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Watchdog: Avoid unscrupulous contractors

By Gabe Semenza
Nov. 1, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.


Have a question for 'Watchdog'?

To submit questions, e-mail watchdog@vicad.com or call Advocate Public Service Editor Gabe Semenza at 361-580-6519. No topic is off-limits.

Michael Welton wants to share advice here so you can avoid unscrupulous contractors. He can speak from experience.

Welton, a 66-year-old retired real estate developer and property manager, developed buildings totaling $2 billion in worth in various areas nationwide, he said. But even he is not immune to the potential pitfalls of the construction industry.

Welton on Aug. 18 agreed in writing to hire a Victoria contractor to perform work at his Victoria home. That work was supposed to begin just a few days later.

But Welton paid up front for half of the project's cost - $800 of the $1,600 tab - and then didn't hear from the contractor for months. He tried to contact the contractor more than 20 times by phone, but no calls were returned, he said.

"You know, I think this happens more than we know about," Welton said, irked. "This was a comparatively small job I hired out, but it's the principle of the thing. People need to know you can't do that."

As a seasoned real estate pro, Welton followed the guidelines for picking a contractor. He sought word-of-mouth testimonials, interviewed three companies and even searched for telling reports maintained by the Better Business Bureau.

But after a week had passed, and the contractor had yet to begin work as promised, he knew he'd hired the wrong guy.

Not all contractors, of course, are unscrupulous. But too often, it seems, Advocate readers complain about those companies that don't show up on time, perform substandard work or even worse.

Erin Rodriguez, an Austin spokeswoman for the Better Business Bureau, said these common complaints reverberate statewide.

"Unfortunately, we hear about these kinds of scams all the time," she said.

Before you hire a company to perform work for you, consider these tips, offered by Rodriguez:

Solicit at least three bids from prospective contractors based on the same specifications, materials, labor and time needed to complete the project.

Follow-up on local references. If possible, inspect already-completed projects.

Put all contractor promises, including start and completion dates, in writing.

Pay with a credit card, which gives you certain protections should anything go wrong. Charges can more easily be disputed.

So, how do you explain Welton's predicament? He followed the guidelines, except for paying half up front by check.

About a week ago - two months after paying the contractor, who continued to avoid calls - Welton sent the man a letter and called the Advocate. Welton threatened to sue the contractor and expose him in his hometown newspaper.

Police typically don't pursue such matters and the state lacks a contractor regulating agency with any teeth.

On Friday, the contractor returned the $800 - but only after the Advocate tracked him down. The newspaper opts here to leave the contractor unnamed because, in the end, he made things right.

That contractor said the lengthy delay stemmed from scheduling conflicts, miscommunications and an unexpected increase in his workload.

Welton does not buy the explanation.

"In the future, I'm going to be even more diligent, especially if it's a bigger job," Welton said. "I shouldn't have paid so much money up front. Still, you just can't take people's money and then not perform."

Gabe Semenza is the Public Service Editor for the Advocate. Comment on this story at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.

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