'Time is money' - literally!
If you're having problems with your electrics, plumbing or heating then you're probably going to want a local and fast response. Well be careful what you wish for because one company which advertises just that is 1st ACCESS LTD based in Ilford, and although they may respond quickly, we've found out that they're far less punctual when it comes to fixing your problems - and that could cost you dearly.
(Do you have something to say about this story? Tell us what you think by emailing us here. Don't forget to include 'First Access Limited' in the subject line. Watchdog will publish a selection of viewers' comments underneath each story, both throughout and after the programme is on air. Please remember to include your name as you would like to see it published).
Advertising predominantly through the Yellow Pages and Thompson Local you'll need an eagle eye to spot 1st Access LTD on their adverts so be careful not to confuse them with other such companies with similar names, offering a local response. When you call them they make it clear that they charge a half hourly rate, which isn't necessarily a problem - unless they unfairly string out the job so that it costs you through the teeth. We received a number of complaints claiming 1st Access Ltd were doing exactly that so we thought we'd investigate.
Pensioner Joan Plumridge from Middlesex was having problems with the light in her bathroom - the pull cord light switch had snapped and she needed it replaced. She bought a new switch but wanted a professional to fit it properly. After finding the 1st Access advertisement in the phone book she decided to give them a call. She received confirmation that an electrician would come out at a cost of £45 per half hour. Given that this was a small job Joan decided that this price was acceptable.
The electrician arrived and before he started any work he asked Joan to sign the 1st Access invoice contract. The contact states that any technician has the right to spend one hour getting parts at the half hourly rate. Given that Joan expected this to be a very simple procedure and that she had a new switch ready, she signed the contract. After spending some time diagnosing the problem the electrician said he would have to come back the following day to complete the job, which of course would cost Joan more. On his return he then said he would have to buy a new light fitting as the existing one was broken. Joan says this wasn't true and the original was definitely working.
Joan was left with a final bill of £436 which included £90 for the light.
Joan's grandson Adrian was furious when he found out what had happened and called 1st Access for an explanation. The company finally offered a £45 refund, just a fraction of what Joan had paid out.
We've since called around and found out the average price to fix this fault is £50 including VAT. £385 less than what Joan forked out.
Not only did we receive a number of similar complaints to Joan's, we were also contacted by a former 1st Access contractor called Kevin Bibb who worked for the company 18 months ago.
Kevin told us that when he was an electrician for 1st Access he was told to charge a customer as much as possible. He said he was encouraged to go out and buy parts, even if he had them on his van, to make the job longer.
Given the similar trends in all of the complaints we thought we'd investigate so we called out a 1st Access electrician to a house we'd rigged with cameras in South East London.
Electrical expert Tony Cable set a simple fault in a pendant lamp holder. The fault should have taken any decent electrician less than half an hour to diagnose and fix, and required no new parts whatsoever. So how would our 1st Access Electrician fare with such a straight forward task?
An electrician who called himself Mervyn Powel turned up and immediately asked our actress to sign the invoice contract which stated that he'd be working for £59 per half hour. Not too bad given that this was a half an hour job... or so we thought!
Mervyn found the fault in about 15 minutes (we know because our expert Tony was watching him from the hide). So with the fault found we were in for a quick job and a reasonable charge. Not quite! After discovering the fault Mervyn was in absolutely no rush to fix it - remember he's getting paid by the minute - he decided to have a nice sit down. He then told our actress he'd found the fault but needed to go out for parts as he'd used his last lamp holder earlier that day. Likely story.
Mervyn took exactly an hour to fetch the part, even though a major DIY shop was less than five minutes away.
Having spent an hour buying the new lamp holder that he didn't need, Mervyn decided not to bother with it after all and fixed the original lamp holder and put it back up in minutes - spending the majority of time chipping off bits of paint to make the old part look new.
Finally the light was fixed, but a simple job that should have cost us £65 ended up costing us just short of £300.
Infiltrating 1st Access
Was Mervyn acting as a sole rogue within the company? We decided that we needed to get someone on the inside - that person was Radcliffe Rutherford, an experienced and fully competent electrician who secured an interview with office manager Robin Walker.
Rigged with a secret camera Radcliffe was initially told that repeat business and customer satisfaction was very important to them. But only a couple of minutes into the interview the company's true colours were revealed as Robin explains that 1st Access electricians should always go out and get parts EVEN if they have the part in their van.
The directors of 1st Access Limited, Peter Pryor and Susan Nathanson, both declined an interview, but instead provided us with a statement. They say the company came under new ownership at the end of last year. Since then they've taken major steps to improve customer service, including regular customer surveys, which have told them levels of customer satisfaction has increased. They say they will continue to work hard to ensure a culture of integrity and good service is observed throughout the organisation. They have offered Joan Plumridge a full refund, and have also paid us some money back too. Both Mervyn Powell and Robin Walker have been dismissed.
Need an electrician? See our handy guide