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In this tough economy, it's buyer beware as bartering increases

Nonie Slaughter surveys erosion behind the new seawall at her home near Tampa Bay. Her situation shows a bad aspect of bartering — when a deal goes sour there’s not much recourse.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Nonie Slaughter surveys erosion behind the new seawall at her home near Tampa Bay. Her situation shows a bad aspect of bartering — when a deal goes sour there’s not much recourse.

OLDSMAR — Nonie Slaughter thought she had found someone on Craigslist willing to build a seawall behind her home. She's one of thousands who have turned to the site to barter, especially in the foreclosed state she calls home.

But the 55-year-old retired caterer ultimately got duped. Now, she starts her day by scouring over Craiglist's barter listings, looking close at her computer screen for her former bartering partner's name, Nick Kane.

When she finds him, she posts a counter ad letting the world know that her deal for a new seawall went bad, eroding-backyard bad.

Each time it rains, a little bit of her yard washes out into the bay, she writes, because Kane did not put netting behind the wooden wall. The floating dock? It barely floats. And the deck footers? She never even saw a hole dug in the ground.

"Just sparing someone else the calamity of doing business with this shyster!" she writes in one counter ad. "Any questions please email and I will gladly send pictures of his work!"

An ancient form of exchange, bartering has become a way to get by, whether for roof repairs or for groceries to feed a hungry family.

Floridians are particularly keen on bartering, according to Susan MacTavish, spokeswoman for Craiglist. In the Tampa Bay area alone, bartering traffic over the past two years has increased by 280 percent. There's a similar story in Miami, where the kind of deals made with a handshake have shot up more than 300 percent in the past year, MacTavish said.

Sites like swapthing.com have become popular, allowing users to join "swapcircles" where they can exchange services, skills and goods with others who live in the same area.

Seffner resident Elizabeth Simons, who works as a computer programmer, regularly barters her computer skills on Craigslist for services and items that she needs. She has agreed to create Web sites in exchange for housecleaning services and has received gift cards for purses that have sat in her closet for years.

"In the last six months, I've started using the Internet a lot to freecycle," said Simons, 30. "I have so much stuff in my house that I don't need. So why not trade it for things that I do? There's no reason not to barter, we put so much value in money and buying things."

But not all deals go well. Just ask Slaughter.

She saw Kane's ad for seawall work back in June. She had company visiting for the Fourth of July and wanted her backyard, located on a peaceful canal just a few kayak paddle strokes away from the bay, to look good for the guests.

She had him come over to the house, where he assessed the work that would be done. As an added safety measure, Slaughter had a carpenter friend grill him. He gave all the right answers about which supplies he would use and how he would complete the job.

At first, Slaughter and Kane entered into a traditional business deal. She paid $6,000 for work to commence. But then Kane ran out of supplies and asked for more money to complete the job. Slaughter refused, but the pair struck a deal. Kane would keep working if Slaughter provided supplies.

But soon after, Kane left.

He never returned her phone calls and never came back.

Kane also didn't return calls from the St. Petersburg Times. He is not licensed with the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

Situations like Slaughter's also bring about questions of barterer's rights. What recourse does one have if a deal goes bad?

While oral agreements and e-mail can be enforceable in court, it's usually just not worth it to hire a lawyer, said Tampa consumer lawyer Craig Rothburd. Especially if a deal is $15,000 or less.

That's what Rothburd usually tells those seeking recourse for small claims.

"It's a sad statement, but it's accurate," Rothburd said. "With the legal system the way it is now, overcrowded with foreclosures and high filing fees, it's usually not worth it to hire an attorney. You don't want to spend $14,000 to get back $15,000."

At the end of the day, it's "super buyer beware" for consumer-to-consumer deals, he said.

That's the outlook Valrico resident Forrest Scott takes. A roofer by trade, he regularly exchanges repairs for just about whatever people offer. He has traded for everything from auto body work to horseback riding lessons over the years.

Once, a woman offered him sex in exchange for work on top of her house.

"I told her, 'I can't do that. I'm with someone,' " he said.

Besides one deal that resulted in an upset customer, bartering has proven to be useful, he said. "Especially in this economy."

Despite her unfinished backyard and headaches over how she will come up with the money to get her seawall refinished, Slaughter said she'll continue to use bartering to get things that she needs.

"It just depends on the standards of the people you deal with," she said. "We all need to be working together and helping each other to pull us through this economy."

To her, a handshake means more than a written contract any day.

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com, or (813) 661-2454.

Words of caution

Craiglist reminds users to read safety instructions on every page of its site. Find some below, and at: www.craigslist.org/about/safety.

Made your deal? Here are a few tips from Craigslist to remember when meeting someone for the first time:

•Insist on a public meeting place like a cafe.

•Tell a friend or family member where you are going.

•Take your cell phone.

•Consider having a friend accompany you.

•Trust your instincts.

In this tough economy, it's buyer beware as bartering increases 08/08/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 10, 2009 2:06pm]
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