This time of year, half the homeowners in town are trying to hire landscapers. All of us check our phones even in the middle of meetings or medical appointments, because we desperately hope it might be the yard guy calling back.
As my wife and I work on our yard, however, I’m proceeding with caution. Several years ago I hired a landscaper and paid him $2000 up front as a down payment on the work. We never saw a single bush, tree, or shrub. We never saw him or the money again, either.
In response to my recent column about filing consumer complaints, I heard from a reader who is struggling to get recourse from an unethical building contractor. It’s a horror story about bullying, failed inspections, outrageous costs to fix shoddy work, and an expensive lawsuit.
Both this homeowner and I made the same mistake: we trusted someone who turned out not to be trustworthy, and we paid in advance.
Whether you’re hiring someone to redesign your yard, build or remodel a house, create a website for your business, or provide any other kind of service, you can’t afford to just assume that person is trustworthy. It’s your responsibility as the customer to protect your interests in the transaction.
Here are some ways to increase your chances of finding ethical and competent contractors before you hire anyone:
1. Be wary of anyone who seems to lack experience or qualifications. Even someone just starting a business should be able to show you related experience or training.
2. Look for someone who is professional and businesslike. That includes putting estimates and quotes in writing, providing references, and focusing on helping you create what you want rather than telling you what you should want.
3. Say “no, thanks,” immediately to any contractor who shows a cavalier attitude about requirements like licensing, permits, and inspections.
4. Use caution with contractors who don’t apply in their own businesses the skills they are trying to sell to you. If you need a website, for example, don’t hire a developer whose own site is a mess.
5. Get references, and contact them. Ask specific questions about the kind of work the contractor did for them and what the experience was like.
6. Don’t hire out of desperation, as I did with my so-called landscaper. If you have trouble finding someone to do the work you want done, it’s all too easy to skip essentials like checking references when a candidate does show up. That oversight could cost you dearly.
Once you do hire a contractor, continue to protect yourself as the project proceeds:
1. Never pay in advance. Reputable building contractors, for example, should have the resources to buy materials up front. For any services, don’t pay in full until the work is done to your satisfaction. If there is a problem, withholding payment is often your best leverage for getting it resolved.
2. Pay attention throughout the work. Make sure you get copies of all permits and inspection reports. Insist on fixes for small problems, and follow up to make sure they’re taken care of. As the customer, you should never feel like a trespasser on your own project.
3. Address serious problems promptly, in a serious way. If issues are not being resolved, don’t hesitate to file complaints with consumer protection agencies, contact professional associations, or involve an attorney.
Finally, when you do receive quality work or service, acknowledge it. Express your satisfaction, write references or positive reviews, and recommend the business to others. One way to discourage predatory or incompetent contractors is to support ethical, trustworthy professionals.