Consumer's Edge: Here's why you should get signed estimates from contractors

Donald Duncan, here with wife Mary, thought he was being overcharged for a home air-conditioning repair job.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Donald Duncan, here with wife Mary, thought he was being overcharged for a home air-conditioning repair job.

Nowadays, everyone seems skeptical — and for good reason.

Scams, fraud and abuse run rampant, with consumers often on the wrong end when deals go bad.

Donald Duncan believed he had fallen victim to an air-conditioning company he thought was preying on him because he was a senior of 80 years.

But Duncan's case reveals more simple truth than perhaps anything nefarious: Consumers should make sure they clearly understand what to expect when contracting for services.

On July 29, Duncan contacted Harrington Air Conditioning Inc. of Pinellas Park to check his air-conditioning unit at the Five Towns Condominiums in St. Petersburg.

A $75 diagnostic test identified a leak that a repair worker would fix the next day. When he arrived July 30, he said the job would cost "a couple hundred dollars."

When he finished the job, he handed Duncan a bill for $450 — $375 for the repair work and $75 for the previous day's diagnostic.

Duncan paid $375, all but the diagnostic fee, even though he believed the worker had overcharged him. So Duncan traveled to Harrington to protest.

"When something like this happens, we don't eat. We don't get our prescriptions," said Duncan, noting the difficulties of seniors on fixed incomes.

He said he raised the issue because of concern not only for himself and his 84-year-old wife, Mary, who has Alzheimer's disease, but also for other seniors who might be vulnerable to unfair practices.

The company reimbursed Duncan $175, noting on an invoice that the "customer was quoted $200 for the repair."

Harrington, albeit under protest, acted on its own to try to satisfy Duncan's complaint, indicating that the 31-year-old firm wasn't trying to take advantage of an octogenarian.

In fact, the company showed some integrity not common enough these days, by reimbursing the consumer money without pressure from law enforcement or the media.

Harrington now tells its workers to clearly inform customers what the prices are before starting the work. And the customers are asked to sign off on it before the work begins.

"We want all our customers to be happy," said Barry Creasy, Harrington's service manager. "You can't make everybody happy, but we try to make our customers happy."

Creasy said the company has offered Duncan a free checkup next year.

So here's the Edge:

• Get more than one estimate. Whenever you search for a new contractor, it is important to get three estimates to get a good sense of what the work should cost. Depending on the service, many companies will give you a free estimate.

• Understand the cost up front. Don't accept such phrases as "a couple hundred dollars" or "a few hundred dollars." Ask the contractor to be clear and get it in writing.

• Review your bill. Take a look at the costs and review the itemized bill to ensure accuracy. And don't hesitate to protest questionable charges.

• Deposit your money with the court. If you don't agree with a charge but honestly intend to pay for the services, you can deposit the money with the courts to show good faith until a disputed issue is resolved. This is often useful for car repairs as a way to get your car back while you challenge the bill.

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and find the Consumer's Edge on Facebook.

Consumer's Edge: Here's why you should get signed estimates from contractors 08/06/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 6, 2010 9:39pm]

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