What do you do after you have taken steps to find a good contractor and still find yourself in a dispute over the job?
It's the question Sheila Merrill keeps asking about the roof work she contracted for in July but hasn't seen completed to her satisfaction.
She picked a contractor previously used by someone she knew. She checked the contractor's license and insurance. And she found very little to speak of as far as complaints in the contractor's 30-year history.
Even so, Merrill is facing a potential $5,200 lien on her Largo home because of money owed to the contractor. She says she's not satisfied with the work that, at times, left pools of water 2 inches deep on her new flat roof.
"I don't feel I should have to pay for a roof I didn't get," Merrill said.
Merrill's kind of case is one of the toughest for consumers. It's a lot easier when the contractor is running a scam — operating without a license, taking money and not doing any work.
But when a dispute arises with a legitimate contractor over the quality of the work, things get messy. Several agencies — as they did with Merrill — automatically say, "it's a civil matter."
That's government speak for, "you'll just have to take him to court," a problem for many people because of the legal fees involved. But there's nothing criminal about poor workmanship. And in some cases, the consumer isn't always right.
While a lawsuit might ultimately be necessary, in Merrill's case — as with many I have encountered — she did not follow the avenues available to her.
The most important step is to file a complaint and to file it with the appropriate agency.
Merrill did neither.
In a case such as Merrill's, roof contracting disputes sometimes can be easily resolved.
Rod Fischer, executive director of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, says a complaint triggers action by his agency to review whether work meets legal requirements. If it doesn't, his agency can mandate the contractor work on the problem until it is fixed.
For example, state law requires contractors to repair new roofs they installed if they leak or if puddles of water sit on a flat roof for extended periods of time. That doesn't mean that a flat roof can't ever have a pool of water on it.
"Flat deck roofs are not supposed to hold water for more than 48 hours," Fischer said. "And if the roof is leaking, that's a violation of the building code.
"If she will give us a complaint, we will pursue it," he said. "But we can't make somebody file a complaint."
The roofer, Oakhurst Contractors, says it has tried to accommodate Merrill. Roc Spadaccino, owner of the third-generation business, said there was a problem with an easement that the company repaired, but he said Merrill hasn't been willing to work with Oakhurst to find a solution.
"I'm upset about this, too," he said. "We met all obligations."
Spadaccino, who collected no money up front for the work, said he plans to move forward with a lien on her property until she pays.
So here's the Edge:
• File a complaint. When you can't get resolution to your dispute with a contractor or business, filing a complaint can provide a mediator for you that helps bring about a mutual resolution to the problem. Two places to start are the Pinellas Department of Justice and Consumer Services at www.pinellascounty.org/consumer/ or (727) 464-6200 and the Hillsborough Consumer Protection Agency at www.hillsboroughcounty.org/consumerprotection/ or (813) 903-3430. If they can't help, they can point you to the right agency.
• Deposit the money with the court. If a contractor files a lien against you and you are in dispute over the work, you can deposit the money owed with the court through the case number of the lien. The court then resolves the dispute and awards the money appropriately. It shows good faith on the consumer's part. This also works for such disputes as car repairs, allowing you to get your vehicle while the court decides the dispute.
Ivan Penn can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and find the Consumer's Edge on Facebook.