Ego, obstinacy and anger are a bad mix in any situation, but when trying to resolve difficult disputes, they are especially toxic.
By the time homeowner Stephen Jackovitz and businessman Garry Longenecker reached out for help, after a $15,000 deal for kitchen cabinets went awry, there were already threats of lawsuits, furious phone calls and frosty e-mails, followed by a complete breakdown in communication.
Regrettably, both men decided to stop speaking to each other, which is tantamount to holding your breath to get your way.
"I want to resolve this in an amicable way, but he hasn't even met me halfway," Jackovitz, the 44-year-old accountant from Bel Air, said when he first called. "I'm so frustrated. I am not willing to accept 100 percent responsibility for this."
"I have been very fair about this, but we're in this position because someone on the other end did not take the time to make sure things were absolutely right," said the equally miffed Longenecker, a partner in Manheim, Pa.-based Hamptons Cabinetry. "When customers become their own general contractors, they can create their own worst nightmare," Longenecker said.
The details leading up to the brouhaha began in February when Jackovitz launched a project to remodel the kitchen in his two-story Colonial. To cut some corners on a long story, Jackovitz decided to hire Hamptons, the maker of his existing cabinets, to build additional cabinets to match the originals.
Longenecker and Jackovitz met. Measurements were jotted down. Pictures of the originals were taken.
From March to April, a flurry of phone conversations, faxes and e-mail about measurements continued, preliminary plans were shared and revisions made. The final price was $15,657.
Jackovitz paid half upfront in June. When October rolled around and the cabinets arrived, Jackovitz immediately paid the rest, storing the cabinets in his garage for a couple of weeks until the kitchen was ready.
When it was finally time to fit the new cabinets in, however, Jackovitz and his installer discovered that one of the cabinets was 7/8ths of an inch larger than the existing cabinets, a set of doors above the counter didn't match and a new plate rail in the cabinets did not match the original.
"When I called to tell them there was a problem, I was told, 'We built the cabinets according to the blueprint we provided to you. You approved the blueprint,'" Jackovitz said.
He called Hamptons a number of times and wrote a letter to Longenecker's partner in an attempt to find a fix. It did little except to exacerbate bruised feelings and aggravation, leading to a bitter blame game.
Longenecker maintained that a company employee was sent to Jackovitz's home twice to check on measurements. Jackovitz said an employee did show up, but no further measurements were taken.
Longenecker blamed Jackovitz for approving the blueprints. Jackovitz blamed Longenecker for not coming back to his house to double-check the numbers and design.
Longenecker said Jackovitz should have hired a general contractor if he had no personal expertise on installation. Jackovitz said he was paying Longenecker for his expertise. Back and forth they continued.
The men were at a standstill. And there was no written contract that spelled out how disputes would be handled.
Many people find themselves in this situation when playing Bob Vila. The Maryland Home Improvement Commission fields 3,600 complaints every year about contracting catastrophes. About 40 percent involve unlicensed contractors. But the other problems involve any number of issues, including bad contracts that don't spell out every detail of the work needed and paying for work that's never completed.
"You have to negotiate all these points correctly," said Kathleen M. Smith, executive director of the commission. "If you're not comfortable with the contract, you probably won't be comfortable with the outcome of the project. It really is buyer beware. It's always the homeowner's responsibility to be sure they're not buying a pig in a poke."
In Jackovitz's case, it was clear a face-to-face meeting in front of the flawed cabinets was required to fix this.
Initially, the situation seemed fixable. Both men insisted that they were willing to compromise. Both claimed a willingness to accept some responsibility. Both swore they were eager for resolution.
Problem is, saying those things and doing them are different things.
Neither was willing to take the first step. Longenecker refused to meet unless Jackovitz hired an installation expert who could pinpoint problems with precision. Jackovitz stalled on hiring an expert since he said Longenecker was the expert. Both were trying to anticipate the other party's next move - when the absurdity of it all was that there was no movement at all.
Two months dragged by, with both arguing the same points over and over through me but never directly to each other. Just as my head was plumb numb from metaphorically pounding it against the blasted cabinets, one last plain-spoken appeal was made to both men.
Truth be told, both were culpable in this conflict. Jackovitz approved blueprints when he didn't have the expertise and Longenecker didn't carefully review every detail. It seemed that everyone forgot that old carpenter's adage, "Measure twice, cut once."
But the worst offense they committed was old-fashioned pigheadedness. They could meet and discuss the issues like responsible adults, or not meet and sue the pants off each other. Jackovitz would walk away having lost thousands. Longenecker would do the same with his company's reputation besmirched.
Longenecker, to his credit, finally took the first step and offered to meet. Jackovitz then assured him a knowledgeable installer would participate.
On Dec. 20, a Wednesday Night Smackdown was avoided. Both men (and Jackovitz's installer) went over the blueprint and notes. They discussed where the mistakes were made. They exchanged ideas on what steps needed to be taken to fix the cabinets. They talked!
By the next morning, Longenecker owned up to two of the problems and Jackovitz was willing to fork over another $220 to fix the cabinet doors.
It took nearly two months and neither man walked away thoroughly happy, but a lawsuit was averted, so consider that a lovely compromise.
"I probably should not have reacted to the customer as I did," Longenecker said. "The only thing I would do differently, and I say this reluctantly, is that it was emotionally charged and you sort of get dragged into the situation and you get caught up in it. Next time, I would hope I would just tell the customer, 'I'll be right down.' It would have saved a lot of time."
And next time, Jackovitz vowed to hire an expert.
On both those points, you'll find no argument here.
Reach Consuming Interests by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 410-332-6151. Find an archive of Consuming Interest columns at baltimoresun.com/consuming
To avoid home improvement pitfalls
Get three estimates before choosing a contractor.
Check with the Home Improvement Commission or appropriate state agency to make sure the company is licensed.
Request references and check them out. Search for any complaints through the local Better Business Bureau.
Get a copy of the contractor's current liability insurance certificate.
Hire a general contractor with expertise in the work if you don't have it yourself, especially if it's a large, complicated and expensive project.
Always get a written contract that spells out the details of the work, start dates, payment dates and completion dates.
Pay no more than a third of the contract price as down payment.
If a building permit is needed, ask to see it before the work starts.
[Source: The Maryland Home Improvement Commission]