A 220 page introduction to all things consumer related by our own BankFodder.
Includes energy companies, mobile phone providers, retailers, banks, insurance companies,debt collection agencies, reclaim companies, secondhand car sellers, cowboy garages, cowboy builders and all the rest who put their own profits before you.
We’d already visited a number of other kitchen shops, from John Lewis and Habitat, to Howden’s and Wren’s, to smaller outlets. None of the designs so far struck us as anything special. In fact, one nationally-known company even submitted a design with cupboards that covered my kitchen’s only window.
Before our visit, I spoke on the phone with the director of Custom Kitchens and Bedrooms Ltd, Mr Greg Allen. He highly recommended their designer, Nigel Hirst, and assured me he would look after us. Any problems, said Mr Allen, and we should go back to him. (Something I was to remember for later).
At Custom Kitchens and Bedrooms Ltd (I’ll call them Custom Kitchens) we were met by their designer, Nigel Hirst, who struck us as dynamic and experienced. He arranged to visit my home to measure up, and then submitted his designs which we immediately thought, ‘Yes, that works’. Of all the kitchen shops we visited, Nigel Hirst’s design stood out by far as the best and we were happy.
●A brilliant design for my home by Nigel Hirst at Custom Kitchens
Furthermore, we were impressed with the high quality of Custom Kitchen’s base units, and the fact that they were all custom-made in their own local factory. That meant the cupboards could fit properly in my kitchen, especially where we had a sloping ceiling, which had presented a problem for some of the other kitchen shops. Price-wise Custom Kitchens was not the cheapest; but neither were they the most expensive. Their 25-year warranty also seemed impressive. (Even Crown Kitchens only offered a one-year warranty).
Supply and Fit?
Of course, I wanted the kitchen to be both supplied and fitted – I may have a number of skills, but DIY is not one of them. Custom Kitchens have a bespoke fitting service, and I’ve got to an age when I realise it’s a mistake to split supply and fit. Supply paint to a painter, and if something goes wrong, the painter will no doubt blame the paint, and the paint supplier will likely blame the painter. So, I wanted to have the same firm both supply and fit, and made this clear.
The shop’s designer, Nigel Hirst, was however keen for his separate firm, Bluestone Interiors, to do the kitchen fitting, along with other related renovations at my home. He would project manage the works and had a team of top quality sub-contractors, he assured me. I wasn’t sure, and preferred that Custom Kitchens, if they were going to supply the kitchen, should also fit it. But Mr Hirst advised me that there were some temporary problems with the fitting service at Custom Kitchens.
During January and February 2013, Nigel Hirst signed and emailed to me two quotes by Custom Kitchens for the supply of the new kitchen units and white goods, but neither quotes mentioned anything about a fitting service. The boss of Custom Kitchens, Greg Allen, has only now - December 2013 - sent me a copy of a third quotation for the kitchen units, also signed by Nigel Hirst. I have no recollection of ever receiving it. But in this third quote, at the very bottom of the page, is just one added short line that simply states, ‘To fit the kitchen the price is £x plus VAT.’
Unlike the other quotes, this one never arrived in my email inbox. It also now seems strange that the fitting price offered by Custom Kitchens in that third quotation gave no detail of what was included in the price. Also, unlike all the other prices quoted by Custom Kitchens, the price for fitting was shown plus VAT, rather than including it.
All emails, letters, quotes, contracts and invoices from Custom Kitchens were sent to me by their designer, Nigel Hirst. At the time, it seemed to me that he must be more than just the company’s designer; he also at least appeared to represent the company.
Nigel Hirst’s separate firm, Bluestone Interiors, provided a detailed quotation for the fitting of my new kitchen, together with the other related projects at home. We liked Nigel; he gave many promises and assurances, and we fully trusted him. The deal was accepted.
So, I had two contracts. One for the design and supply of the kitchen units and all the white goods from Custom Kitchens and Bedrooms Ltd. And another contract with Nigel Hirst trading as Bluestone Interiors for the fitting of the kitchen and other projects at home, such as plastering, painting and electrics.
For legal reasons it’s important to make clear: Custom Kitchens had no responsibility for the installation of the kitchen they supplied. The installation was the exclusive responsibility of a separate firm, Bluestone Interiors, owned by Nigel Hirst, who also happened to be the designer for Custom Kitchens.
In this way, Nigel Hirst played a dual role. He organised the design and sale of the kitchen units for Custom Kitchens. And wearing another hat, he organised the sale for the installation of the kitchen to be undertaken by his separate firm, Bluestone Interiors. Although there were two separate contracts, and two separate legal entities, from my point of view as a customer, I dealt with only one man for both.
Snags and delays
The kitchen units and white goods were delivered by Custom Kitchens in early March 2013, and the kitchen installation was contracted with Bluestone Interiors to be completed by the end of that month.
Unfortunately, it’s now Christmas 2013, and the kitchen installation is still not completed, along with other related projects, such as all the ground floor which still has uncovered bare floorboards. There have been many snags; some have been fixed, but in fixing them, yet more snags have been created. Deadlines to fix outstanding snags came and went, and trust was lost.
I hired a chartered surveyor to catalogue all the problems, and this stretched to an 11 page snags list. The main problems were related to the poor quality of installation by Nigel Hirst's firm, Bluestone Interiors, but there were also some problems with the wrong products supplied by Custom Kitchens.
As predicted in my earlier parable of the painter who’d been separately supplied with the paint, I am now in the unenviable position of the product supplier blaming the installation, and the installer not taking responsibility for all the installation problems. The fact that the same man represented both firms hasn't helped me. It’s become a mess, and the photos here demonstrate some of the problems. It's now got to a stage where I will have to hire alternative contractors to finish the jobs, and seek appropriate compensation from the correct parties (made more complicated, because supply and fit are two separate contracts by two separate firms).
Supply problems - responsibility of Custom Kitchens and Bedrooms Ltd
(My contact there: Mr Nigel Hirst)
The Wine Rack Issue
The dream: an integrated wine rack supplied by Custom Kitchens and costing £140. The reality: three-shelf chrome wired wine rack which couldn't possibly cost £140. (I've requested an appropriate refund).
The Hafele Oak Worktop Issue (spot the difference?)
I requested in writing from Custom Kitchens ‘the highest and finest grade quality of oak worktop’. Nigel Hirst, designer for Custom Kitchens, proposed Prime Oak from their supplier, Hafele. Available was either 27mm or 40mm thick. Originally, we had opted for 40mm oak, but Nigel Hirst proposed 27mm instead as this would 'look better'. I asked by email, ‘Is the quality and durability of the oak worktop affected by its thickness?’ Nigel Hirst said no, there was no quality, durability or price difference between the two thicknesses. On that basis we accepted Custom Kitchen's recommendation for the oak worktop.
But there have been many problems with such a thin work top. It was not possible for the carpenter for Nigel Hirst (acting as installer) to fit a proper mechanical joint to a worktop as thin as 27mm. My surveyor has now advised me that the thicker oak worktop is a 'better quality', and offers 'a better degree of resistance to movement, twisting or bowing.' Hafele also wrote to confirm that customers usually buy the thinner worktop when they want a less expensive product. I certainly don't consider that I was sold the 'highest and finest grade of oak worktop' that i had requested, and feel misled that I was told there was no price, quality, or durability difference between the two thicknesses of oak worktops.
There was worse. The problems with the undermount sink (see below) resulted in one section of the oak worktop being damaged by water ingression. Custom Kitchens supplied a replacement section of oak for the sink area. It looked totally different to the other two oak worktop sections. Nigel Hirst's carpenter said, 'Oak is a natural product so it's bound to look different'. Greg Allen at Custom Kitchens told me to be patient, 'The colour will match over time'.
But none of these comments were correct. The different colours and look of the worktops would never match, eventually confirmed Hafele. It was discovered that the first worktop delivered wasn't Prime Oak as agreed, it was Rustic Oak, a completely different oak finish and usually inferior to Prime Oak. The new section for the sink area was 'Prime Oak' and could never match. No one at Custom Kitchens or the installation firm Bluestone Interiors had noticed, or took my comments seriously that the worktop sections looked totally different.
Custom Kitchens has offered to replace the oak worktop 'like for like' - in other words, 27 mm thick Prime Oak from Hafele. Custom Kitchens has refused my request to supply 40 mm thick Premium oak instead, even though I offered to pay more.
I am not happy with 27 mm and cannot understand why Custom Kitchens will not replace it with 40 mm Prime Oak. since they have admitted that they, and Hafele, were at fault for delivering the wrong product in the first place. So why not replace it with the quality oak worktop that I had wanted from the start?
Also, through no fault of mine, I paid for the wrong oak worktops to be installed. I have requested that Custom Kitchens pays appropriate compensation for fitting a new oak worktop. They will only do so, replied Greg Allen, if the original installer re-fits - i.e. Nigel Hirst t/a Bluestone Interiors. I cannot accept this offer, as I am not happy with the quality of the original installations.
Custom Kitchens charged me £930 for the the Hafele 27mm Prme Oak Worktop for my kitchen (not including installation). I have now discovered from Hafele's recommended retailer that the price should have been only £404. Custom Kitchens charged me more than double the usual price. (I have asked Custom Kitchens to justify why they charged me so much).
The Blanco Undermount Sink Issue
Custom Kitchens recommended a Blanco Supreme 533 Undermount sink to go with my oak worktop, costing £443. But we've had a lot of problems with this sink/worktop combination The seal around the sink failed, damaging the underside of the new worktop with water ingression. The sink has been installed again, and the seal is once more failing. With this type of sink, the cut edge of the oak worktop is also exposed to water and mould. The sink itself was easily scratched within days of installation, despite careful care. My previous Franke sink had hardly any scratches after 20 years use. When I complained, the response from Custom Kitchen's designer was, 'That's the problem with modern sinks these days'. I'd have expected better from a sink costing over £400.
I have now discovered that Blanco doesn't even recommend their undermount sinks to be installed with a wooden worktop. For wooden worktops, its states on the Blanco website, either an overmount or inset sink should be used instead. It seems that Custom Kitchens did not choose a sink that's best suited for a wooden worktop. (I first raised this issue with Custom Kitchens last August 2013, and I am still awaiting a response).
The 'customised' boiler cupboard issue
The boiler cupboard designed by Custom Kitchens didn't allow for servicing access to the bottom of the boiler, as required by Vaillant, the boiler's manufacturer. 'They're just saying that to cover themselves,' said Nigel Hirst for his installation firm, Bluestone Interiors. His carpenter said he could cut a hole in the bottom of the cupboard, but it would look rough and without proper edging - hardly good enough for such an expensive kitchen.
At Custom Kitchens they denied responsibility - it's the job of the fitter to adapt the (customised) cupboard to fit the boiler's requirements, they said..
Some of the installation problems - responsibility of Bluestone Interiors
(My contact there: Mr Nigel Hirst)
The kitchen installation issues
The fitting of the kitchen has been generally poor, as confirmed by the Chartered Surveyor reports. Most of these issues I feel sure could be easily and quickly fixed by a competent carpenter. However, I wouldn't want the original fitter back. It's not just the poor fitting of kitchen units; for example, the boxing for pipe work has been poorly fitted and with the wrong type of material, according to my surveyor. It's already coming apart.
After two or three attempts to put matters right, there has to be a limit to how many times I allow a trader to return to correct faults.
The oak worktop issue - fitting
These photos speak for themselves. The worktop issue is a huge problem, because it needs to be resolved before we can fix the rest of the units and panels and before we can put down the new floor. The fit of the worktops by Bluestone Interiors sub-contractor has been poor to say the least. The seal of the sink failed and water damaged the underside of the oak worktop. The damage was probably worse than it might have been because the underside of the oak hadn't been oiled as I had requested (and which should have been done anyway). The carpenter was also unable to fit a proper mechanical join to a worktop that's so thin.
The problem has been compounded by Custom Kitchens delivering the wrong oak worktop; and also for recommending that a 27mm thick oak worktop is as good as one that's 40mm thick. Custom Kitchens has agreed to replace the worktop - but only if I agree to accept 27mm again. And they will only pay towards the cost of re-fitting the new replacement worktop if it's done by the same fitter who installed the first one. I think most readers will understand why I can't accept this proposal.
The painting issues
I'd been promised a super paint finish, with all the wood properly sanded to bring it up 'like new'. My chartered surveyor advised me that I'd been quoted 'top dollar' for this service - but the price didn't reflect the finish. The wood hadn't been properly sanded, reported the surveyor. At first, Mr Nigel Hirst wearing his 'Bluestone Interiors' hat, claimed to me that the wood was sanded, because he witnessed his painter doing it. But when challenged otherwise by the surveyor's report, he wrote that I'd instructed his painter 'to minimise' the wood preparation because my housemate and I are allergic to dust. Therefore, he added,that Mr Danzig 'accepted that the finish may not be perfect' and that that he was 'very pleased with the job.'
This is a ridiculous assertion by Mr Hirst. My flatmate and I purposely vacated the house for several days to allow the dusty preparation work to take place. There was no instruction to the painter not to sand the wood, and it was agreed from the outset that all instructions had to be in writing. I am certainly not 'very pleased with the job' - the paint finish is rough and already the paint is coming off in places.
In addition, I trusted Mr Hirst as 'Project Manager' to specify and supply the right type of paint for the job. Ordinary emulsion paint was used for the kitchen/dining room walls instead of kitchen paint. It's meant that stains cannot be easily removed and paint comes off on the cloth. Mr Hirst has agreed to re-paint the kitchen walls, but not the adjoining dining area walls that forms part of the same room. All the wall paint in all rooms seems to easily stain and it's impossible to wipe clean - I've never known such a bad paint finish. How can I accept that?
The flooring issues
Nigel Hirst t/a Bluestone Interiors quoted almost £1,000 to fix a new 6mm plywood for the ground floor of my 3-bedroom semi-detached house - almost twice the price of other local flooring installers. I asked why was the price so high. Mr Hirst replied:
'There is a lot of work involved in preparing and securing the floorboards to the ground floor so that when the ply and Amtico are laid you don't get any movement or noise from creaking floorboards. I have come across this problem with squeaky floorboards before and it is a pain so it is best to do the full preparation on the floorboards first.'
And yet after the sub-floor was finished, there was still a lot of creaking, especially in high-traffic areas. It was then discovered that Mr Hirst's flooring sub-contractor hadn't secured the original floorboards as agreed. It was particularly disappointing as I was assured that the flooring sub-contractor was registered and approved by Amtico.
Mr Hirst proposed to fix any loose floorboards through the surface of the plywood, through the floorboads and down to the joists. I had to hire a flooring expert to assist me, at yet more cost. He described Mr Hirst's proposed remedy as 'cavalier' adding that, 'It is a brave man who would nail through top surfaces without knowing what's underneath; this could cause major problems which would not necessarily appear until sometime after the flooring was installed.'
The only option, advised the flooring expert, was to take up the entire sub-floor and start again. Only when the plywood sub-floor was taken up was it revealed that not all the bad floorboards had been repaired or replaced where necessary as contracted. Now, we just have bare floorboards on the ground-floor whilst I wait for this mess to be resolved.
Why don't we just talk it over?
Last July I invited the director of Custom Kitchens, Mr Greg Allen, to visit my home to talk over the problems and to see if he could help to find a resolution. Although I acknowledged his firm wasn’t legally responsible for the kitchen fitting, I had gone to his shop in good faith, and he had recommended his designer. And.. right from the start, he had invited me to go back to him if there were ever any problems.
He refused to meet, and has steadfastly refused to meet me.
I've learnt in life that most problems can usually be resolved by reasonable people having a reasonable discussion, preferably over a cup of tea (and maybe even a biscuit). But if people refuse to meet, progress usually becomes impossible, and positions can become entrenched.
Home isn't home anymore
All this year, we've lost the full use of downstairs, and at home now it seems more like a bedsit, with meals, watching TV, writing emails, etc, all having to be done in my bedroom or my housemate's bedroom. Yes, it could be worse. People are living in worse. I hate to complain. But I have paid in full for all of the kitchen and its installation, and yet almost a year later, I still don’t have a finished kitchen or downstairs living space.
There’s no doubt that Mr Nigel Hirst is a brilliant designer, but he has let me down with the poor quality of his installations and for promising far more than he delivered. He’s made several offers to return to fix problems, but deadlines have come and gone, and months later I have lost confidence.
The last time Mr Hirst came to my house with his electrician, I advised him that I would commission a surveyor to check the work, including electrics. He rushed back into my house and told his electrician to stop work, as there was a problem because a surveyor was going to check the electrics. Fortunately, the electrician eventually decided to carry on working – and I have no complaints about the electrician. But this was ‘high drama’ in my house that I simply don’t want.
Recently I wrote to Mr Allen, the boss of Custom Kitchens that, ‘There appeared to be a conflict of interest with your in-house designer acting for your company and his own firm at the same time, offering the same services. This has not served me well, as I have ended up with a poorly fitted kitchen which, whilst I accept is not contractually or legally the responsibility of your company, it does in my opinion reflect poorly on your company’s reputation.’
I accepted that Custom Kitchens was not responsible for the installation of their kitchen, but proposed that as a measure of goodwill, Mr Allen could play a role in helping to resolve matters. Also, of course I feel very let-down by Custom Kitchens; they also promised more than they delivered.
Again, I invited Mr Allen to personally visit me at my home to discuss the problems. I added, ‘I am pro-business and really would prefer that this incident doesn't do long-term damage to your company, but instead that we work together to turn this around in a way that could be helpful to us both.’ I added that if Custom Kitchens could now assist in the completion of the kitchen, I would be happy to write a positive review here (on CAG) about how his company helped to turn things around and put them right.
But still Mr Allen refuses to meet me. I feel now I have no choice but to hire other contractors to finish the job and to pursue the appropriate parties for fair compensation. We all have a duty to avoid litigation, but there has to be a limit to patience, and failed attempts at Mediation.
Yes, I have learnt a few lessons from this. I should not have allowed the supply and installation of the kitchen to be undertaken by two separate businesses. That was a mistake because it’s made the resolution more messy and difficult. I should have paid by credit card; instead I paid by debit card or by BACS transfers that didn’t provide the same protection. I paid too quickly. I should have hired a chartered surveyor sooner, so that the work wouldn’t have been paid for in full until the surveyor could confirm that the work was completed to a satisfactory standard.
But the photos speak for themselves. It’s not my fault that the quality of installation has been so poor. And I’m not alone; so many people feel let down by poor workmanship by other companies across the country.
I used to be an investigative journalist at the BBC with Roger Cook, reporting on stories where things went wrong. In the UK, we possibly have more TV programmes than any other country related to poor workmanship. Last month I phoned the German embassy: do they have any similar TV programmes in Germany? No, it seems not. They have a different system of training and certification before anyone is permitted to trade. Maybe it’s time for the same in Britain? Please let me know what you think.
I will keep you posted on developments here on this blog.
One piece of news: the managing director of Blanco sinks read my blog above. He has offered to supply a new sink of my choosing, without charge and as a measure of goodwill. The Blanco website does not recommend installing an undermount stainless steel sink with a wooden worktop, although that's what the kitchen shop supplied and their recommended fitter installed.
I'm grateful to Blanco for their offer, although I cannot take it up until the rest of the kitchen issues are resolved. I feel that this awful saga has given 'independents' a bad name. I now wish I had shopped with one of the larger companies.