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By homeowner Janet Ricevuto, as told to Allegra Muzzillo

Ricevuto had to dispose of these bricks and other building materials herself. Photo: Janet Ricevuto

Back in August 2006, I hired a local contractor to renovate my four-story Brooklyn brownstone. The project was slated to take just 12 weeks. It started out fine but languished almost immediately after demolition began. The renovation grew into a costly two-year ordeal that's still being hashed out in court.

Dense mold, exposed live wires, and severe basement flooding are only several of the horrific problems I encountered. All told, I've spent $100K -- so far irretrievable -- and I've had to call in another company to finish the job.

Looking back on it these past few years, I realize that there were telltale signs that spelled DANGER from the get-go. The key is recognizing them in real time; hindsight is always 20/20.

Here's a list of red flags I encountered -- and ignored. If you experience any of these, my experience says you're in a losing situation, and to back out as soon as possible.

Red Flag #1: Contractor's bid is far below that of others you've received.
Before hiring the offending company, I gave its owner a detailed price list based on a previous bid by a more costly contractor. When he presented his official bid, it sounded almost too good to be true. Looking back, I should have checked his references right then and there. But the lure of affordability and his pledge for a quick turnaround had me sold -- and blinded, some may say. Of course, I found out later that multiple homeowners had lodged complaints against this "dream" contractor with the Better Business Bureau.
Lessons Learned:
Underbidding is often an indication that the contractor is either unfamiliar with the work you need done, or typically tends to go over budget. Always check references. And whenever possible, visit another of his work sites.

Red Flag #2: Contractor doesn't want to deal with the formality of drawing up a thorough contract.
Once I received the final quote, I noticed that some of the work I'd wanted done wasn't mentioned in writing. When I asked about the missing info, the contractor said every little detail doesn't need to be included in the final contract. It was a given, he said, that his team would perform all necessary follow-ups. I just let it go, which turned out to be a huge mistake.
Lesson Learned: A comprehensive contract is always beneficial to both parties, and it will help assuage confusion when questions arise.

Red Flag #3: Work begins on schedule, but comes to a near standstill after several weeks.

The contract clearly stated that my renovation would be completed within 12 weeks. I made it clear that sticking to this timeline was important to me, especially because my three children would be home while work was carried out. The owner assured me everything would be done in time. Workers came daily during the demo phase, but then visits dwindled down to one to two times per week. Then, I saw them just three times a month -- and there were even a couple months when they didn't show up at all. Whenever I called the owner to try and sort things out, he hung up the phone as soon as he knew it was me. I just wanted the work finished once and for all, so before that I'd tried everything possible not to bring lawyers into it. I knew it'd be a long, expensive ride.
Lesson Learned: As soon as you see that clear-cut goals aren't being met, it's then time to check in and renegotiate the timeline.

Red Flag #4: Payment is requested for work not done.
After workers showed up a total of just 14 days within a 24-week period, I calculated that on seven of those 14 days, I was writing checks to the contractor even though jobs weren't finished. The owner always said he needed money for more materials: Once he even asked for an advance because someone in his family was ill!
Lesson Learned: Proffer payments based on contractor performance, and shell out remaining balances only when work is complete. Some states limit the amount contractors can request as a down payment and the amount by which the final bill can exceed the estimate, unless you approved the increase.

(Left) Lint flew out of this sloppy hole each time Ricevuto ran her clothes dryer. (Right) Baseboard moldings were improperly measured, so they didn't even reach the floor. Photos: Janet Ricevuto

Red Flag #5: Shoddy workmanship and an unwillingness to correct problems.
I began spotting slapdash fixes, such as uneven window casings, polyurethane smears all over window panes, uncovered outlets, and nail ends jutting out of sheetrock. Whenever I took issue, the owner accused me of being a perfectionist and threatened to walk away from the job. It was a very tense situation.
Lesson Learned: Voice concerns as soon as they arise. If requests for corrections aren't met, the ball has officially been dropped; hire someone else.

Red Flag #6: An ever-changing roster of subcontractors who don't seem capable.
I saw four different electricians, three different tile installers, and so on, before a job was fully done. When the rotation came full-circle, the guy who started the job weeks before couldn't remember where he'd left off. After the electrical work failed to pass an inspection, I finally filed a complaint with Consumer Affairs. It revealed that the subcontractors were all unlicensed. Although my contract and the NYC Building permit both cited the same licensed electrician's name, he wasn't the one who performed the actual work. It was a typical bait-and-switch operation -- and a total mess.
Lesson Learned:
When you sense something's afoot, it usually is. Trust your instincts, stop work immediately and regroup. More than one (confused) subcontractor is an indication that the job has spiraled out of the realm of what the original contractor can handle.

  • KatieCouric'sNemesis

    Barnum was right--there really IS a sucker born every minute.

    None of this red-flag business is ANYTHING more than common sense business practices. Before hiring ANYONE, you should check their licensing, check with the Better Business Bureau, and previous clients (but don't totally trust that, as some of those "clients" can be relatives of the contractor who will, of course, give glowing references to a family member).

    From where does AOL dig up these so-called "experts"????

  • ripsnortinroy

    I always thought the most fun part of being a good general contractor was when you got to take your clients aside and explain why this is gonna cost ya! More! And more! And more!

    I recall an episode from "This Old House" that started with a split corner board on the backside of the house that needed replacing. It didn't stop until the foundation and most of that wall had been completely replaced owing to an infestation of insects that were the base-born scion of rogue termites and rabid carpenter ants. In addition to eating away most of the wood in the house, these bugs did a whale of a job on the couple's stash of cash. Sad for them, but the contractors could hardly contain their glee!



  • landrades

    yeah i agree cut ur losses!

  • ripsnortinroy

    I recall an episode from "This Old House" that started with a split corner board on the backside of the house that needed replacing. It didn't stop until the foundation and most of that wall had been completely replaced owing to an infestation of insects that were the base-born scion of rogue termites and rabid carpenter ants. In addition to eating away most of the wood in the house, these bugs did a whale of a job on the couple's stash of cash. Sad for them, but the contractors could hardly contain their glee

  • Marie

    When I got to the part about the time line not being kept, I said to myself, "This must be a female." I scrolled back up to see, and sure enough, it was! Not that men don't have problems with incompetent, unscrupulous, unprofessional contractors. But more likely than not, if a woman has contracted the work and she is not 110% on top of things, to the point of being a total beotch, she is going to have a problem. Lesson learned: be the bitch!. But make sure you get everything in writing, including changes. And document everything, too.

  • originlcin

    If there is a timeline, make the payments due when certain tasks are completed. Also, put a penalty phase in the contract if the work goes over a certain deadline. If the contractor knows he will have to pay a penalty, he will stay on top of things. Get it all in writing and don't be afraid to come off as a b---ch! This is man's business and they have thick skins.

  • marc

    The main thing is if you see a price that's very low compared to others, watch out. I do freight and some moving, I tell people this but do they listen? Nope, well this other guy looks so much cheaper. In the end I say they won't be. Women seem to go for this more than men, I read more complaints by them. A little more naive maybe, especially if they are young. Main thing is check the I've gotten ripped off by repair shops and also yeah it was price too. If I'm gonna do something major I always check them out. Found out years ago when I was a kid with a motor job for an old car. This guy wasn't even really cheap, but had a bad record ten miles long. He got sued and sold out to one of his relatives, and another place closed down later. Both had bad records.


  • Scott

    Always check references,BBB and see if anyone around has dealt with the contractor before. Home improvements are a huge project and a contractor can make a fortune while your home is torn apart. Sooner or later/usually later it must be put back together.Never give more than 50% down for materials,clearly stated in proposal/contract and do not start the people on a weekly payroll.Just because you choose to sue someone does not mean you will get your money even if you should win in court.The judge finds in your favor,ok now good luck getting your money.Money trees and magic butts do not exist and I am sure any money paid out has already been spent. Homeowner beware!!!

  • ripsnortinroy

    Forget it. Any girl that gets in touch with you will likely be looking for free or severely discounted medical treatments, not only for herself, but for all of her incredibly large family, too. You'd be too tired for any romance after looking after that bunch! Looks like yer doomed to be a lonely M. D. ROTFLMAO

  • Alva


    What was the outcome? was that contractor held resposible, any type of fraud charges or INS involvement?

  • Jerry6

    Having been a buyer of complex projects for over 25 years, I learned early on to get at least four bids --- The low bidder is automaticly rejected because 1) He either does not understand the complexities of the job, or 2) he intends to do a sloppy job and cheat you. ---The high bidder is too busy to take on your project, but wants to remain on your bid list for possible future work. --- Then you review and clarify everything with the two remaining bidders, and decide on the one to do the work.

  • doc fence

    As a contractor, I wish I had a buck every time I heard this crock of crap. Just another fool and her money, now parted. "You get what you pay for" is more than just an overused catch-phrase and, even though a high price doesn't necessarily guarantee a great job, quality material and skilled labor simply does not come cheap - PERIOD (although stolen material and slipshod labor might).
    Go ahead and blame the thief that ripped you off - he's got it coming - but blame the person in the mirror more. After all, you chose to go "on the cheap" and worse, not to do your homework. And do not complain when legitimate contractors now come back with estimates higher than their original quotes. After all, they now have the added work of demo'ing and correcting mistakes that weren't previously present even before they can get on with the original task. Education is expensive - you now have your degree, what you do with it is up to you.

  • phil

    Doc, you said it well. This lady, who obviously had no general contracting experience, decided to do general contracting on her own. She chose the lowest bidder. (Huge Red Flag!) She paid for work, in advance. (again, something no professional would do), all work was not detailed on the contract, (please rip me off Mr. contractor), Shoddy workmanship and the contractor becoming defensive and threatening (unprofessional contractor..and intimidated homeowner), etc.
    I have been in the home improvement field for years and could cite case after case of the above. There are many rip-off contractors, many rip-off customers. I turn down work on a regular basis. There are some customers I don't need, and I tell them up front. I however, as a professional, will provide you a very detailed estimated time of job completion, (with an exception for acts of god). I will ask for no advance unless detailed in the contract and based on innumerated stages of job completion. I will specify and verify that all work will be completed to either current building code, or where not applicable, in a workman like manner. If you are looking for the lowest price, I will tell you, with a polite, but clear explanation, that you should go to Home Depot, and complete the job yourself.
    I, as a professional, will expect to be paid in a timely manner upon completion of each stage of the job, as it states in a contract with your signature at the bottom. My contract will also state that I will work on the job, weather and acts of God permitting, on a continued and regular basis until job completion. You will be satisfied, I will be satisfied, and our goal is to make this a win-win situation for all parties. Wouldn't it be refreshing if someone had told you this up-front? That's why I am good at, and enjoy my job.
    Please. Expect to pay me well for my services. I am not a shade tree mechanic, nor your unemployed brother-in-law. I will respect your home, your property, your family, and your children. You will respect my time, labor, and professional abilities...or we will shake hands and part friends. Wow. A little mutual respect at the beginning of the work process, before a contract is signed, protects all parties. Maybe I can work for you.

  • doc fence

    Phil, I share your business philosophy so closely, it's almost scary! In fact, I've been known to express, almost verbatim, your sentiments all. Best of luck to you.

  • Andrew

    I agree with this post. I hear it every day in my landscape contracting business, such and such company or individual gave me a price much lower and "I can get it cheaper somewhere else" response to those customers is typically "fine, go ahead and do whatever you's your home" and I walk away. What is the point of busting your behind to give outstanding quality and service if the customer is only asking you to consult with them and make professional recommendations when the customer always knows better and can find a cheaper price.

    Honestly, the consumer price-beating behavior is the VERY thing that is driving the professional companies out of buisness. Similarly, it is promoting the use of illegals. Craftsmanship is dying in America because it's cheaper somewhere else. Oh wait, it's all made in China anyhow.

    Remember, it's cheaper there. Next time some American complains of not having a job, not being able to find a job, or can't hold a job. Just remember that "the cheaper somewhere is else" is exactly what made you not be able to find employment.

  • SusanInFlorida

    Always schedule the work so that the contractor must finish one project beore starting another. Have start and completion dates in your contract, as well as a liquidated damages clause if work is not done to code or on time. Check references, check references, check references!! Make sure your contractor is licensed for the work being performed, has liability insurance and lists you as an additional insured, get preliminary lien notices from the subs and write the checks out to the subs and the contractor to ensure payment to the subs. Make sure the contractor pulls all necessary permits and that the fees associated with the permits are borne by the contractor, not you. CALL THE CITY FOR INSPECTIONS,

  • anita

    object lesson if something seems too good to be true it probably is


    What does being an illegal alien have to do with the quality of someone's work and the honestt of thier business practices? Obviously it is against the law to be here illegally but I don't see what that has to do with someone's workmanship? Really? I have seen illegal's who worked harder and had more skill than U.S. born citizens, Ive seen U.S. born citizens who were hacks and lied, cheated, and stole. I have also seen dishonest and unskilled illegals. I just don't see what being illegal in and of itself has to do with the quality of someon's work?

  • Billy the Builder

    Price price price. At the moment you can get a quote that is so low the job cannot be done. Hence the rip off. We have withdrawn from the market place at the current price level.

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