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Ask the Architect

‘How do we avoid having this happen again?’

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Q. We hired a contractor last fall to renovate our home and have a contract saying we’d be done by March 30th. As work moved along, the contractor got sick and had many family emergencies, and the workers stopped showing up. We got upset when they came back around the holidays, then stopped again after we paid a big check, right before the new year. We feel as though the contractor is just running a Ponzi scheme, taking money and then disappearing. We had checked him out and seen other jobs, thought we did our homework, but feel like we failed. We just found out he was working under another contractor’s license. We started a lawsuit and reported him to Consumer Affairs. Now we have to find another company. How do we avoid having this happen again?

A. Over my 47 years in construction and 36 years as an architect, I’ve met many business people. Every year we go over our files, and I sigh at how many characters I remember who came into various projects and either disappeared or disappointed. Fortunately, it’s a smaller number than the successes, but there are telltale signs I have come to know and can share.

In selecting the replacement, if every time you call them it goes to voicemail and you can only speak to them if they call back, they’re going to be a communication problem. If I’m busy on my cellphone, I’ll hit the button that says I’ll call you right back, because people need acknowledgement and a call back, especially after giving a payment. It’s always best to call an office number and hear a live, human voice to leave a message.

I find that many people purposely block others from knowing who’s calling, which is a problem because when you call a cellphone, looking for instant gratification, using a “private caller” identification, stop and think about the person you’re calling. Maybe they really are on another call, or maybe they saw a number they don’t recognize and believe they’ll be drawn into a call from a solicitor. So set up the specific way you’ll be communicating, and confirm that the other party agrees.

If every time you speak to them you either get a different excuse or they don’t follow through or they give you a task to keep you occupied, be very concerned. Do your follow-up right away, and set specific times to speak. If they keep failing to meet commitments, you have to cut the cord, and hopefully your contract has such a mechanism. My clients may wince at such wording about how and why we may part ways, but it’s a necessity in a good agreement.

There are legitimate reasons for construction delays. People really do get sick or have family emergencies. Confirm that there’s an alternate, a site manager or other responsible party so that lines of communication are open and direct. Good luck!

© 2020 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to yourhousedr@aol.com, with “Herald question”  in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper,  architect.