What to do when your contractor lets you down

Assuming some readers have eaten a taste of what Hubby and I experienced in last week’s column on hiring a contractor for home repairs and installations, it’s imperative first to understand what’s in your contract.

Payment schedules are the best leverage, as I advised last week. Paying a third down before the contractor begins work and making other scheduled payments as the work is completed gives you better control over making sure projects get done and on time.

However, if you — heaven’s above — paid upfront and have no other options to recoup some funds, check with your lawyer to see what other options are available. While an arbitration clause is usually offered, several other fixes are produced as well.

* Consumer Protection agencies. My tips over the years always urge contacting these organizations, ranging from the city, county, state and federal level. Call the local office first, as the folks there know local laws and may help to resolve the problem then and there.

Unfortunately, this normally isn’t the case so step it up to the state and federal levels; this is where your writing skills come in handy. With your dates of occurrences and all documentation, include persons with whom you spoke, and so forth. Be certain to end your letters with something along the lines of “I’m so grateful your agency exists to assist with such egregious (sprinkle in what I call “whopping words”) and I look forward to hearing from you” by some certain date. Naturally, these letters come on the heels of the very first correspondence you sent to the contractor, documenting the same instances as later spelled out in what you copied to specified agencies, among others.

Reminder: always be polite whether on the phone, in person, or in writing; after all, these people exist to be helpful to consumer problems, and you certainly want them on your side.

* Small claims court. To me, this is one of the two last-ditch efforts to get the contractor to comply with your legitimate request. Whether your contractor is taking too long to finish a job, went over budget, or any other infraction, small claims court is an alternative to mediation (the latter to be discussed next week). For one thing, you act as our own lawyer. While the old adage states that “A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client,” if your case is handled correctly with all the proper documentation, judge will still likely rule in your favor. Further, the process is simple and usually inexpensive; in fact, the court might even reimburse your filing fee. Call the Clerk of the Court for necessary requirements; these experts are very helpful in explaining procedures.

Settlements do vary between states, though, for losses due to personal injury, property damage and contract breaches so carefully check the law in your state. For example, the Tennessee court allows judgments of up to $25,000 with no limit on eviction suits or to recover personal property, while Georgia’s limit is less than $15,00 with no monetary limit in eviction cases; yet, on the other hand, Alabama’s judgment is a maximum and paltry $6,000.

Small claims courts are, as the name suggests, for small claims. If the two new toilets leak that you paid $300 to have installed, small claims court may well be the right place. Conversely, if the foundation on your brand-new $75,000 siding has cracks going every which way, run don’t walk to your lawyer and get him or her involved — fast.

* Better Business Bureau. From local to national, many Better Business Bureaus have programs for resolving disputes so call your closest BBB and ask. The BBB Serving Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia is available at (423) 266-6144. Also, it certainly won’t hurt to write to the national headquarters at the Council of Better Business Bureaus, 1515 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, Virginia, 22290 (telephone 703-276-0100). The more copied references your original letter to the offending contractor cites, the more replies you’ll receive personally, the more investigations will occur and the bigger the eyeball crossing from Charley Contractor upon reading that list of government entities that have the potential to make his life miserable.

Moreover, professional societies for electricians, plumbers and other tradesmen may have a home in your area. Check them next: while these associations were created to serve their memberships, most are careful to be fair. After all, unreliable, bungling or sloppy members aren’t worth protecting, and some of these groups’ hierarchy act as if they both recognize and understand the problem and, even better, work to get to the bottom of the issue, even if their own members are at fault (unlike many of today’s politicians…)

More next week.

Contact Ellen Phillips at [email protected]

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