Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Home Improvement Horrors - Part Seven

Here’s a tip from the Westchester (NY) Department of Consumer Protection that’s sure to drive your contractor crazy, but, what the heck, it’s your house, isn’t it? “Take pictures of the job while it’s in progress,” Consumer Protection Director Gary Powers advises. “If you need to file a complaint later on, you’ll want to show the conditions at various stages and the timing of certain things that might be in dispute.” Tell the contractor the pictures are for one of your kid’s school project.

What if, in spite of all your homework, open communication, sound business judgment, and everyone’s best intentions, a “situation” arises? The first place to talk to the contractor. You don’t have to kiss him on the lips, but, as contractor Eric Messer says, “Every job is like a marriage; every job hits some barriers and you have to be willing to compromise. There’s always middle ground.”

But, if you can’t come to an acceptable understanding, don’t just give up and write another check to the guy with the nail gun in his hand. Call your local department of consumer protection. “If we get a complaint, we will immediately contact the contractor and try to mediate the dispute,” Powers promises. “We find that in many cases intervention by our office in the form of telephone calls, letters, or even job-site visits by one of our inspectors can resolve the matter.”

If that doesn’t do it, they’re ready to go further, even calling in the District Attorney’s office when necessary. “If the contractor committed violations of law, we can issue an appearance ticket, impose fines, and even suspend their license. That gives us leverage in resolving consumer complaints,” he says. Powers’ office handled 375 complaints last year. He has four inspectors on staff dedicated purely to handing home improvement issues, since they are the largest single source of complaints the office receives.

If you’re considering a project to improve your home, take heart; the vast majority of home-improvement jobs get completed to everyone’s satisfaction—or at least to their relief. Some folks even have fond memories of the process. A Briarcliff, NY, homeowner hired Messer’s Sunrise Building to tear the back off of her family’s home, build a new kitchen, add a mudroom, another bay to the garage, and a deck—all done during nine months with the family still in the house. “Once we got used to living like that, it was an adventure,” she says. “Now, when I hear that backing-up truck noise, it’s almost nostalgic.”

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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