Resolving Contractor Disputes


The search for the right contractor usually involves asking friends and searching websites. What makes a contractor? The California State Contractors Board requires 3 people to certify the applicant for a contractor’s license. The applicant should have 10 years of experience in their trade and 4 of those 10 years should be in a supervisory position. The applicant may qualify to take the test after they prove their experience.

I started as an apprentice union carpenter helping to construct a large industrial plant one summer during break from my college in Ohio. I was studying to be an Architect and found my niche working with the tools and putting a building together. The carpenters union taught apprentices how to layout a building, cut out the rafters to frame a roof and cut out the lumber to build a circular stairways using a framing square, a level, and hand saws. Plumb, level, and square were the watchwords of the trainer. I moved to California and my first job was framing tract homes. I went from banging walls together, to layout of walls, and then directing all of the framing. I earned my California General Contractor’s license in 1964 and my Engineering Contractor’s license in 1968. I knew how to draw plans, read plans, construct foundations, build framing, and was familiar with other trades like concrete, electrical, plumbing, drywall, stucco, and roofing.

Nobody educated or trained me how to empathize with homeowners. It took some time for me to understand that building, remodeling, or repairing a home meant being responsible for one of the most important possessions in a person’s lifetime. It’s where they live. I thought my job was to build something that someone wanted in exchange for money which I wanted. I also thought the pain the customer was suffering from was inevitable and it didn’t occur to me for some time that transparency and communication could make the job pleasantly memorable. I realize now that most people doing something for another person think and feel that it wastes time and effort to comfort the customer with insider information. Some Contractors may be suffering from a mental condition of disdainfulness because they feel they are the specialist, you’re not, and that makes them think they’re special.

The contractor creates problems by using galvanized steel sheet metal instead of copper sheet metal, or oriented strand board (OSB) instead of plywood, or left the little plastic chevrons off of the corners of the new windows, or covered the stucco’s weep screed with concrete, or doesn’t have worker’s compensation insurance, or lied about getting a permit, or whatever. He made a mess of it.

The contractor messed up and the owner doesn’t want to ever see the contractor again, wants to put them out of business to protect their fellow man, put them in jail if possible, and wants all their money back. There are scalawags in every business and they should be rigorously disciplined, but most of the hard working and stable business people know and want to do the right thing for their customer.

Does the homeowner create problems for themselves? YES. The biggest problem homeowners create is hiring unlicensed contractors. I can’t help you if you did that and it would waste your money and my time if that’s what happened. Next problem homeowners create is over paying the contractor for work that is not completed. Another problem homeowners create is delaying the job by being indecisive when a decision is imperative.

The building Department inspector’s job is to make sure the work complies with the Uniform Building Codes. They don’t inform the homeowner that steel was substituted for copper. They both may meet the standard in the code. If the job is worthy, hire a third party inspector to represent the homeowner and keep them informed.

When both the customer and contractor’s feelings are hurt part of my job is to amend and heal the feelings for my own satisfaction. It doesn’t matter to me if the two parties never get together again. I don’t deal with crabby and disjointed people. Crabby and disjointed people can’t think until their feelings are calmed. It’s much easier and quicker to settle a dispute with people who can think. The contractor will listen to me because I talk sense. Abandonment of a job by a contractor is the worst thing they can do. It’s probably worse than stealing because what’s usually stolen can be restored. Every licensed contractor has a $15.000 bond which can be attached by the Contractor’s Board. The California Contractor’s Board has free arbitration with a $50,000 limit and no attorney participation. Finally an attorney can be hired to litigate the dispute if satisfaction is not forthcoming. I use all the tools that are necessary to satisfy the dispute.