If a contractor left your home renovation project unfinished or did a poor job, here are your options.
You want to fix up your home – not find yourself in a fix. But home remodeling can sometimes be a bit of a nightmare if you don’t hire the right person for the job.
Dave Binkowski recently discovered that. He had two of his bathrooms remodeled to the tune of $25,000, and while he was pleased with the result, he wasn’t happy with the contractors he hired. “They ran off to the next job, leaving messes behind, dumping materials on our property,” Binkowski says, referring to concrete and grout left in his yard and in the woods next to his house in the New York City area.
Worse, Binkowski had to complete some tasks himself, including repairing drywall and tightening loose bathroom fixtures.
So what should you do if you have a bad experience with a contractor? To minimize the damage, follow this blueprint.
Document your attempts to reach the contractor. If your contractor left you in the lurch with a half-finished project and isn’t communicating with you, start recording your efforts to reach him or her. You may need this documentation later if you go to court or seek the help of a professional organization.
“Send certified letters [with return receipt requested], explaining the problems you’re experiencing and that it is imperative that he contact you immediately,” says Jody Costello, a San Diego resident and “prerenovation coach” who runs ContractorsFromHell.com.
If your contractor responds, that’s great, but Costello says you should still document the discussions in case something goes wrong later.
If you have leverage, use it. Not all handymen and women who do bad work are incompetent. Some just need encouragement to return and finish a job.
“You have contractors who get in over their heads, or they’re doing too many jobs at one time. Or you have those who were great last year but now have a drug addiction problem,” says Phae Moore, executive director of the National Center for the Prevention of Home Improvement Fraud, based in the District of Columbia.
If your contractor is dragging out a project and there’s money left to pay, obviously, don’t pay until the job is complete. Binkowski owed one contractor a balance, which he used as leverage “to get them to come back out and repair their sloppy work,” he says.
When Lisa Kindel, a multimedia freelance consultant in Frankfort, Kentucky, hired a contractor to build a retaining wall in her backyard, she was initially pleased. Three months later, the cement started cracking. “Four months later, the cement starts falling apart, exposing the bricks in the wall,” she says. After a heavy rain, her retaining wall disintegrated all over her back porch.
I tracked [the contractor] down to his lair and told him if he didn’t fix the wall again with products that would actually stick together this time, I’d take out a full-page ad in the local paper with pictures of his handiwork,” Kindel says. “He came back and fixed said wall with a contractor friend of mine watching his every move.” She adds that his contractor’s license was later revoked after bungling several jobs around the city.
Seek help. Before getting too far into a contractor’s face, use your judgment. Kindel felt safe tracking down her contractor, but other contractors might not take kindly to threats of negative publicity. You may need to bring in someone with authority to help. And if you have given money to a contractor for supplies upfront, and you haven’t seen him for a while and suspect you never will, “call the police,” Moore says. “If they haven’t returned, obviously that’s theft.”
But she adds: “I wouldn’t get your hopes up too high about getting your money back.”
Indeed, Joyce Scardina Becker, a special events planner in San Francisco, gave a contractor $20,000 upfront, and while he did return with supplies, he left the job long before it was finished. “We never saw our money,” she says.
She pursued the contractor through her state contractor’s license board and at least had the satisfaction of seeing him lose his license.
Other options include hiring an attorney or contacting the Better Business Bureau, your state attorney general’s office or your local consumer protection office, Moore says.
You could also contact the board that approved your contractor’s license. But “know that you will have to stay on top of the representative who is handling your case. It can be hit and miss in getting someone who actually cares about the case and will pursue all avenues,” Costello says. She adds that if a project is going really badly, there’s no need to pay for a newspaper ad – contact a local reporter.
“Consumer reporters can often help to shine the light on your blight and get the board and contractor to take action,” she says.
And, of course, there’s court, which will make your home improvement even more expensive and stressful. “You really need to have a good case and a good judge if you have a chance of getting any monetary award,” Costello says. She discourages homeowners from agreeing to binding arbitration in which they’re denied a jury of their peers.
Get inspections and permits. Diane Piper, a business owner in Alexandria, Virginia, saw firsthand the importance of both inspections and permits after dealing with a contractor’s shabby work done on her house before she bought it in 2008.
Just after she moved in, Piper says, “he stopped by to introduce himself … He was very proud of his work.”
He shouldn’t have been. In January 2011, when Piper decided to remodel her kitchen with a different contractor, she learned that the former contractor made adjustments when building a screened-in porch that caused the kitchen ceiling to slip more than an inch. The new contractor also discovered that the ceiling in the guest bathroom was close to falling apart.
Piper urges all homeowners to get major home improvement projects inspected. Piper points out that a competent, experienced handyman will have the cost of permits and inspections built into the cost of the project.
The home inspector should be code-certified, Moore says, adding that hiring one will probably cost a couple hundred bucks. (The American Society of Home Inspectors has a search engine at www.ashi.org/find.)
The last thing you want to hear is that you should spend more money on your project, but if you’ve had a bad remodeling experience and you’re nervous about writing that final check to your contractor, a home inspection could alleviate your fears.
It’s an unfortunate problem in the home improvement industry: Sometimes to improve your home, you first have to improve your home improver.