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PERSONAL FINANCE: Paying for peace of mind is part of the service deal.

Byline: By Jeremy Gates Special Correspondent

As it becomes harder to find reliable plumbers, electricians and "man in a van" wizards able to put anything right in half an hour, our household spending on services to tackle domestic emergencies is growing into a multi-million-pound business.

It was back in 1993 when Richard Harpin copied the British Gas service contract and persuaded South Staffordshire Water to send 1,000 leaflets to customers, offering pounds 50-a-year policies providing pounds 2,000-worth of cover for blocked drains and burst pipes with a guaranteed two-hour call-out.

Just 3 8 people signed up - a tiny 3.8 per cent conversion rate. Harpin guessed - rightly - that was enough to build a successful business.

Today his company, Homeserve, is worth pounds 1.3 billion, and Harpin's stake is about pounds 190 million. With 5.8 million policyholders, the company makes pounds 70 million annual profits on turnover of pounds 477 million, and plans major expansion across the Atlantic after signing deals with utility companies in the US.

Homeserve promises to tackle plumbing, drainage and heating problems fast - under contracts usually offered through the utility companies to their customers.

Soon, it could be even bigger. Homeserve wants to buy Domestic & General, which provides extended warranties on household appliances including boilers, showers and white goods, in its strategy to offer "total home emergency cover".

Despite the challenge, British Gas (BG) has continued to build its own range of household service products. Its acquisition of Dyno-Rod in October 2004, rebranded as Dyno, extending its repair services into plumbing and drainage.

BG claims 4.5 million customers and stresses that its 9,000 engineers are directly employed, often trained through apprenticeship schemes at five regional centres, and usually living within five miles of each customer. Rival agencies, including Homeserve, call in staff to tackle emergencies.

BG customers have a choice of four service options under HomeCare - with the most comprehensive, HomeCare 400, covering central heating system, plumbing, drains and electrics costing pounds 24.25 per month, or pounds 15 per month with a pounds 50 fixed fee per repair.

Basic level HomeCare - covering boiler and controls - costs pounds 8 per month, with pounds 50 fixed fee per repair.

Last September, BG added a one-off repair call-out service, at a fixed cost of pounds 156. With some plumbers charging pounds 80 an hour, customers could be in pocket if repairs take more than a couple of hours.

A smaller "household independent breakdown service", HomeCall has been building a customer base among the army of buy-to-let landlords - already a million strong and likely to double in number by 2011, says the research firm Mintel.

Landlords pay pounds 9.95 per month per property to HomeCall - to cover various problems including gas and electrical supplies, drainage and plumbing, roofing, lost key replacement and smashed windows.

The service sorts out tenants' problems so smoothly that some managing agents use HomeCall as a source of skilled labour, and incorporate the bill in the management charge for their landlords.

HomeCall managing director John Williams believes that so much red tape - "accreditation" - is slowly being wound around landlords' ankles his workload is likely to grow.

Soon, for example, regular electrical safety tests on rented properties could become a legal requirement, and landlords might add them at a cost of pounds 40 to the annual boiler service (pounds 79.90) and Gas Safety Check (pounds 35) which many already arrange through HomeCall.

To boost its role in the rented sector, HomeCall is launching a multi-language website, www.tenantssafe.co.uk, to give tenants advice on various topics including home safety, legal rights, how to agree a fair rent, and an opportunity to link with other tenants to share "experiences and solutions to problems".

There will also be access to legal advice via a 24-hour helpline.

Says HomeCall managing director John Williams: "With growing numbers of overseas students and immigrant workers from recent entrants to the EU, language barriers and lack of awareness of where to get help can force people to put up with poor living conditions.

"We want to help put an end to this."

For owner occupiers, HomeCall charges pounds 8.95 a month to cover gas/electricity supply, drainage, plumbing, roofing, spare keys, loss of keys, smashed windows and vermin (including wasps nests).

On any one claim, its limit on replacement parts is pounds 500. Above that, householders pays the difference.

With private sector landlords accounting for more than two-thirds of its business, HomeCall has already built a pounds 3.5 million turnover since its launch in 2001, and compiled a list of nearly 7,000 workers across the UK, including Northern Ireland, all vetted on standards and financial probity before they are taken on.

To a large extent, of course, service companies prosper on our fears that we can't find the skilled and qualified workers by our own efforts. Working households have so many other things to juggle, the monthly direct debit seems a small price to pay for peace of mind.

So far, the sector has attracted criticism only for extended warranties offered by major retailers on appliances. In 2003, the Competition Commission reckoned the five big retailers (Argos, Comet, Dixons Store Group, Littlewoods and Powerhouse) made an average of between pounds 116 million and pounds 152 million more from the sale of warranties each year than they should, due to lack of competition.

Since then, said Which? magazine in December 2005, warranties haven't got much cheaper - but shop assistants must follow tighter rules in selling them, and shoppers have 45 days to cancel warranties to collect a refund if they have second thoughts. Beyond 45 days, they can be entitled to a pro-rata refund.

As failure rates on domestic appliances and audio-visual goods show have fallen, the case for expensive warranties has weakened. Which? says manufacturers' warranties, which might be extended after the first year, may well be cheaper than retailers' products.

Emergency repairs in the home are a bigger worry. Invariably, the policy paid for by monthly premiums is an easier option than trying to find plumbers on six-figure salaries.

As BG points out, the "one-man bands" we once relied on to tackle household problems are being speedily augmented by "one-woman bands".

BG's training scheme has turned out 110 women as qualified plumbers and gas servicing/repair engineers in the last couple of years, and many more are training.

BG (0845 600 5090 and www.britishgas.co.uk); HomeCall (0800 195 2033 and www.homecallplus.co.uk). Details of HomeCall's multi-language website for tenants can be found on www.tenantssafe.co.uk.

"As failure rates on domestic appliances have fallen, the case for expensive warranties on them has weakened
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jun 9, 2007
Words:1117
Previous Article:PERSONAL FINANCE: Investing abroad.
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