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Your contractor seemed professional before your renovation project started. Now you are seeing signs that something is wrong: The contractor is missing work days and isn’t returning your calls in a timely way. More important, the work you see is not well done, or not as described and promised in the written (and signed) agreement.
Here's what to do.
1. Have a heart to heart, or two.
This should be your first step. Tell the contractor that you are concerned with his performance and why. Once alerted, a customer-focused contractor will strive to make you happy and rectify the issues you present. Follow up with feedback as to whether your issues have been appropriately resolved, and, if they haven’t, what you feel needs to happen.
2. Fire the contractor.
If your contractor continues to perform poorly after you have told him your concerns, and given him feedback more than once, it is best in most cases to part ways. Some contractors are a waste of your time regardless of how many conversations and pep talks you have. If your contractor cannot stand behind his commitments then he should be replaced.
Be aware that many skilled contractors perform good work, but are terrible business people and managers of time. If the quality of the work is acceptable, then you should consider opting for a job well done that takes longer, instead of a confrontation with your contractor and the trouble and expense of finding someone to replace him.
3. Call the Department of Consumer Affairs.
Some contractors will walk off the job if you have given them a large enough deposit, even if they still owe you a lot of work. If this happens, contact the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs. (Call 311 and you will be transferred to a Department of Consumer Affairs representative). The department will start an investigation and call the contractor.
If the department determines that the contractor is being dishonest or not fulfilling his obligations, it can revoke his Home Improvement Contractor’s License. Without this license, he cannot work in a co-op or condo.
I have seen some contractors run back to a job site after a call from Consumer Affairs.
4. Sue the contractor.
If the contractor has caused you financial damages, you can sue. For losses less than $5,000 you can sue in small claims court without a lawyer. I have seen some contractors so scared of being sued that they come to a settlement as soon as they receive your claim in the mail.
Of course, if the contractor is small, or if you discover that the guy has a history of bad jobs, a lawsuit may not be an option, since he could close his company and not pay you what he owes. A judgment is worthless if you can’t collect.
5. Grin and bear it.
Hiring a replacement contractor sometimes costs more than you budgeted, since it can be more expensive to fix someone else’s mistakes than to do the job right in the first place. If you have no more money, and your contractor is honest, he will finish your job, even if it’s not to your complete satisfaction.
What about the contractor's fee? If the quality of the work does not meet a "reasonable quality" standard, which is defined by the courts, than you can withhold payments to compensate for the cost to fix the work.
If the contractor took longer than expected to finish the job, you cannot withhold payments unless your renovation contract had a liquidated damages clause, which provides for penalty payments if the project is not finished on time.
This kind of clause, by the way, is very helpful in motivating the contractor to finish your job on time.
Yoel Borgenicht is the president of King Rose Construction, specializing in residential and commercial renovations in the New York City metro area.