Contractor Horror Stories!
Article from New York Times
ALL she wanted was a nice fence around her backyard. Danielle O’Connell was planning a 2-year-old birthday party for her daughter at the family’s Elmsford home and wanted the 18 toddlers safely fenced in.
Mrs. O’Connell and her husband got several estimates but were discouraged by the cost and how long it would take to finish. All the contractors who bid told them the fence would cost at least $5,000 and take four to six weeks to put up.
Then the O’Connells got lucky — at least they thought they did. The couple found a contractor in the Yellow Pages who promised to build the fence for $2,000 and to do it in a week. “We were like, ‘Thank God we found this guy,’ ” Mrs. O’Connell said. “We’re thinking, ‘This is fantastic — those other people were going to rip us off.’ ”
There was a rip-off involved, of course, but it was by the low bidder, not the other contractors. After pressuring Mrs. O’Connell to give him a $1,000 deposit for construction material quickly, he disappeared. He never showed up to build the fence, nor did he answer the phone calls Mrs. O’Connell made as the weeks dragged on.
The O’Connells later found out that he is suspected of bilking at least 11 others out of their money, too. His Larchmont-based company, Frontier Fence, is featured on the county’s Renegade Renovator list, a compilation of 23 home improvement contractors the Department of Consumer Protection is warning residents to avoid (westchestergov.com/consumer/contractors/problematiccontractors.htm). Efforts to contact Frontier Fence were unsuccessful; another business has been given its phone number.
Gary S. Brown, the director of Consumer Protection, said unreliable contractors were “our No. 1 priority because it’s our No. 1 complaint.” The county received 375 complaints about contractors last year. (The second highest source of grievances concerned gasoline sales, but Mr. Brown said those rarely involved violations; consumers were venting their outrage at prices.)
With nearly 7,000 licensed contractors in Westchester — and what Mr. Brown estimates to be 1,200 unlicensed ones — home improvement is big business. Go to any local dinner party and the conversation will most likely veer at some point toward renovation horror stories. In some communities, the true status symbol in the driveway is not the Lexus or the Mercedes, but the Dumpster — the sign that you are having major work done.
Even when everything goes exactly as planned, renovations are usually expensive, disruptive and stressful. But when there’s a shady contractor involved, insult can be added to injury to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. Worse, unscrupulous contractors often focus on vulnerable older people, as well as victims of natural disasters, like the recent flood victims in Mamaroneck, who were eager to get repairs as quickly as possible.
It takes more than one shoddy job or broken promise to make the Renegade Renovator list, a group Mr. Brown describes as “the worst of the worst.” These contractors have generated multiple complaints, and tend to owe a lot of people — customers, suppliers and subcontractors — a lot of money.
Westchester requires all home improvement contractors — roofers, driveway pavers, landscapers, tile setters, chimney sweeps, fence installers, exterior painters, masons and people who install siding, doors, windows, decks and pools — to be licensed. Last spring, the county conducted a sting operation to catch unlicensed renovators. Using a county-owned house in Yorktown in need of repair, a police detective posing as a homeowner invited bids from unlicensed contractors, who had advertised in places like the Penny Saver and on supermarket bulletin boards.
“If they showed up at the house and made a bid, they were arrested on the spot,” Mr. Brown said.
Two of those who showed up were already on the Renegade Renovator list. Those arrested were charged with a misdemeanor. The Consumer Protection Department is pushing for tougher county legislation that would allow it to seize the trucks and tools of contractors who flout the licensing law. To get their property back, contractors would have to pay off outstanding fines.
That doesn’t guarantee they’ll get a license. To qualify, contractors must pass a criminal background check, have both liability and workers’ compensation insurance and also prove they have no unresolved judgments against them.
Of course, hiring a licensed contractor is no guarantee of a problem-free project. But “hiring an unlicensed contractor is a virtual guarantee you’ll be unsatisfied,” Mr. Brown said. “It’s like playing Russian roulette.”
The O’Connells never did get their money back. On the day of the birthday party, Mr. O’Connell went to Home Depot and bought some poles and plastic orange construction sheeting. It wasn’t pretty, but it kept the toddlers corralled. The family has since gotten a proper fence. They went with the original bid of $5,000.