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Consumer Law: Avoiding Bad Contractors

Hiring a contractor or a vendor can be a scary proposition. There are so many contractors and vendors of services to choose from, especially in this down economy. People who worked for others at another time have lost their jobs and have had to go into business for themselves. Not everyone is equally skilled; not everyone is trustworthy; not everyone is good at the business side of business.

Someone recently posted the following verbatim question online:

I have been given the run around from a vendor from the beginning, never was I given the estimate for the wedding, that they say was 11k, I never signed a contract because we had to keep telling them it was wrong, and now they stated I owe over 6k and I said you can cancel the whole wedding, 4 months before the wedding I still haven’t gotten a correct contract to sign for my daughter and I want to know if they can come after me or if the contract is even valid and if I am right in stating it isn’t and they should give me back the money I put in escrow because of no contract and they weren’t upfront with the costs from the beginning.

This is a common scenario. You hire someone to do some work. They give you a good sales pitch, and you give them a “thumbs up”. They come back with a contract that does not match what you want or even what the vendor said they would do. Sometimes, there is no contract at all. Then things start to go sideways.

Nothing in writing or signs that there is some misunderstanding between what you want and what the contractor thinks you want, any disconnect, is a red flag that should cause you to stop going down the road with this vendor until the details are worked out. Usually, when there is one red flag there are more.

Many people do not heed the red flags, and they keep going. If it goes too far, the sour notes turn into a sour song. If you go too far down this road, it can get messy indeed. When you get in “too deep” with a bad vendor, the initial bad decision (to go with this vendor in the first place) can be compounded by equally bad decisions to continue down the road even though things are going from bad to worse. At the end of the road, you may find that you have to undo and/or redo everything that was done, and you may not be able to get your money back; you may also find youself owing money for something you do not want and cannot use.

The devil is always in the details. A written contract does not always solve problems, but it can go a long way toward avoiding them. A written contract should describe all of the expectations, on both sides of the transaction. Setting the expectations up front, in writing, avoids many problems down the road.

Even if there is no written contract or “meeting of the minds,” if you allow the services to be performed, you are likely to be stuck with what you get. You also may still have to pay for it. Even if there is no contract the vendor can hold you to the value of the services you allow to be performed becomes your obligation. There is not much worse than having to pay for something that is not something you wanted.

You can avoid this common problem with a few simple suggestions:

  1. Do your homework – get referrals from people that were satisfied with work that has been done from people you trust; look up the vendor on the Internet; look for testimonials and satisfaction ratings; get a feel for what kind of people or company they are; if you have not done your homework, do not hire a vendor until you do.
  2. Set your expectations – write out what you want before you start talking with contractors; be clear, specific and thorough; if you are not certain what you want, and are continually changing your mind, no contractor is going to be able to meet your expectations; if you cannot definitely say what you want, including the details, then you are not ready to hire a contractor.
  3. Get written proposals or estimates – before signing a contract, get a proposal or estimate first; make sure the contractor understands what you want; and clarify anything that is not correct in the proposal/estimate; if the miscommunication continues, find someone else.
  4. Get more than one proposal/estimate – get three or four; compare the written proposals/estimates; measure what kind of people they are by your personal interaction; you need to know, like and trust the contractor you are going to hire; if you cannot say you know, like and trust the contractor, look for someone else.
  5. Go with your gut – if you do not feel right about something, if something just is not jiving, step back and put the brakes on; it is easier to stop and switch horses before getting into the stream, than to try to switch horses midstream; if you do not have confidence, do not go any further; find someone else.
  6. Get it in writing – you should get something in writing that clearly states your expectations; do not allow services to be performed if you do not have what you expect in writing; make sure you have an “out” if you become dissatisfied with the services, but be ready to pay for services already performed; if there is a contract, have the contract reviewed by an attorney if you are not sure about the “legalease”; if your expectations are not stated clearly in writing, do not go forward.

With that said, many contractors and vendors may not use contracts on a regular basis. You take a risk with such a contractor/vendor, so be extra cautious. You can write up your expectations and have the contractor sign off on it. On the other end of the spectrum are contractors who have long, multipage contracts. These guys/gals have been around the block. Make sure you understand it before signing it. Large contracts are more about protecting the contractor than you. Neither situation (no contract or a large contract) means that the contractor is a bad one; it just means you need to be a more informed and cautious consumer.

If you do the things that you can do to be a smart consumer, you can be more assured that you will hire a good contractor or vendor who will meet your expectations. If you are careful to communicate your expectations, and get it in writing, the contractor will get the message that you want what you expect. The contractor will also be clear on what you want and, therfore, better able to deliver what you want. Take the time to do it right. Do not rush into anything if you have the time to be careful. Even if time is critical, do what you can in the time you have to be sure you are hiring a good contractor.

Finally, the best relationships are ones that work for both parties. If you are looking for bargain services, do not expect Cadillac services. “You get what you pay for” is a trustworthy saying. Know what you want, and do not expect to get what you cannot afford.

For more information on legal issues that concern you, see the Drendel & Jansons Law Group blog.

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