Resolving Problems with Contractors

Archived Q&A and Reviews

Making a complaint against a contractor

April 2010

We hired a contractor, well recommended by our realtor, to fix our foundation several months ago. We signed a contract. He is a licensed contractor with the state. We have paid him 50% of the job and in the last week he has not been returning my calls or coming to the house. The job is not done and I am getting worried it was all done incorrectly. We are having other contractors looking at the work but in the meantime I want to know what our options are. Do we get legal representation? Do we make a complaint against his license? Sue? Does anyone have experience with dealing with this?

I'm so sorry to hear about your situation. We found ourselves in a very similar situation last year: hired a contractor to do foundation and seismic work, he abandoned the job part way through (after we had paid him 60% of the contract price). Then, in spite of not finishing the work, he went after us and tried to collect 100% of the contract price, and we started inspecting his work and realized that nearly all of it had been done wrong and most of it would have to be re-done. Total nightmare. Here are answers to your questions and some of what we learned from the experience...

1. ''Do we get legal representation?'' I would save this as a last resort. You didn't mention the dollar value of the contract, but unless you are trying to collect more than $35K, it is most likely NOT worth the money it would cost you to get a lawyer involved yet.

2. ''Do we make a complaint against his license?'' This is an option. We did. The contractor's state license board (CSLB) has a multi-step process for dealing with complaints. Step one is to put you in touch with a consumer services rep. This person will evaluate your case and decide whether or not it merits being sent to their enforcement division. The CSR can also (with your permission) attempt to mediate for you. If your contractor happens to be a reasonable person, the CSR can act as an informal go-between and attempt to get both parties to agree on a resolution. This was not an option in our case, as our contractor did not want to compromise at all. So we just looked at giving our complaint some teeth by going to enforcement. According to our CSR, you have to have a credible claim for damages in excess of $5,000 for it to get sent to enforcement.

Our CSR was a woman who was very sympathetic and also totally unprofessional. (She routinely referred to our contractor by names like ''poopyhead.'') She strongly egged us on and gave us the impression that the CSLB would take our complaint VERY seriously. So we went ahead and collected bids from other contractors for how much it would cost to fix the first contractor's defective work, and our CSR sent the case to enforcement. Unfortunately, as soon as she did that, the contractor sued us for around $25K (in a dispute that was originally over $7900). One of his claims was that he wanted to collect money for the ''time and effort'' he had spent dealing with our complaint to the CSLB! His suit was full of total fabrications - including things that it would be very easy for us to disprove if it went to court. The whole thing was obviously an attempt to retaliate against us and get us to back off our complaint. And frankly, it worked. We ended up settling simply because we did not want to spend the time and money to defend ourselves in court.

Anyway, when our complaint got to enforcement, we were told by the enforcement representative that current policy is to issue warnings to any licensed contractors who do not have any prior complaints on their records. (No censures, fines, or license suspensions for a first infraction.) The best they could do for us was to allow us to make use of the CSLB's binding arbitration program (way cheaper than going to court, since the CSLB pays for it). The other important thing they can do is assign (and pay for) an inspector to come out to your house and inspect the work. They use the inspector's report to decide whether censure is warranted, but they also make it available to you for use in either arbitration or court proceedings. In our case, they also let us know that now our contractor kind of has ''one strike'' against him. Although our complaint is not on record with the public, it is on record internally at the CSLB, and if anyone ever makes another complaint about this guy, they will be a little harder on him. So they say.

I should add that in the process of doing this, we heard skepticism from ALL QUARTERS about the usefulness of complaining to the CSLB. Lawyers and contractors we spoke to all said the same thing: the CSLB never does anything to anyone. The one exception to this is that if you get a civil judgment against a contractor and he doesn't pay up within 90 days, the CSLB will suspend his license. But that comes AFTER you've gone to court and gotten a judgment. It sure would be nice if they could step in in some meaningful way before then. (Ha!)

3. Other things for you to think about...

--If the dollar amount in dispute is less than $7500, small claims court could be a good option for you.

--You could file a claim against your contractor's bond. The CSLB's website will tell you the name and contact info of your contractor's bonding co. There are limitations to this, and there's all the pain in the butt of dealing with an insurance claim. But it's probably easier than going to court.

--Inspecting the work... please don't rely on other contractors to tell you what your contractor did wrong. Other contractors have a financial stake in the outcome, their opinions can vary widely, and a lot of them are (unfortunately) not very educated on building codes. We ended up hiring a building inspector (after talking to zillions of contractors and winding up very confused). We worked with John Brogan, who was recommended to us because he also does inspections for the CSLB. It was not cheap - we paid by the hour and the total bill came to $1200. We also did A LOT of research/legwork ourselves (looking up building codes, etc) so that when John Brogan showed up, a lot of what he did was verify and document the problems we had pointed out. But in the end, we got a thorough report detailing all defects and code violations (and citing relevant code). And when we showed this report to our contractor, he finally agreed to settle instead of going to court/arbitration. In hindsight, we could have gotten the same thing for free by waiting for the CSLB to get to our case and order an inspection (which took about 5 months from the date we filed our complaint). But we were impatient (and being sued) so we paid for it ourselves.

Best of luck to you getting your problem sorted out... Thinking Longingly of my Days as a Renter

Your rights as a homeowner hiring contractors

Nov 2006

Hi, After reading some sad stories on the website, I'd like to remind everyone of their rights when dealing with contractors, as copied from the California Contractor's License Board website:

''Most licensed contractors are competent, honest, hardworking and financially responsible. However, home improvement is a top source of consumer complaints nationwide. Most of the problems CSLB sees could be prevented if homeowners knew their home improvement rights and took responsibility for their project. A responsible and informed consumer can work more effectively with reputable contractors, and can avoid being victimized by unscrupulous or unlicensed operators.

The ''buyer beware'' principle can help prevent frustration and disappointment when preparing to make a major decision. By carefully considering what you want done to your property, what it will realistically take to do the job, and taking the time to research and check the license of the professional you hire to do the job, you may avoid many of the headaches often associated with remodeling.

Almost everyone knows someone who has a nightmare story to tell about their remodeling job: the length of time it took; the inconvenience of the noise, dust, and absence of such essentials as plumbing, electricity, heat, and air conditioning; lack of privacy during the job; or the cost overruns associated with homeowners who had to live through what they described as ''the trauma'' of even the smallest remodeling job.

Protect yourself--and your pocketbook--by doing your home improvement homework and planning responsibly for your project.

Home Improvement Bill of Rights

The Contractors State License Board reminds you to exercise your rights and responsibilities when making home improvements. As a California consumer, you have the following rights when working with contractors:

-The right to make a down payment of no more than 10 percent of the project price or $1,000, whichever is less;

-The right to a written contract that is clear and includes a payment schedule and completion date.

-You also have the responsibility to properly plan and manage your project. ''

As a business owner and member of the Better Business Bureau, please remember to check out the contractor at the CSLB website: .

Please, learn your rights and responsibilities! A small job can turn into a big headache! Anon

Best way to resolve improper installation problems?

August 2004

I am interested in advice on the following: We are currently in a deadlock with two separate vendors who have been involved in the remodel of our house.

1. A window installation company improperly installed windows in our house. They have refused to take responsibility for improper installation, or resolve the problem adequately (ie install the windows so that they open and close properly!). Months have passed since the windows were installed. The only action this company has taken was to pass on the responsibility for the problems to the window manufacturer. The manufacturer refuses to acknowledge responsibility either. We have refused to pay the outstanding balance for the windows until the problem is resolved.

2. A landscaping company improperly designed and installed an irrigation system in our yard. It has caused various problems for months now. We finally had to get another party to assess and repair the system at considerable cost. We asked the landscapers to pay for the repairs. They have refused.

Are their effective ways to resolve these problems? Does filing a dispute with the Better Business Bureau have any impact? Is small claims court effective? Your thoughts and advise are most welcome. Oakland Homeowner

Being in business myself, and dealing with similar problems at times, I would suggest to the poor person dealing with shabby work to go through small claims. You may or may not win, depending on whether or not you have everything extremely well documented. Also, there's a limit as to how much you can demand in damages. There should be a D.A.'s office that can give you advice as to the best way to get the work done, or get some money back. If small claims isn't the answer, you may have to sue them.

The best thing I've found in small claims is that it is terribly inconvenient for the accused parties. If they don't show up, they lose by default and you will then have a court order demanding their compliance. As a business, if they don't comply you'll have many other options. Suing is expensive, but an option as well -- and again, the contractor him/herself has to come in once they're subpoenaed or they are in big trouble. The more time they spend in court, the less time they can do their business, thus they lose money. Either way, you can't lose becuase you're inconviencing them big time.

Complaining to the BBB won't be much help unless the contractor is already listed with them, however, it's worth a phone call to see if they are. Businesses pay a lot to be members of the BBB, so they generally are concerned about complaints; but only if they ARE affiliated with the BBB, from my experience.

Also, general complaints within the community are a good idea as well -- on-line, with the county/city the business is registered in, etc.

I'm interested to see if any legal pros have advice to post. Good luck. heather