‘At that moment I just knew it was over’

A woman says she is living a nightmare after paying builders more than £16,000 to renovate a dream home only to disappear into the project for weeks.

Ionie Smallwood claimed she was “fixed up” by a company she hired in September last year to build an extension to her three-bedroom 1930s home. The 33-year-old, who lives alone, said workers had left her home after three weeks of the project, leaving her without a kitchen.

And now that she’s used up her savings, she can’t afford to finish the work. Ionie says she has struggled to ‘cook food properly’ for the past nine months, resorting to £1.50 cartons of soup from Morrisons, which she heats in a microwave in her living room. She also left her bedroom because she feared the ceiling would collapse, and because the bathroom sink was too small to use, she resorted to washing dishes in the bathtub.

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Hoping to remortgage her property to finance the completion of construction, Ionie was told by the bank that her home was “not considered to be in structurally sound condition.” Ionie said: “I was completely blindsided because my brain was like, ‘I’m so excited, my house is finally becoming my home after four and a half years’.

“I look back now and think, why didn’t I hear all those alarm bells screaming in my ears?”

Ionie, who lives in Winsford, Cheshire, bought her three-bedroom semi-detached house in 2019 and has spent the past four and a half years transforming it into her dream home. Last year, she finally saved enough money to complete the final part of her renovation project: renovating her bathroom and building an extension at the back to expand her living room and kitchen.

“I’ve been renovating the property since I moved in four and a half years ago,” Ionie said. “The building was built in the 1930s, so I tried to make it more modern, homely and cozy.”

She placed an advert for the renovation on Facebook and chose one of the recommended companies which raised £19,550. “They showed me some of the work they had done before and it looked really clever,” Ionie recalls.

Ionie agreed to pay cash, including £3,850 for the bathroom renovation and a £12,850 deposit for the extension up front, after being told the project would take four to six weeks. “They did my bathroom renovation first and then they planned to do the expansion,” she explained.

“They told me there was a cancellation so they could start earlier than expected, in September (2023), and asked me to pay cash in advance because they had to pay for the materials.”

The property was not habitable during construction, so Ionie booked a two-week trip to Scotland after work started on September 6. She said the builders promised the walls and roof would be in place upon her return, but that never materialized.

After questioning them about the lack of progress, she was told that it was due to a bricklayer showing up to work drunk. She added that the builders had assured her that they would seek retrospective approval from the Building Authority using photographs, but that they became ‘defensive’ when she asked to see the images.

Building Control is an essential legal step required before commencing any construction or alteration work on a building in Great Britain, ensuring compliance with building regulations and policies.

“They said to me, ‘If you’re not happy with the construction, we can pause the work and you can get construction control involved,’ almost as if it was a threat,” she explained.

Reflecting on the situation, she admitted: “Looking back on it now, I think I was very, very naive. I think the reason was because I was so excited to get my house finished, so I blindly followed what they said. “

The situation escalated when Ionie decided to contact Building Control on September 23, which led to the workers abruptly leaving the site, blocking her number and stopping all communications.

“After that, they never came back. At that moment I just knew: I’m done here,” she said.

To this day, Ionie lives without a kitchen and says she can’t afford to “live on takeaway food”. “It’s a lot of microwave soups, like Morrison’s, they have these little packets that are £1.25 or £1.50,” she explained.

“So I can’t cook food properly and have to wash my pots in the bath. I have lost a lot of weight as a result.

“Recently my sister suggested I buy a George Foreman grill so I can cook some meat and fish, but it has been very frustrating.”

She also doesn’t have a washing machine because the pipes are in the kitchen, meaning she has to use the local launderette for £11 per visit. After the construction workers disappeared, Ionie felt it was safer to leave her bedroom, fearing the ceiling would collapse.

“The bricks looked like they had fallen down a bit, so I was quite concerned that at some point the house would collapse on me while I’m sleeping. Because that’s the room I sleep in and there’s nothing to hold it back.

“They didn’t put in what’s called acrow supports, which are designed to hold up the first floor… they just left it there.”

Ionie, who is now facing financial challenges to complete the renovations, noticed puddles forming when the house was not sealed and the concrete floor was uneven. “That was my savings over several years,” she revealed.

Desperate, Ionie contacted her bank, NatWest, to inquire about remortgaging her home to pay for the necessary repairs. She explained: “When I went to take out a new mortgage I was told by the bank that I cannot do so,” with a letter from the bank confirming that the property “does not appear to be sufficiently secure or watertight and that there is no equipped kitchen”.

Ionie expressed her frustration saying, “So it’s very frustrating. But I have no choice, I can’t live anywhere else.”

Her attempts to appeal to her home insurance were in vain, as they informed her that defective workmanship was not covered. Private loan companies also told her they would not lend her the money she needed, and she worried that repeated rejections could damage her credit.

Ionie has taken several steps to seek justice, including reporting the company to Trading Standards, considering legal action with the help of her lawyer and contacting her MP Edward Timpson. “I have reported them in every way possible and it is infuriating because the justice system has just failed outright because there is clearly a loophole that is being exploited,” she complained.

If she can waterproof the house and install a simple kitchen, Ionie might be able to get a new mortgage. She has been awarded £42,000 to fix the structural problems and repair her home.

“The problem I have is I need money to fix it so I can remortgage it, so I’m between a rock and a hard place,” she admitted. With no other options left, Ionie has put out a public appeal: “So essentially I have no choice but to reach out to the public and say, ‘Can someone please help me with this?’

To raise the money needed, Ionie started a GoFundMe campaign, which has raised £2,000 so far.

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