Dear Angie: How do I get money back from a shady roofer after paying upfront? — Margaret M., Homestead, Iowa.
Answer: Unfortunately, there's no simple answer, and no guarantee that action on your part will result in getting money back.
Avoiding a contractor nightmare is easier than dealing with one after the fact. The way to enhance your odds of a satisfying experience is to be sure you're working with an experienced contractor who has a proven record of reliability and is appropriately licensed, insured and bonded. Pay nothing until you have a detailed, written contract that covers all pertinent matters, including payment terms.
Addressing your immediate concern, I'm assuming two things: First, that you've done everything you can reasonably do to contact the roofer and second, that you paid for work that was either unsatisfactory or never performed.
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Before you take any action, document exactly what happened. Write out a timeline. Take photos. Compile a file of all pertinent paperwork, including contracts, supply receipts and canceled checks.
Here are avenues you can explore:
File a complaint: Contact the local or state contractors' board or other agency and file a complaint. There's a chance the licensing organization can mediate the situation.
If your state has no contractor board, file a complaint with the attorney general's office. Consumer complaints may be made to the Kentucky attorney general's hotline at 1-888-432-9257 or Ag.ky.gov (click on "Consumer Complaints"). The attorney general's office also has a good primer on ways to handle your complaint at 1.usa.gov/1jr0K7Y.
You may also consider taking action through small claims court or by hiring an attorney.
If the contractor was bonded: Requirements vary by state and even locality, but when a company says it's bonded, that usually means there's a guarantee that the contractor will perform the services outlined in the contract, and if he or she doesn't, the customer can report the problem to the bond-issuing agent, often an insurance company, and possibly receive compensation.
When it comes to upfront payments, know about best practices. In general, down payments aren't unusual. Some contractors ask for a small payment to secure your spot on their schedule or help cover early costs, like pulling permits. There are, of course, exceptions that might justify a higher down payment, such as the need for a contractor to place custom orders.
Keep in mind that some states and localities have rules and limits regarding how much can be paid before work begins. California, for example, restricts down payments to 10 percent of the project price or $1,000, whichever is less.
As for future payments, I recommend tying them to job milestones and holding back at least 10 percent until the job is complete to your satisfaction.