppe Street site and agreed to supply about R100k's worth of new windows and doors.

Like many contractors involved in the building industry Skyscape and the Vermeulens demanded that a deposit of R60k was paid ahead of the fabrication work starting and before anything other than a production schedule had been agreed to.

As the weeks went by, Byrne kept his watchful eye on progress, e-mailing the company and its representatives, phoning them and just generally keeping in touch.

All the time he was assured that everything was on track and the doors and windows would be delivered on time. That, like so many other utterances, from Skyscape and the Vermeulens was utter nonsense.

Then the excuses started: "Our truck had an accident and we have to rebuild some of the components" or "We will start installation early next week" or "We can't commit ourselves to an installation date but it will be soon".

Byrne is like a terrier who has lost his bone - although in this case the 'bone' is R60k and that's a lot of money by anyone's standards.

Further conversations, e-mails and promises burn up and down the telephone wires of Pretoria until, eventually, Michele Vermeulen agrees that the deposit paid by Byrne will be repaid to him. She even asks him for his banking details.

That turns out to be yet another load of rot and by the end of July, Byrne has no windows or doors, no money repaid to him and nothing but a lot of promises from people who are now avoiding his calls and ignoring his e-mails.

No problem for Byrne - he pops down to the Brooklyn Police Station and promptly lays charges of theft and fraud against the Vermeulens and the company they're running, Skyscape Aluminium.

He forwards the case number, CAS490/7/2010 to Giel Vermeulen who promptly promises to reimburse him.

Predictably, the money is not forthcoming. Byrne, through his attorney, finds out that Giel Vermeulen had never proceeded with the order but had used Byrne's funds for other purposes. Vermeulen asks Byrne to please drop the charges against him. Byrne refuses.

Vermeulen also threatens to put the close corporation (which he has apparently delisted) into liquidation. There are more promises reimbursement and a repayment plan of R5k a month is suggested by Vermeulen who says Byrne can use Skyscape's factory machinery as collateral for the R60k.

Finally, on 28 September, Giel and Michele Vermeulen are arrested and detained at the Brooklyn Police Station. They are granted bail and a court hearing is set down for 19 October. On that day the case is removed from the roll because the South African Police Service had mislaid some of the documentation. (When will we get an efficient police force, I wonder?)

To date the charges have not been dropped and Byrne is determined to see that justice is done. No money has been repaid to him yet - all he has had, in his own words, is a litany of lies, false promises and threats of liquidation.

Meanwhile, Byrne has contracted a different company, forked out a whole lot more money and has now completed the work at the Julius Jeppe Street house, which is now on the market. The house can be viewed on the Property24 website at https://www.property24.com/for-sale/waterkloof/pretoria/gauteng/3968/100015684

My own view is that Patrick Byrne has done exactly the right thing by laying charges against the Vermeulens and insisting that they be hauled before the courts and punished accordingly. Sure it will take some time for the matter to be heard and, yes, it might be a frustrating and time-consuming process. But it needs to be done.

The reality is that so many cowboys in the building industry are repeatedly getting away with ripping-off the unsuspecting public and then walking away having dusted their heals and wet-their-whistles using other people's money.

We do have legislation pending - in the form of the new Consumer Protection Act - that might make it easier for members of the public to get their money back if they have been ripped off too. So that's also a good thing.

But there are so many questions that arise from this case - and questions that I believe need to be resolved, rather than answered so that we can protect others from falling into similar traps.

What we need to see is:

- A contractors' register that is rigorously applied and where all disputes are noted for the public to go through. There often are disputes on a building contract but these should all be listed (even though they might be resolved) so the would-be users of those services are at least aware of what they might be letting themselves in for.

- The National Home Builders Registration Council does little or nothing to resolve such disputes (it says it is outside its mandate) so why not have a Contractors' Council that does just that?

- Where are those other organisations such as the Master Builders' Associations and why do they not take a proactive step to protect members of the public from cowboy builders? The MBAs serve the interest of contractors and try to hide shoddy practices under the carpet. Yet they are the ones who should be protecting consumers by vouching for the work that their members do.

- Why is there no register to name-and-shame shoddy suppliers and contractors in the building industry? I've wanted to set one up for years and nobody, other than me, seems interested in doing so.

In the past year or so I have written about Barbara Milroy and her unnerving experiences with Radical over gate motors, about Patrick Byrne and his windows and doors, about Tokyo Sexwale and his low-income houses that keep falling down.

Over the years I have received several hundred complaints about bad building work and yet there is nothing that anyone does to do something to prevent it.

My own view is that we - yes all of us - must change our attitudes and start pursuing these cowboys with the same kind of verve, vigour and dedication that we devote to ensuring there's enough beer for the Sunday braai.

I've said it before and will reiterate it now: I would like to hear from anyone who is prepared to work with me on setting up a mechanism to prevent these rip-offs.

Because they need to be prevented. Not through the Consumer Protection Act but through a body that is focused on the property industry and its building sector. A body that polices itself and takes action against those fraudulent cowboys who take people's money under false pretences

Because we need to return the property sector to those old-fashioned morals where a person's word is his or her bond - and it's never broken.

*Hartdegen writes a regular column for Property24.com. The content of his columns constitutes his personal opinion and doesn’t pretend to be facts or advice. Contact him at  paddy@neomail.co.za.

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About the Author
Paddy Hartdegen

Paddy Hartdegen

Freelance columnist at property24.com.

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