Having acted as an expert witness for several trading standards services and police forces over the past decade, I’ve learned the ‘tricks of the trade’ when it comes to spotting scam works on pitched roofs. Often, it starts with a cold call, offering to clear gutters or secure a roof tile or two, for a charge of a few pounds. The matter then escalates to major works, involving many thousands of pounds – sometimes in several stages – in what I think of as the ‘It’s worse than I thought’ process.
Discovering that the felt is rotten is often the first step in the escalation of the roofing scam, and can work at two levels: scammers say the eaves felt has rotted, or the felt to the whole roof needs replacement. Sometimes, these two steps are sequential in the scam, with the occasional ‘It’s worse than I thought’ process thrown in.
Modern roofs have felt under the tiles, called sarking felt. This is what we see when we go into our lofts to retrieve the Christmas decorations. On older roofs, you can see the underside of the slates or tiles because there is no felt. Felts used many years ago were susceptible to the effect of ultra-violet light, so they would become brittle with age. This was particularly the case at the bottom edge of the roof – the eaves – where the felt was exposed when it extended beyond the tiles and was tucked into the gutter. This exposed margin would rot away quite quickly after the roof was finished, often in as little as three to four years.
This was recognised in the 1980s by the National House Building Council (NHBC), which amended its standards to require eaves felt to be finished with a material less susceptible to the effects of ultra-violet light. But even if damage from ultra-violet light occurs, is any remedial action required?
No. The fascia may be more susceptible to decay if the felt has rotted away, but a significant number of roofs have this fault without suffering any ill-effects. If any work to the sarking felt is needed, it is not urgent. The property owner should merely be given a price and left to make up their mind at their leisure – and to take other advice if they wish. Could the felt to the whole roof need replacement? It’s very unlikely.
Typically, a pitched roof is expected to have a design life of 60 years – but this is a pessimistic view. If it was accurate, properties built in the 1950s would now need re-roofing and, generally, this is not the case. A roof may well give 80 years of life. It is not unusual to see properties built in the 1930s that have been re-roofed; however, I have just seen to a building where the roof lasted 120 years before it needed to be replaced. If the roof is felted, the felt will generally last as long as the roof covering, or at least 60 to 80 years. Again, even if it does need replacing, it would not be an urgent job.
Any reputable trader would give a quote for the work, and allow the customer to shop around and come to a decision in their own good time. Often linked with the ‘your felt is rotten’ tale is the line that your battens are rotten, too. You can get some rot in roof battens, but, generally, it’s at the roof’s edges, such as at chimneys or in verges – the edge of a roof that has a gable. Battens in the main body of the roof do not rot, unless there are some major long-term defects, or the tiles have become porous. This will not be an urgent matter requiring instant, major action.
It is not unusual for the next step in the ‘It’s worse than I thought’ saga to be that the roof structure has failed, because the timber has rotted or because the structure is too weak. Theoretically, either mode of failure is possible; however, it is unlikely that the property owner – even an unobservant one – would be unaware of the roof’s condition. Roof timbers do rot, but there would need to be water ingress for a long time, and that would be evident within the property.
A roof will not suddenly become structurally inadequate unless something has changed. If a roof has been structurally inadequate for a long time, it will have distorted slowly – if not actually collapsed. It is incredibly rare that such a matter would be urgent, needing immediate action. The property owner should merely be given a price for the job and left to take other advice before making up their mind to proceed with the work. It is quite common for fraudsters to pick tiles off the roof and use them as evidence that it needs repair for a health and safety reason.
On an older roof, it is very easy to lift off ridge or hip tiles by hand, or with minimal leverage using something like a screwdriver. It does not show that action is required, but is an easy way to scare a property owner into having work carried out. When work is carried out, look at whether the old ridge/hip tiles have been lifted, or whether mortar has merely been smeared over the top of the existing mortar to make it look as if the ridge or hip tiles have been lifted or relaid.
Manufacturers have created dry-verge systems to speed up the process of building roofs and to make up for a lack of skilled labour. Hopefully, they also make the edge of the roof last longer. To be truly effective, a dry-verge system needs to be built into the roof at the same time as the roof is constructed. It is claimed that some systems can be fitted at a later date, but these rely on the integrity of the fascia to work. In many instances, the wrong type of dry verge is used and is fitted by screws into the mortar verge pointing, which is probably already breaking up. If it wasn’t, there would be no reason to fit the dry verge in the first place.
Often, the bottom end of the verge is screwed to the end of the gutter. Often, part of the scam is to create a sense of urgency by claiming there are major faults with the roof that need immediate attention to prevent damage or injury. It is very rare – other than with storm damage – that immediate, major works are required. Reputable contractors will simply leave a price and allow the property owner to make up their mind in their own time, as well as to get other prices and seek advice. When talking to victims, I will often give four pieces of advice:
- Take your phone with you when you answer the front door
- Don’t buy from anyone on the doorstep and don’t let them into your house
- Be firm. Telling people to go away is not rude. Practise doing so in the mirror, as it can be hard to be firm with someone who is being polite and friendly
- Dial 999. Many elderly or vulnerable people are frightened to call 999. It is OK to do so, if someone will not go away and is pressurising you
Test your knowledge of roofing scams by completing this short questionnaire – scroll down to see the answers.
1. What is often the first step in the escalating roof scam?
2. What makes sarking felt become brittle?
3. When did the National House Building Council change its requirements for eaves felt?
4. What is the typical design life of a pitched roof?
5. What will fraudsters often do to the ridges or hips to create evidence that the roof needs repair?
6. What is sometimes done to make it look as if ridge or hip tiles have been lifted and relaid?
7. How will the bottom edge of a badly fitted dry verge be secured?
8. What four key bits of advice can help victim’s defend themselves?
The online CPPD test for this module is now closed.
1. The felt is rotten; 2. Ultraviolet light; 3. 1980s; 4. 60 years; 5. Lift ridge or hip tiles by hand; 6. Mortar is smeared over the existing mortar; 7. By screwing it to the end of the gutter; 8. Take the phone, don’t buy, be firm, and dial 999.