Question: I had a plumbing company come to my house and give me an estimate on replacing a kitchen faucet and some shower fixtures.
The plumber told me that he couldn’t see behind the walls to tell me what would need to be done. He told me that he hoped it would be a simple fix, but that the “worst-case scenario” would be $3,100. In other words, if the plumber had to tear through the wall and replace all of the old pipes, the cost could possibly run that high.
The estimate seemed high, but I signed the estimate because I trusted the company. They had done some work for me in the past, and I knew that they would do a decent job. The company did the work, and it was a relatively simple fix — far from the “worst-case scenario.”
When I received the bill, however, they charged me like it was the worst-case scenario. I asked another plumber to review the work done, and he told me that the cost of the materials and the charges should have been somewhere around $1,000. I asked the company to amend the bill to reflect the job that actually was done, and they have refused. What should I do?
Answer: Although you were absolutely right in getting a written estimate, most experts will recommend that you get at least three detailed estimates for any job. The plumber appears to have “padded” the estimate and thus overcharged for the work. This might have been prevented with getting a couple of estimates.
A written estimate should outline the materials to be used and the time estimated for the job. Contractors will tell you that creating an accurate estimate is no easy task. But in hindsight, you might have been well advised to demand a detailed estimate that included charges for tearing out the wall and replacing the old pipes, as well as the separate cost of replacing the kitchen faucet and shower fixtures.
Regardless of what is in the estimate, the terms of the contract with the plumber will control your claim for damages. The question is whether you received a contract separate and apart from the estimate. There are state law requirements for home improvement contracts.
To see if what you signed was an actual contract and not just an estimate, the document should have right next to your signature a provision regarding your “three-day right to cancel” and an attached “notice of cancellation.” If the plumber did not provide you with a contract meeting at least these requirements, then you may have grounds for a refund.
You have some leverage here in withholding payment until the company listens to your complaint and acknowledges what work actually was done. You may need to compromise to get the matter resolved. If you are able to resolve the matter, be sure to get a release from the contractor.
Unpaid contractors have the right to record a mechanic’s lien against your property, so you will want to be clear that the reduced payment completely satisfies your obligations under the contract. There are forms available on the Contractors State License Board website to make sure that there is a release of any liens.
If you are unable to informally resolve the matter with the company, you can file a complaint with the Contractor’s State License Board. At the outset, they will send a note to the contractor in an effort to encourage resolution. If that does not move the company to act on your complaint, the board has mediation and arbitration procedures to address the complaint.
If the complaint is under $12,500, then the board requires arbitration of the claims. Arbitration is an out-of-court process that will provide a final resolution to your claim. This is an alternative forum to taking the contractor to small claims court.
You also may want to leverage the power of social media like Yelp, Angie’s List or Neighbors Nextdoor. Tell the company that you plan to post about your experience with them. The heart of a contractor’s business is his or her reputation and referrals from satisfied customers. The company may be more apt to settle the matter than face a loss of business from bad word of mouth.
Your position is not unreasonable. A person should be paid for his or her work, but your agreement to an estimate for a “worst-case scenario” is not a concession to throw money down the drain.
Preston Morgan is a partner at Kopper, Morgan & Dietrich, a Davis law firm providing family law, estate planning and trust litigation representation. His column is published every other week in the Davis Enterprise. To pose a question to Preston Morgan, contact him at https://kopperlaw.com.
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