How one of our worst builders left a trail of leaking roofs, toilets spewing sewage & unfinished jobs – and got away with it

‘O’Leaky’ could be the worst builder since O’Reilly bungled Basil Fawlty’s renovation in Fawlty Towers. Picture: BBC

BURGLARS, vandals and car thieves worry people, which is fair enough. They’re the pests that do the regular mischief — so regular that insurance companies can rank the postcodes where they strike most. Live long enough and you’ll suffer from one or all of them, maybe more than once.

But let’s face it: burglaries and stolen cars are rarely catastrophes. Most property either isn’t worth much or is insured. In fact, the biggest loss most of us risk won’t be some shivering junkie or teenage delinquent pinching a laptop and a handbag. It’s more likely to be daylight robbery committed by a builder over many months.

Almost anyone who has been through the ordeal of building or renovating a house knows that even “good” jobs are rarely finished on time, under budget and without faults. When people say it’s the most traumatic experience after death and divorce, they mean it. And that’s when things go almost to plan.

Even an honest builder can strike a freak thunderstorm — or use subcontractors who get rat-faced one lunchtime and screw things up. Both those things have happened to your correspondent.

But it’s much, much worse when the alleged builder is a sociopath and serial liar cold-bloodedly out to rob you. This is the description victims use about the builder of Irish parentage we will call Shamus O’Leaky. Not his real name, admittedly, but people he stitched up will recognise him immediately because everything he builds leaks like the Titanic, or possibly Kevin Rudd.

O’Leaky’s roofs leak. His windows leak. His baths, showers and toilets leak — all “time bombs” ticking away after he has left the site. He abandons jobs after getting all but the last payment owed under standard building contracts, leaving behind a trail of unpaid sub-contractors, unfinished work — and problems that distraught owners end up trying to fix because they can’t find O’Leaky or force him to make things right.

O’Leaky looks good, considering he might be the worst builder since O’Reilly — the “Orelly man” in Fawlty Towers. But whereas “Orelly” is an invention of comic genius, there’s nothing funny about the damage O’Leaky has done to so many people.

Take Kathryn, a single nurse who sunk her savings — and more — into renovating her small Port Melbourne home. She signed a contract with O’Leaky in mid-2011 and moved back into the place about five months — and more than $100,000 — later.

Plenty was wrong but worst was the raw sewage bubbling in her downstairs bathroom. Something about sewage makes you to clean it up first and argue about building contracts later. Kathryn was cleaning it up when she slipped on the foul sludge and injured her back.

She had two spinal operations and three months off work, which was plenty of time to add up a list of other faults O’Leaky had left: cracks in walls, a tap that didn’t work and an upstairs bathroom that started leaking so badly she hasn’t been able to use the shower since 2014.

Kathryn went to the Victorian Building Authority, to Consumer Affairs and to a lawyer, and is now $161,300 in the hole. O’Leaky was slapped with a lettuce leaf and asked to fix the faults. He ignored it, just as he has a string of other householders, suppliers and tradesmen who swear he’s dudded them.

There’s Anthony, an accountant in the construction industry who didn’t imagine a “simple” domestic job would turn into a nightmare. The balcony O’Leaky built in 2010 started to leak water into the house within months. O’Leaky vanished; the leak didn’t. When he eventually returned he cut “inspection holes” in the plaster ceiling — and didn’t come back.

 Anthony went to VCAT and got an order for a mediated settlement. O’Leaky’s solution was to squirt $2 worth of silicone goo around the faulty seals then patch the plaster. Naturally, it still leaked.

In September 2014 the shower leaked and ruined a carpet. “I invited [O’Leaky] but he never responded so I took him to VCAT again,” says Anthony. VCAT eventually awarded $35,000 and costs against the builder.

“His business model,” says a sadder, wiser Anthony, “is to do it fast and rough and get the progress payments for the first half of the job then to go very slow and never actually finish the job — and start another one.”

Such as the new house in Alphington which, according to the plan, would have water tanks under a big deck. O’Leaky conned the registered plumber on site to sign off that everything was done. Sadly, the tanks were not there.

Eventually the nervous plumber told the horrified architect, who ended up taking legal action against O’Leaky on several counts.

Then there was the well-heeled couple building a showpiece home in South Yarra. Cost was not their main concern. They wanted quality. Instead, they got O’Leaky, who presents well and wins people’s trust until his lies catch up with him.

O’Leaky persuaded a plumber he hadn’t paid that it was because the house owners hadn’t paid, which was a blatant lie. The upset tradie confronted Mrs South Yarra at home and threatened her. It was only later that she and the plumber realised O’Leaky had deceived them both.

On another site, a plasterer who hadn’t been paid believed the same lie. In an act of mistaken revenge, he poured plaster down a toilet — adding a blocked sewer to the horrors the owners faced when O’Leaky left them in the lurch.

A cabinet maker who worked on several jobs for O’Leaky is one of many “tradies” who has written off money he owes them. The cabinet man lost his factory workshop because he couldn’t meet payments. It’s cold comfort to him — and all the others — that O’Leaky’s business has finally been wound up.

One angry creditor is John Holland, owner and manager of Shugg Windows. Like veteran swimming pool contractor Geoff Morton, also burnt by O’Leaky, Holland has been in the building industry 45 years and reckons he has never struck a worse rogue than the smooth talker.

Holland worked in England and Saudi Arabia before taking over Shugg. One of his jobs was to detect large scale “skimming” of materials from building sites through “padded” orders. He firmly believes that O’Leaky was skimming materials — and labour — from each job to finish his own bayside house.

“The carpet was identical to a job he was doing in Elwood. All the wood and trim designs were the same as another client’s job, and so on.”

The courts have finally wound up O’Leaky’s business, which technically means he is unregistered and cannot build. Which is interesting, because a disgruntled architect has photographed him working on a building site with a sign carrying his company’s name. The architect says it is common knowledge O’Leaky’s partner has several properties in her name, including the big one they are building.

O’Leaky seems beyond the law. His victims can only hope his own roof leaks like Niagara Falls — and that a broke tradie gets in and pours quick-set cement down every dunny. A case of the punishment fitting the crimes.

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