“Contractor starting to disappear. What to do?”

contractor
Photo by PoPville flickr user Jordan Barab

“Dear PoPville,

We are in the process of doing a significant amount of work to our house. We did a ton of research, interviews, checked on work, etc. Things had been moving along swimmingly and then near Thanksgiving started to slow up. Now there is little to no work being done, we are two months behind schedule, and I’m getting no response from my builder.

I’ve stopped writing checks but we’ve already paid roughly 35k in work (finish utilities and drywall) that hasn’t been done and I’m getting worried that my builder is literally getting ready to leave town this summer (without getting overly specific I’m quite certain he is relocating out West).

Any advice on what to do? I don’t want to in a couple months be out thousands of dollars and him no longer be in town. Find a lawyer? Call the city? It’s still my hope that this can all be worked out amicably but the lack of response, progress, and us being so behind is limiting my options.

Thanks for any pointers.”

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32 Comment

  • Call. A. Lawyer.

    Call a lawyer.

    CALL A LAWYER!

  • Make sure he is bonded. Review the contract and if the contractor is in breach, contact the bonding agency.

  • Def call a lawyer, but if all that you need to do to finish is install appliances and put up drywall, then hire somebody to knock that out or do it yourself. That’s easy stuff any homeowner should know how to do themselves.

    • What planet are you on??? “Install appliances and put up drywall” is “easy stuff any homeowner should know how to do?” Sure, any intelligent person could spend many hours figuring this out but why??? I could figure out how to do an appendectomy if I needed to, but it is better for everyone to pay people who know what they are doing. But seriously people – you don’t pay that much to any contractor before the job is done.

  • Being 1-2 months behind is normal if your project is actually a big one.

    Is he a one man shop or are there other people (office manager, foremen, etc)? If he’s just part of a small company I’d be a little less concerned about the departure of this guy, and take your concerns to the head of the company or talk to the office manager. But if he’s a one man shop, and your walls are still open, you may want to consider looking for another contractor. If you do, remember to change the locks.

    Suing won’t keep him from leaving if he’s intending to move out west. Suing might get you some money back but if work had been done, you’re not going to get those labor, materials and permit fees for free, tack on your legal fees and you may not get anything.

    I had some friends who were having their basement redone so it could become a legal rental. Their 1st contractor didn’t work out because it slowed down and he had all sorts of excuses. Eventually, they moved on to a 2nd contractor who I think had to correct the 1st contractors work. The lesson from this is cut ties and move on.

    • Had this happen to me when having my basement redone. Delays, more money, not showing up as often, etc. Ended up doing just as you said and cutting ties and finding a new contractor.

    • yeah was just talking to a realtor who also does a lot with development about this over the weekend and apparently this is extremely common. contractors take on back-to-back projects because they can’t take the risk of being out of work for a month between gigs (or even a few weeks), so sometimes delays on the first project mean that you get a really thinned out crew as he moves most of his guys onto the next project he’s already committed to. apparently it’s SUPER common in the industry and not much you can do about it but to try to avoid delays by planning everything meticulously upfront and not making changes along the way. sucks but apparently it’s the nature of the business.

      • Not only the thinned out crew but if he runs behind on materials from the first project it seems as if they dip into your deposit and pull the “this is running more than I expected” con.

      • EXACTLY. This is exactly how it was described to me. As someone else said, “Terrible way to do business”. It really is. What other field can you do this in – stopping one job to take up another job? It’s nuts.

  • Oh wow, this is horrible. I’m feeling your pain, OP. A friends is going through something similar, but the workers are showing up – only they appear to show up when they feel like it. In fact, just last night I was in conversation with an acquaintance and I was venting about this (2.5 months overdue, work slowly down after a nice ramp-up, now they won’t show up for 2-3 days in a row and when they do show up they seem to do minuscule amounts of work, etc). My acquaintance told me that she is about 100% sure that contractors take on other jobs when they get about halfway through one job. Supposedly because they have to grab work where they can find it, so they won’t finish one job completely before moving on – instead they’ll juggle more than one job at a time, dumping one periodically for another, then back and forth like that, and that they’ll do it for months and months if you don’t hold their feet to the fire. I suggested it was the DC area, but she said it has happened to family and friends in CA, too. This is apparently not illegal, and the homeowners are screwed because once work is halfway done you can’t exactly fire them. Personally I think there should be a law against this. A contractor should be required by law to honor their contract and see the job through, working a full workweek until the job is complete in a timely fashion – like any other job!

    • Without knowing what’s in your contract it’s impossible to offer advice. This is a civil contract matter, and governed by tort law.

    • What your friend is describing happens because the contractor has already spent all the money from the first job and they have to take a second in order to pay their guys or sub-contractors. It’s a terrible way to do business.

      • Yep. Said the same thing above

      • That’s hard for me to understand. The contractor himself isn’t the one out there working. It’s his team. The team is actually 4-5 guys that he uses on all his jobs, but only when the major stuff was getting done did the entire team work together. Nowadays only 1 guy will show up and do a little work, and on another day 2 other guys might show up, then randomly it’ll be 3 guys again. It’s all so random. Very frustrating! If they would just hunker down for a solid 40 hours in one week they would get SO MUCH done. They are SO close to the end. It is infuriating because I’m supposed to occupy the space being renovated and I’m waiting and waiting.

  • A few years ago, I lived in another state and had something similar happen, when the contractor just skipped out on me. I wasn’t interested in small claims court because this guy knew how to make the system work for him. It turned out that the state had a law on the books called “Theft by deception”, so I went to the police with nothing more than his license plate number and they allowed me to swear out a criminal warrant. That’s the only way we could get him to even show up for court. It took a few tries, and many continuations, and it wasn’t until I actually started crying in court with my best Mary Tyler Moore voice until a judge would hold him accountable. Everyone kept telling me I HAD to settle (because they weren’t going to put him in jail), but I kept refusing to settle for less than the full amount. Finally when enough people believed me that I wanted him to have a criminal charge on his record that others could see, then he offered the full amount he owed me.
    I don’t know if anyone in DC would help you out, but they do appear to have a similar statute. Small claims court doesn’t guarantee payment, but the threat of a criminal warrant definitely makes people sit up and listen.

    Oh, and I didn’t use a lawyer for any of this. It might be worth it to see if you can find a cop who is willing to put the charge in writing.

  • I have some experience with this. Call a lawyer or find a lawyer friend that’s willing to help you. Assuming this is in DC, the DC Consumer Protection laws are fairly robust in this area. If talking to him doesn’t work, write him a demand letter citing each violation of the DC’s CPPA and threaten to take him to court if he doesn’t comply. You can even have a complaint drafted and ready to file in Superior Court to scare him, and let him know the DC regulations allow for treble damages and he could be on the hook for a lot of money.

    Bottom line, find a lawyer/friend and scare him into finishing by threatening to sue him for triple damages, and placing liens on his property or equipment if you succeed in this lawsuit. Sounds harsh, but sometimes it’s the only way.

    • The home you will end up with by legally coercing a contractor to complete a job is unlikely to be a home you want to live in. Get as much money back as you can, swallow the rest of the loss (label it health insurance), and get another contractor.

  • Isn’t prepaying $35K a huge no-no? Or is that common practice?

    • Depends on what percentage of the total contract that $35K was. You NEVER pay the whole amount, or most of the amount up front. But it is standard for some percentage of the total contract to be paid upon contract signature.

    • You’re always going to pay something in advance. No contractor on earth is going to procure materials and start work without an initial payment. In some cases, they’ll do progress billings, but that’s normally for more expensive contracts. $35K is a pretty minor expense in the home renovation world.

  • Who what wow?!

    • That sounds like a scam if there ever was one. Also I feel like maybe a random phone number shouldn’t be floating around out there….

  • Very sorry to hear that. Name names so others can avoid the same fate?

  • Yes, please do tell so I dont select the same person for my project

  • Seriously, I just signed with a husband/wife contracting team. Don’t leave me hanging thinking I’m screwed…

  • Name start with a T?

    • Your skepticism is legit but you didn’t get your life ruined by these people

    • Nope. His name starts with a J and her name starts with an M. That should tell you enough to avoid them. If I posted their names, PoP would block it. They have taken everyone’s money to invest back into their house and keep nothing in their LLC to protect themselves from lawsuits since it is all in the house. They are moving to Denver very shortly and are doing last minute fix ups to their house and meeting with realtors to get it on the market asap. That house, which they bought for 440K in December of 2010 in Le Droit Park, will sell for $1.5 million and they never took any equity out of it since they were using clients money to fix it up. They con you into thinking they are the world’s greatest couple – seriously you would initially be in awe of them and they have gotten great press for being such a cool couple – while they are robbing you with a smile. When they first moved to LeDroit Park, their giant back yard was filled with people as they were hosting parties all the time. But one by one they burned these friends with phony contracts and the parties stopped. Now people are finally catching onto them so they are moving out west. In my case I have lost at least $300K and just failed my structural inspection yesterday from DCRA because of him. I Normally you stay quiet about these sort of things but they’re gonna get away with this. My lawyer is too busy right now with corporate clients so hoping this post will spur him into action.

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