Should I cave to my neighbor who wants to use an unlicensed contractor to replace our fence?
February 12, 2012 9:43 PM   Subscribe

What would you do if your neighbor wanted to use an unlicensed contractor to replace a shared fence? She claims this is a guy who they have used for decades and she really likes his work.

A storm blew away a fence that I share with my neighbor. It was a run of the mill redwood fence. I just moved into the house so I don't know her very well but she is an insurance agent for the company that I get my insurance through. Because I was in mid-move and she works for the insurance company, she volunteered to gather the estimates to share with me.

She wants me to submit a claim using the estimate of a licensed contractor but then to use her unlicensed guy for much less. She says she has used this guy for decades and loves his work but since he is unlicensed, he won't provide me with a written estimate. That makes me uncomfortable but I know people do stuff like that all the time.

On one hand, building a fence doesn't seem like rocket science so maybe that would be an ok way to go but on the other hand, it doesn't seem legit and I don't want to get in trouble later if the insurance company finds out. I also don't want to end up getting her a "free" fence by paying for all the work without knowing it. She seems pretty set on using this cheaper guy and I don't know how I'd force her to use a more expensive licensed guy.

What would you do?

I am a first time home owner and don't know what to think. To be honest, I am totally mentally/physically exhausted from moving and doing other work to the house. I just want it to get done.

Please share any experiences or insights with me.

Also, my city does not require permits for replacing fences damaged in storms as long as it is a similar design.
posted by dottiechang to Home & Garden (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Why would not being licensed preclude a written estimate? Paper and pencil isn't state regulated, last time i checked. Ask for other references of this guy's work, at the very least.
posted by killy willy at 9:59 PM on February 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

It sounds fine. I used an unlicensed contractor to replace two back porches that were torn off by a storm. He had a great reputation and I was very comfortable working with him. Insurance agent came out, wrote down all the damage and then sent me an estimate for what she thought it would cost to fix it. My guy ignored my deductible and fixed it for just what the insurance company was paying for. There was no written agreement, just him looking me in the eye and telling me he could get it done.
Since she has used her guy for years it should be fine but talk to him first. He probably isn't insured, meaning that if he gets hurt on your property then you pay for it. Ask him if he has ever gotten hurt on someone's property before. You can also get him to sign something saying that he is taking his safety into his own hands and will not sue you out of a home if he shoots a nail through his own toe or whatever.
It sounds like the bigger issue is that the neighbor is being a little pushy about it. It is just a fence, let her win this one.
posted by myselfasme at 10:02 PM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

If it was just a run of the mill fence I can't imagine how bad someone could screw it up if they make their living doing it over the course of decades. S'long as another run of the mill fence appears I wouldn't worry about it.
posted by glip at 10:06 PM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

She wants me to submit a claim using the estimate of a licensed contractor but then to use her unlicensed guy for much less.

This might not even be an option for you; check your insurance policy. The insurance company may want to pay the contractor directly, rather than just hand you cash.

But it might be a valid option, and represents a way for you to save some money. Don't do it unless your policy allows for it -- that relationship is with the company, not your neighbor.

Now, the relationship you need to worry about is this unlicensed and likely unbonded contractor the neighbor wants to use. Many bad thing could happen. For example, he could get injured on the job and come to you seeking damages.

You either need to insist on someone licensed and bonded, or get your neighbor to warrant to you that they are responsible for any damages that might arise from the contractor or from the fence itself. Get that in writing. You don't need a lawyer -- just write out your intentions in plain language.

This is serious. What happens if the unlicensed guy dies in your backyard? Unless you've handled this correctly, that's on you.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:07 PM on February 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, and before someone says, "You're not going to die from building a fence," I'll have you meet one of my ex-neighbors who hired a guy to do something seemingly simple, only to watch him fall off a ladder and break his neck.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:11 PM on February 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

It is true that building a fence is not rocket science; I am not particularly handy, but I have built 50 ft of fence.

The liability issue is real, though. No license means no insurance company would insure him. I'd also worry about the no estimate in writing, especially if you're not the one in contact with him.
posted by wnissen at 10:17 PM on February 12, 2012

Sounds like good advice on still getting a written estimate and getting waivers signed.
The bit that worries me is "She wants me to submit a claim using the estimate of a licensed contractor but then to use her unlicensed guy for much less."
Do I understand this correctly?
Is your neighbor trying to get extra money from the insurance company?
The insurance company that she works for?
posted by calgirl at 10:31 PM on February 12, 2012 [4 favorites]

Am I reading it right in that YOU are responsible for replacing the fence? If so, then take what she is offering as merely a suggestion, and one that is looking to funnel a job to a friend of hers. It might work out well, and you may save some decent $ in the process, but you do not know this fellow and there is a chance, however small, that if something goes wrong you are on the hook for so much more. Not knowing the fellow and him not giving you an estimate of any type? That would preclude me from using them. He may be as great as your neighbor thinks, says. He also may be offering her a kick back for referred services as she seems to be in a position to do this on a regular basis because of her job.

The absolute worst fucking service I ever got was from a insurance adjuster referred contractor who lived in the next State over and pretty much disappeared for weeks at a time, but I had little control over that situation.

Being new to the house and the area and overwhelmed I honestly would take the insurance money and hire a licensed/bonded contractor that has good references online. Tell your neighbor you may be interested in using this other fellow down the road but want some time to settle in, then meet him when you are not pressured to make a decision about something.
posted by edgeways at 10:34 PM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Ugh, I didn't even think about the injury/insurance issue. I was just worried about getting stuck with a crappy fence or ripped off. I tend to be a worry wart about these things, so I am just going to insist we use a licensed guy. I sort of was thinking of "letting her win" since it seemed like a small thing, but I've seen these guys working on her roof and they don't go out of their way to take safety precautions.

posted by dottiechang at 10:35 PM on February 12, 2012

Require that the worker have insurance. In my state, a carpenter can do work without a contractor's license, and still have liability/worker's comp. Liability can't always be waived.

If neighbor submits a contractor bid for 1,000, and the work is done for 500, does neighbor pocket 500?
posted by theora55 at 10:36 PM on February 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

I suspect if it is estimated by the insurance company that the work will cost $1,000, but a contacted does the work for $500 the homeowner keeps the difference.

It may be in this situation the cost of replacement is estimated for (say) $1,000 unlicensed contractor says he will replace for $650, does the job for $500 and gives whatshername $150 for referring the job to him, and the homeowner gets the $350 difference.

(it may also be that she is not involved in it beyond suggesting him as an alternative)
posted by edgeways at 10:48 PM on February 12, 2012

Best answer: When our fence blew down in a storm, the insurance company:
a) paid for the actual costs (i.e., we had to submit a copy of the final bill, not estimates)
b) paid for half of those, since it was a shared fence. Our neighbor did the same for the other half.
So you might want to check with how your insurance company actually handles the claim. Agents aren't always familiar with how the actual claim process works.
posted by Runes at 11:41 PM on February 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Yes, she is trying to get "extra" money from the insurance company she represents. Sort of makes me uncomfortable. I understand it is a common practice but I'd rather not do it myself.

It is totally a 50/50 shared fence and so we do have to work together. I hope she will be reasonable if I insist on getting a licensed guy. If not, then I guess I pay more and get a one sided fence on my side of the property line with the nice side facing my yard. I just hate to get off to a bad start with my neighbor but milking the insurance company and using an unlicensed guy doesn't sit well with me. From what I understand, he works for a general contractor during the week and shows up on weekends to do work on her house. He doesn't want to give me a written estimate because he isn't allowed to do the work and doesn't want to create a paper trail.

Ok, the more I explain the situation, the more I realize I am right to ask for a legit guy. In my defense, my brain is no longer functioning well after the move/remodeling/dealing with the many mistakes of my licensed and above board contractor.

Thanks for your advice.
posted by dottiechang at 12:20 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

For clarity-- the licensing thing totally depends on the state. License does not equal legitimacy.

On the other hand, trying to scam an insurance company doesn't either.

In Maine no license is required-- regardless, in ANY state you should make sure the contractor shows you a copy of his or her insurance policy.
posted by miss tea at 2:54 AM on February 13, 2012

The part that hit me was "she wants me to submit a claim...)

Wait, did you mean that for this SHARED fence only YOU were to submit a claim? If yes, that sounds a little questionable, too.
posted by easily confused at 3:21 AM on February 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

Am I missing something, or is your neighbor asking you to participate in an insurance fraud with her?
posted by slkinsey at 4:57 AM on February 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

To add one more perspective here, I'd be totally uncomfortable with the insurance fraud part of this, but would have zero discomfort with the fence work being done by a guy moonlighting from his regular job, if he did good work, had a good reputation, etc. Most of the guys I know in the trades do side jobs for cash all the time, and this wouldn't worry me unless it was someone I didn't want to hire anyway.

But openly participating in the fraud part? No thanks. If I am going to get in trouble, it is going to be for something big and worthwhile, not a thousand dollars skimmed off of a fence job.
posted by Forktine at 5:11 AM on February 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You need to check who in your jurisdiction does permitting and code inspections.

Because that's what scares me about unlicensed carpenters. They can't pull permits, the city doesn't know to come do an inspection. He fence falls down in a windstorm, or over on little Susie and then the insurance company wants to see permit or inspection on the fence they paid for and there is none.

Then your next loss (replacing the fence again, liability for dead Susie) is not insured.

Yes. This sounds dramatic. Your municipality may not give a damn about how fences are built. But I'd wager $5 that they do, and you need that info from the horse's mouth. Not from neighbor and. Of from mr unlicensed.

Oh. And even if the fence is built to code, some inspectors where I live have authority to require work be dismantled and started over. (this usually happens usually with plumbing and wiring where some steps in the process are no longer visible, but your city other make your fence a wholeot more expensive. They charge extra for delinquent permits.)

Finally, you need to check whether mr unlicensed ever had and lost his license, and why. Licensing is a state thing, permit pulling is local. If you can find previous evidence of license, you can look at his permit history. Also check yelp. collecting references and visiting past job sites is not likely to turn up the horor stories about mis-measured projects, falling down construction, poor attitude, lateness, or any other negative thing.

Now on to what some folks are calling fraud. No, it's not necessarily fraud to use the cheapest bidder. Most insurance companies will send an adjuster to look at damage. Some will have you collect three estimates. Some will send their repair contractor out to give one estimate. The company he. Uses the information they gather to decide how much money to send.

Are you entirely new in this town? Either way, ask around for local recs for licensed contractors. Be specific you want licensed, so nobody gets a bee in a bonnet.

If neighbor sqwuaks, remind her that inspections and permits are for everyone's protection. Tell her your attorney has strongly advised you to have the fence inspected as a liability protection if your location requires it.
posted by bilabial at 5:12 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

This sounds dramatic. Your municipality may not give a damn about how fences are built. But I'd wager $5 that they do

From the question:

Also, my city does not require permits for replacing fences damaged in storms as long as it is a similar design.

I would hope that this advice is coming directly from the city, rather than from the neighbor who is pushing this contractor; assuming it is true (and it absolutely would be in my city), the city does not care who builds the fence and no one will ever show up to do an inspection. As a practical matter, when using an unlicensed guy, it becomes the homeowner's problem to deal with permits. It's usually no big deal (and a lot of that kind of work never goes through the permitting process at all, obviously), but that's part of why it's cheaper -- you aren't getting the same full-service approach that you would if you hired a licensed and bonded general contractor.
posted by Forktine at 5:36 AM on February 13, 2012

Best answer: Jakeleg carpenters are fine if your house is a quarter mile from any neighbors, because what you're doing doesn't affect anybody else.

Two people/one fence does. Do it right. Once you get to know the neighbor a little better, things might change. You haven't even had time to have coffee yet; are you sure you're ready to go into business with her? How about shady business?

Get three bids, and take the personal out of it. If you do take the jakeleg's bid, you can get a rider on your homeowner's insurance to cover project liability and damages (my last rider cost $20.00) that only covers that project.

Also, did this guy build the fence in the first place? Unless it was a tornado, it shouldn't be blowing down in a storm, you know?
posted by halfbuckaroo at 5:51 AM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


She WORKS for the insurance company and she wants you to submit a fraudulent claim to her own company?

I am hardly the paragon of corporate virtue and I have no problem using a random guy to do a fence, but something about that just sounds sketchy and a half to me.

I strongly vote for doing it right, sucking up the difference in cost and sleeping better at night.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 6:17 AM on February 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

You're getting hung up on the guy she wants to use. I'd back way up and ignore everything that she is saying right now. Call your insurer and find out what they do - ask if you can use your own guy. I find that whoever they are recommending to do the work is not always the best so even if you don't use her guy, you want to control who does the work on your property. Then follow their rules and don't let your neighbor bully you. It's your fence, too!

I agree that using someone unlicensed as a contractor isn't necessarily a bad thing. It is just a fence. But, even a fence job can be done crappy. And, frankly, if it's my homeowners claim then it's my guy. Take ownership of this situation.
posted by amanda at 7:19 AM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The one inviolable law of hiring a someone to do work on your property is that they must show that they're bonded and insured for any and all liability that might arise Do NOT take his word for it, even if he shows you paperwork; check directly with whomever he claims to cover him. If he isn't insured, or doesn't want you to check, don't even let him on your lawn, because you'll be on the hook for any injury, to anyone, resulting from the project, as well as any property damage incurred.

Guy in my neighborhood hired the "local handyman", who everyone loved, who showed a bond, and who promptly got seriously injured. Turns out the bond wasn't valid (unclear if it was fake or expired or what). So neighbor not only gets sued for all the handyman's expenses, the handyman claimed it was "negligence" on the homeowners part and tried to get damages. Neighbor is spending a fortune defending himself (including having to file a counter-suit for fraud). Nightmare all around.
posted by kjs3 at 7:43 AM on February 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

She WORKS for the insurance company and she wants you to submit a fraudulent claim to her own company?

I don't think it's necessarily fraudulent. When my truck got hit, the insurance company had me get a few estimates and then cut me a check. I could choose to get the work done, or not done, or fix it myself, or whatever - they didn't care. As it happens, I bought a friend a steak dinner and we fixed it ourselves in his shop.

I think that's what the neighbor is proposing to do - get some estimates, let the insurance payout according to that, and get the work done by a friend for far less.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:50 AM on February 13, 2012

I live in a major city where it's pretty commonplace to skip the extra expense of the licensed contractor for no-risk, simple jobs. I have absolutely no problem with this.

But pressure from someone who works for an insurance company to use "her" unlicensed guy to repair yours-and-her fence? Uhhhhh, yeah, alarm bells.
posted by desuetude at 11:16 PM on February 13, 2012

If he's been doing this work for decades, why isn't he licensed?
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:36 PM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I live in a major city where it's pretty commonplace to skip the extra expense of the licensed contractor for no-risk, simple jobs. live in a peer group that makes bad decisions with regard to risk and liability. Your use of the phrase "no-risk" in a context where it most certainly is inappropriate is proof. Hopefully you won't be the one left without a chair when the music stops, saying " mean the world doesn't work in accordance to my uninformed, preconceived notions?".
posted by kjs3 at 11:40 AM on February 21, 2012

Response by poster: I just wanted to give an update. I got some estimates from licensed fence contractors and found a great company with good reviews that gave us a price that is half of what the unlicensed handyman wanted. It makes sense, since all they do is fences and have a large supply of the materials on hand. They were professional, worked quickly and cleaned when they left. They damaged my rain gutter trying to do something weird to accomodate my nutty neighbor, but showed their professionalism by coming back right away and making a plan with me to fix it. I'm pleased at the price and the quality of the fence is great, so it shows you that unlicensed doesn't necessarily mean cheaper.
posted by dottiechang at 12:19 PM on March 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

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