You did everything right -- you drew the plans and wrote the specifications and checked the work and answered the questions -- but you've still got a problem with a contractor. Where do you turn?
Don't go ballistic. Start with the simplest steps first. It's easy to wave your lawyer's card around and threaten action; but taking any such action is going to cost you. There are other ways to resolve a dispute that don't spend your money.
Start by making sure you have communicated your problems directly to the contractor.
"Sometimes it's just a communications breakdown," said Sandra Harrell, assistant executive director of the Maryland Home Improvement Commission, which oversees contractor licensing for the state.
Sit down and write a letter stating your concerns clearly and concisely. Tell the contractor exactly what you want him to do to resolve the issues. Stick to the facts, and leave your per
sonality and his out of it. Tell him how long you will wait for his response before taking further action.
You might as well do this up front, because it is the first step in any arbitration process. Setting it all out will help you put priorities on your complaints. The more specific you are about what you want done, the easier it will be for the contractor to respond.
Send him the letter or arrange a meeting and read it to him. (Be sure you keep a copy for your files.) In many cases, this will be all it takes. The contractor wants to make you happy; you've got his money and he's got other jobs he should be doing.
If, for some reason, you still can't resolve the dispute, there are other places to turn for mediation.
One is the Better Business Bureau. Any consumer who has a dispute with a home-improvement contractor (or any business) can ask the bureau to intervene; the service is free.
"We just sit in the middle and listen" first, said Penny Weis, the bureau's vice president-administration. The consumer's complaints are presented to the contractor and the contractor's position is requested. If talking it out doesn't resolve the complaint, or if the two parties simply dispute each other's word, "that's when we can offer arbitration," Ms. Weis said.
There's a slight catch, which is that both sides have to agree to go to arbitration. However, in some cases, Ms. Weis said, that's already stipulated in the contract. A contractor will include the phrase, "any disputes to be arbitrated by the Better Business Bureau," and the consumer signs it.
Then the case goes to the arbitrator. "We have a pool of a couple hundred volunteer arbitrators . . . who act as judges in the case," Ms. Weis said. The arbitrators, who are specially trained through a BBB arbitration program, hear the dispute and make a ruling. In some cases the ruling is legally binding -- for instance, if it's in the contract.
If arbitration is not agreed on, or the consumer still has a valid complaint, the bureau can close the complaint as unresolved and make it part of the contractor's record. When someone calls in to check on a contractor, the bureau will report the number of unresolved complaints.
Sometimes that phone call is all it takes to avoid getting in a dispute inthe first place. "People really should call first," Ms. Weis said. "We can save people so much headache."
If, as in Maryland, your state or locale requires home-improvement contractors to be licensed, there may be another place to take your complaint: to the licensing body. In Maryland, it's the state Home Improvement Commission.
The commission accepts claims for actual losses "as the result of the wrongdoing of a licensed contractor from home improvement transactions or events occurring on or after June 1, 1985," according to a brochure put out by the commission to assist prospective claimants.
Claims have to be submitted in writing on a printed form, accompanied by a legible copy of the contract and a copy of any canceled checks made out to the contractor (front and back of both). Within five days of receiving the complaint, Ms. Harrell said, the commission will notify the consumer that they have received the form, will assign an investigator and will send a copy of the complaint to the contractor, giving him 10 days to respond.
"Most of the time the contractor goes back to correct the problem," she said.
If there's still a question, the commission investigator may go out to survey the work. If needed, the commission will ask a technical expert to assess the situation.
If there's sufficient evidence that the claim is valid, an informal hearing will be set to try to resolve the dispute. If that doesn't work, the case will be referred to the state's attorney general's office to determine if charges should be filed against the contractor for violating provisions of the state's licensing laws.
The state of Maryland maintains a guarantee fund to compensate consumers for losses at the hands of contractors. If it's determined that there was wrongdoing and the consumer has a valid claim for losses, the fund can pay up to $10,000 per contractor. In addition, the contractor may be fined; if the case against him is serious enough, his license may be suspended or revoked.
The burden of proof is on the claimant and the commission will return any claim it finds to be "frivolous, made in bad faith, or legally insufficient," according to a commission brochure.
"Most cases are resolved within 30 to 60 days," Ms. Harrell said. "More difficult cases can take longer."
In some areas, there are community organizations to help consumers resolve problems with contractors; they may also help people negotiate their way through a more formal complaint process. In Baltimore, St. Ambrose Legal Services will represent homeowners in problems with contractors and consumer loans.
Next: The Neighborhood Design Center.
To get help
Here are phone numbers for dispute-mediation services in the Baltimore area:
*Better Business Bureau: (410) 347-3990 or toll-free at (800) 564-0001.
*Maryland Home Improvement Commission: (410) 333-6309.
*St. Ambrose Legal Aid: (410) 366-8392.
If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N.
Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.
Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is a home writer for The Sun.