In a new-build housing estate on the edge of Peterborough, where rows of identical redbrick homes march along a freshly tarmacked street, Orlando Murphy stands outside a house wielding a long telescopic pole with a camera on the end. A few doors down, builders in hi-vis vests look on with expressions of concern, as he casts his camera across the roof and points it towards the gutters, like a metal detectorist looking for treasure. The bounty he is seeking is not golden coins, but evidence of bodging.
“Cracked tiles, guttering on the wonk, pooling water, dodgy fascia boards,” Murphy says, reeling off the common issues. “The things they get away with are absolutely shocking.”
When Murphy turns up with his spirit levels and telescopic pole, the nation’s housebuilders start to worry. Over the last few years, he has gained a reputation in the industry for exposing the atrocious construction quality of so many new-build homes, posting viral musical videos on TikTok and Instagram that reveal builders’ shoddy shortcuts with glee.
One minute he finds wonky brick walls, cracked window frames and woodwork that looks as if it was nibbled by a beaver. The next he discovers garden turf laid straight over rubble, doors that don’t close and screws sticking out of cupboards (“the porcupine finish”), along with sewage bubbling up into a bathtub – under which an electrical socket lies exposed, next to a leaking pipe. That’s before he gets to the fake weep vents, crooked floors and globs of mastic splurged along windowsills with the crazed abandon of a toddler icing a cake.
Roaming the country in his van like a bounty hunter of bodgers, Murphy is part of New Home Quality Control (NHQC), a professional snagging company dedicated to pursuing cowboy builders up and down the land. His videos, enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of followers, are like an apocalyptic version of Through the Keyhole, presenting rapid-fire litanies of domestic disasters. There is no mouldy crevice left unprobed, no botched tiling unridiculed, as he calls out the “wood butchers” and “winkle spanners” of the volume housebuilding trade. Murphy and his fellow inspectors know exactly what to look for – because they used to be forced to cover up this kind of slapdash work themselves.
“I woke up one morning and decided I couldn’t live with myself,” says John Cooper, who co-founded NHQC in 2018 with colleague Lee Challenger. “I had been a site manager on a housing job in Pembrokeshire and my boss told me to hide a serious roof problem from a customer. I knew it would cause leaks further down the line, but he insisted we cover it up.”
Four days later, Cooper quit. “I decided I had to make a change in the industry,” he says. “We need to highlight the dreadful things that are happening and begin to change builders’ mindsets. There’s just no pride in the job any more. It’s all about shortcuts to get everything done as quickly as possible.”
NHQC is not alone. Over the last few years, the appalling standard of residential construction in the UK has spawned an entire industry of “professional snaggers”, companies that are called in by disgruntled housebuyers who pay them several hundred pounds to inspect their homes and produce detailed reports, providing ammunition against the builders. And they’ve got no shortage of potential clients. There are countless Facebook groups such as Taylor Wimpey – Unhappy Customers, DO NOT BUY a Persimmon Home and David Wilson Homes Hell, where buyers share their horror stories. They are full of tragic tales of families who saved for years for their dream homes, only to move in and be greeted with gruesome evidence of bodging, corner-cutting and dangerously shoddy construction. The plague has even spawned dedicated social media accounts, including Newbuild Hate (131k followers), showcasing bleak worlds of windowless facades, misaligned balconies and rows of prison-like gardens.
As quality sinks ever lower, the big housebuilders’ profits continue to soar. A 2021 study by Tom Archer and Ian Cole at Sheffield Hallam University found that, before the 2008 financial crisis, an average home built by one of the nine biggest UK housebuilders netted a pre-tax profit of around £30,000. By 2017, that had doubled to more than £62,000, with shareholder dividends rising from £400m to more than £1.8bn. “This was more than just ‘recovery’ after the financial crisis,” Archer says. “It was a catalyst for absolutely gigantic profit-making in the following years, with dividend payments rising to unprecedented levels.” Profit before volume became the mantra of the housebuilders. “They didn’t even have to increase their output,” he adds, “as they were making so much more money on each home.”
A recent survey of the top 50 builders by Building magazine found turnover increased by an average of more than 25% in 2021, taking revenue well above pre-pandemic levels, while operating profits increased by a third – with the highest earning company, Persimmon, boasting profits of over £1bn. Housing analyst Neal Hudson has tracked the big builders’ profits and costs over the last decade and found that, while costs have increased marginally, profits have ballooned. From 2010 to 2022, Persimmon’s total costs per plot increased by just 17%, while its profit almost quadrupled. But the bumper rewards for shareholders and boardroom bosses is no reflection of the quality of their product.
“Persimmon is on another level of diabolical,” says Amanda McGahan, who moved into one of the company’s developments in Rainham, Essex, in January. She had saved for over a decade to put down a deposit on a two-bedroom flat, assisted by the government’s help-to-buy scheme, and moved from her council flat in Barking, only to find a plethora of problems with her new home. There was missing flooring, a broken window, doors that didn’t close and a big tear in the bedroom carpet. They had even forgotten to install the shower. “The whole process has been so disheartening,” she says. “I was so excited to move in, feeling I had finally made it, then it was just like: ‘Oh. Is this it?’”
She had been warned by other buyers to expect the worst, so she organised a professional snagging survey before she even moved in. “They came on day two and found 125 snags, in a two-bed flat,” she says. “Why weren’t these things picked up? It’s like no one had even bothered to check the place.”
Karl Jennings bought a Persimmon home two years ago in Paignton, Devon, and immediately noticed things were wrong. “I spotted a big dark patch on the kitchen floor,” he says. “The sales rep said it was just a shadow. But then it started spreading into the lounge and hallway.” After they had been pestered for months, Persimmon finally agreed to come and investigate, and found the whole ground floor was completely wet. “They still don’t know how to fix it,” Jennings says. “They took the flooring up, so we’ve been living with raw concrete floors covered in black mould for 18 months.”
Soon after discovering the damp issue, Jennings realised the brick walls of the house didn’t look right either, appearing to bulge out as they rose. He took a plumb line and found the walls deviated by up to 120mm in places. The maximum tolerance allowed by building regulations is just 8mm over one storey. Persimmon has now rebuilt the entire back of his house, along with three-quarters of the side and a quarter of the front. Jennings and his wife had to live in the property the whole time. “The builders who came to fix it couldn’t believe the state of it,” he says. “They said the brickie must have been blind, pissed, or both.” Bowed walls in the hallway have been rebuilt twice, ceilings have been taken down, the kitchen refitted and Jennings says he’s now on his fourth front door, after the last three warped and wouldn’t shut. “Each time they came back they made it worse,” he says. “They just bodge it and leg it. It has been a nightmare from start to finish.”
In response to these stories, a spokesperson for Persimmon said the company “is committed to building right, first time, every time and are sorry when our customers face any problems. Some of the issues identified were not, we believe, caused by us but we have sought to rectify them to support these customers. We are sorry for the inconvenience these customers have faced and will continue to work with them to resolve their concerns.”
How did it come to this? Why should it be that buying a brand new home in Britain, and usually paying a 10% premium for the pleasure, is more likely to result in hidden horrors than would be the case with a house that has been around for decades, or even a century or two? Imagine buying a new car, then having to pay for a professional inspector to check that it had been properly manufactured, before you dared take it out on the road. The car industry would collapse, damned as unfit for purpose. Yet the housebuilders continue to produce substandard products year in year out, penalty-free.
Speaking to industry insiders, a picture emerges of a system that is broken at every level. From the virtual monopoly of the few big housebuilders, and their iron grip over the limited supply of land, to the combative, buck-passing nature of procurement – laid out with such tragic clarity during the Grenfell Tower inquiry – to the lack of proper supervision on site, to the rapidly declining skilled workforce, a perfect storm has been created for a crisis of crap homes.
The problems are not new. For decades, independent government reviews and all-party parliamentary groups have lamented the state of housebuilding and the focus on profit over product. The 1994 Latham report, Constructing the Team, condemned the industry as adversarial, fragmented, incapable of delivering for its clients and lacking respect for its employees. Four years later, another report recorded similar failings, finding the industry crippled by an ageing workforce and a crisis of training.
Two decades on, Modernise or Die was the appropriately blunt title of the 2016 Farmer review. Mark Farmer, a consultant with 30 years’ experience in the construction sector, diagnosed that the industry faced “inexorable decline”, caused by dysfunctional training, a lack of innovation and collaboration, and nonexistent research and development. Farmer believes little has changed since then. He thinks the problems begin with the culture on site, and the atomised, fractured way buildings are made. “Visit an average housebuilding site in this country,” he says, “and you’ll find no one is taking responsibility for the end outcome. Almost half the workforce is made up of hired guns who turn up, do stuff for a day rate, then disappear. That’s not conducive to having pride in your work, or a joined-up approach to producing a quality result. There’s a culture of: ‘If the other guy damages my work, it’s not my problem.’”
His opinion chimes with McGahan’s experience in Rainham. She found that, beyond the sloppy culture, the workmen who came to fix some of her snags were simply not given enough time to do their work to a decent standard. “They said, ‘I know I’m not doing it correctly, but I just can’t do the job properly – I have to go and fix the issues on another plot,’” she says. “I’ve had to get them to come back so many times.”
The situation has been exacerbated by the chronic decline in skilled workers over the last few years. In 2020, towards the end of the Brexit transition period, the UK construction sector lost more than a quarter of its EU-born workforce. The following year, the number of construction vacancies increased by more than 200%, while job applications dropped by more than half. As Gaelle Blake, director at recruitment firm Hays, told Building magazine last year: “We all know how good a lot of the EU workers were, particularly on the construction side … Now places like Germany are paying better and there are fewer restrictions on working.”
When Polish builder Sebastian Przetakowski needed additional help, he used to be able to just get a cousin over for a few months, which is now all but impossible. “We’re going to need a solution from the government,” he says. “The construction industry urgently needs temporary workers from the EU; this is a must.” His carpenter brother went to work in Germany, where he can drive back to see his family every two weeks. “He’s much happier there than he was here.”
Turning off the tap of skilled migrant labour has exposed the disjointed muddle of UK training routes for new builders. “There’s a natural aversion to investing in training,” Farmer says, “because we operate in such a cyclical industry. In an economic downturn, it’s one of the first things to be dumped.”
Why is it so hard to attract fresh young talent into the industry? Brian Berry, chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders (FMB), thinks a big reason is the lingering stigma around manual trades. “Learning a trade should be a very respectable, rewarding, satisfying career for young people,” he says. “But at the moment it’s such a confusing landscape, with apprenticeships, T-levels, boot camps and more.”
Berry points to the German example, where the nationally certified “master craftsperson” qualification, equivalent to an undergraduate degree, is required to start a business in the trades. The system was reintroduced in 2019, after deregulation in the early 2000s saw such rules watered down in the interests of competition – which had a noticeable impact on quality.
The FMB has been calling for a proper certification process for UK construction firms for years. “Unlike the gas and electrical trades, anyone can call themselves a builder,” Berry says. “There’s a total absence of checks and balances.” In 2018, the FMB called for a national licensing scheme, with enforcement powers and penalties to “tackle the rogue traders who blight the domestic market”, and ensure high quality workmanship. Such schemes already exist in several US states, as well as Australia, Germany and Denmark. The issue has been debated in the House of Commons, but hasn’t received much support: already suffering from a shortage of labour, there’s precious little appetite from the influential housebuilders’ lobbying groups to see such a scheme introduced. At a time when 10% of Tory party donations come from the property industry, it is the builders who are calling the shots.
There has been a recent government push to encourage apprenticeships but, once again, there is a lack of oversight to how they operate in practice. John Cooper of NHQC cites the case of a young man he knows who is working as an apprentice carpenter. “It’s basically a training in sloppy shortcuts,” he says. “He tells me what he’s doing, and it’s just techniques to get things done as quickly as possible and move on. Apprentices these days are often being used as dogsbodies, not being taught the trade. He’s been on site for the last week, just being asked to sweep up rubbish – that’s not going to make him a good carpenter.”
If building sites are so rife with shortcuts and bodging, surely there’s an inspection regime that should catch such issues before they get buried behind the wonky fascia boards or swept under the badly fitted carpets? Building control is the statutory mechanism to ensure compliance with regulations, with inspectors responsible for certifying the safety of structures, but it has little capacity to monitor quality of workmanship. “It’s a spot-check overview,” Farmer says. “The inspectors can’t take responsibility for actually checking what’s going on, on a day-to-day basis.” On an average housing site, they will visit at various stages to check a couple of plots, but not every single home.
Building control used to be run by local authorities but, like so many other public services, it has been progressively privatised since the 80s. As the Grenfell inquiry heard from expert witness Luke Bisby, professor of fire and structures at the University of Edinburgh, the privatisation of the system has continuously eroded its independence and rigour. His report explained how, between 1984 and 2017, a culture shift occurred, from one of inspectors “policing” developers to one of them “working with clients” under commercial duress, resulting in a “race to the bottom” in practices within the construction industry. Architects talk of encountering inspectors who are happy to sign off stages of work without even visiting the site, basing their judgment on a few photos – which could be of anywhere. One said they witnessed a clearly non-compliant project being awarded a building control certificate before the correct fire seals had been fitted because the contractor “promised they would finish it”. “As the architects, we tried to stall the issue of the certificate,” they said, “as we could see the contractors would stop all momentum. The lack of diligence was nauseating.”
Paula Higgins used to work for the civil service, in the Department for Communities and Local Government, on a review of building control. In all of the discussions around improving the quality of construction and reforming the inspection system, she realised the voice of the homeowner was almost entirely absent.
“We’ve all heard the horror stories for years,” she says, “but the balance of power is completely one-sided. With everyday products covered by consumer legislation, you have the right to send something back if it’s faulty. Yet with the most expensive purchase of your life, you can’t return it if it’s badly built. People have more rights if they buy a toaster than if they buy a house.”
The lopsided situation prompted Higgins to set up the HomeOwners Alliance in 2012, to champion the interests of buyers and campaign for better quality new-builds. One of its suggestions, a new-builds ombudsman, was finally taken up in 2022, but many are cynical about its impact. In May, having been established for over a year, the ombudsman service said it had received only one eligible complaint.
So why do the big housebuilders appear to care so little for the quality of what they are selling? Perhaps because they don’t have to. There is hardly an incentive for them to do any better when there is so little competition. In 1960, the 10 biggest housebuilders built just 9% of all homes. Now, that share has mushroomed to more than half. “Local builders have been squeezed out of the market,” Berry says. “We know that consumer satisfaction is higher for smaller housebuilders, because their reputation depends on building quality homes. The volume builders just turn up, build, then move on.”
With such a hold over the market, the big builders are free to focus on their duties not to homeowners but to shareholders. Architect Nicholas Lobo Brennan worked in Switzerland before returning to the UK to co-found the practice Apparata in 2015 – shortlisted for this year’s Stirling prize and the winner of the Neave Brown housing award for their radical low-cost housing project in Barking, east London. It was a shock to find an industry in which the priorities were so upside down. “The shareholder is the real customer. In the current climate, there’s less room to make this gross amount of money, so they have to cut costs wherever they can, like using inferior adhesive to glue tiles on, or hiring cheaper workers.” Persimmon’s half-year financial report this summer highlighted that its approach to “smart” savings included buying cheaper materials and cutting subcontractors’ prices, in the face of rising construction costs.
Archer and Cole’s study examined the influence shareholders have over the industry. Their analysis revealed that just three big investment managers (Legal & General, Norges and Vanguard Group) were the largest shareholders in eight of the nine biggest housebuilders, allowing them to exert heavy influence. “They could assert their demand for maximising shareholder value in eight different boardrooms,” they write, “knowing what the ramifications of selling their shares would be for wider confidence in the firm and its stock price.” Such abstract decisions taken in the boardroom have an inevitable impact on the quality of the homes – they stand as cost-saving spreadsheets come home to roost in uneven bricks and hastily splattered mortar.
A spokesperson for Legal & General Investment Management says, “As an asset owner, we engage with companies in the housebuilding sector on issues from executive pay to reducing their environmental impact. As a developer, we also aim to ensure that the housing supply we create is built to a high standard. We are committed to using our scale and influence to encourage companies in which we invest to improve their management of key shareholder and ESG issues. As such we have dedicated significant resources to our stewardship obligations.” Norge and Vanguard Group declined to comment.
Back in Peterborough, after several hours up and down ladders, Murphy concludes that the house in question is one of the better ones of the more than 2,500 he has examined. It’s not surprising, as the homeowner was already content – he just wanted the inspection for peace of mind. Nonetheless, this comparatively well-finished home still had corners chipped off the reconstituted stone windowsills, a cracked brick, excess mortar smeared on the walls, missing mastic seals around the porch, plastic wrapping on an upstairs window, trash left under the bathtub, a boiler flue collar not fitted properly and a fire door with a wide gap around it, so it might not be effective in the event of a fire.
“I’ve noticed the mentality is changing a bit,” Murphy says. “The developers are always nice to us when we show up and they take our reports seriously – there’s a fear factor now.” There is a risk, after all, that they might end up as the punchline in his next viral song.