Is it unethical to threaten bad reviews in a dispute with a contractor?
September 5, 2016 9:04 PM   Subscribe

A home repair project has turned into a disaster and now we're at odds with our contractor over payment.

My wife and I hired a guy to repair some walls and a ceiling in our home after water damage. In the past we'd had lousy experiences with contractors, so this time around we tried to be better about reading reviews. Our guy had decent reviews, and was one of only a handful of contractors in town offering this kind of work. He advertises his "status" on angie's list, home advisor, etc.

The project went south from the start due to careless demolition that deeply scratched our wood and tile floors and quickly progressed into a week of blown commitments, cost increases, delays and subpar work (tape showing in joints and corners, etc.). We let him go last week after he failed to show up to wrap up the project for the third day in a row. He begged us to forgive him and asked us not to "slander him online." In an effort to make this whole nightmare end my wife said we'd let it go as long as he didn't hold us responsible for the second half of agreed-to payment, since the work was unfinished (we still don't have a shower). It's been a stressful time for the whole family.

He has since sent us an invoice for remaining payment, which we do not agree to, and threatened a contractors' lien on our home. We'd pay the full amount to avoid this hassle, but at that point we'd go ahead and provide honest reviews of the work. Home Advisor has been e-mailing for a week to ask "how'd it go," and it's tempting to just let loose. Neither of us have ever even once left a bad review for a service, restaurant or product but in this case we really feel that other potential customers should be aware of their unreliability.

We're unsure of what to do, having not been in a similar situation previously. Is it unethical or too vindictive to basically make it clear to them that full payment will result in a justified, scathing online review? Or to use it as leverage for a compromise, which we'd consider?
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think it is perfectly ethical to dispute the fee, and to leave a scathing (but honest and detailed with fact) review. I do not think it is right to use the threat of a bad review to reduce payment. You should give honest reviews online - that protects people from what happened to you. It is only slander if it's untrue, so give the facts of the matter without emotion. And it's unethical to give a good review for bad work. You should dispute the payment - they didn't finish the work, and caused damage.
posted by DoubleLune at 9:21 PM on September 5, 2016 [24 favorites]

I wouldn't call it "unethical". I do, however, think it's pretty lame. It has a "I'll tell mommy on you!" air to it.

It's also risky. He might sue you for libel if you actually did it. Perhaps, if you're very careful to not say anything you can't prove then you might successfully defend, but even winning a suit like that is punishment.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:21 PM on September 5, 2016

I mean, either he does a shitty job, doesn't fix it, and charges you, in which case you can give a shitty review, or he does a shitty job, fixes the mess, and agrees to an acceptable price with you all, in which case you can give a fair review. Don't promise you're not going to give him a bad review because he doesn't "want" you to, who cares.
posted by stoneandstar at 9:24 PM on September 5, 2016 [17 favorites]

It would only be unethical if you were to post an untrue account of what occurred. I don't think there's anything wrong with making it clear that you'll be writing a review of this experience and the only thing now is whether the review reflects a satisfactory resolution to the situation.
I wouldn't state it as an offer to refrain from a review in exchange for the release of the second payment. The release of the second payment should be because he didn't finish the job in a satisfactory manner, don't muddle that with new offers of exchange.

You should also look into any service guarantees that Angie's list and home advisor might offer you for finding the contractor through their service.
posted by Karaage at 9:32 PM on September 5, 2016 [5 favorites]

When I post a review, I only post the facts and let the reader draw the conclusion. I never say "this is a bad whatever", I don't say "don't go to this place", I simply describe what happened.

At this point, what's done is done. I think it's unethical on his part to ask you not to be truthful about that, even for a discount. Sounds like another fact that belongs in the review, to me. Maybe he would like you to include that he didn't charge you for his mistakes? He has the power to make that a fact.
posted by ctmf at 9:39 PM on September 5, 2016 [11 favorites]

I would take a lot of pictures first. Then, I would negotiate a final payment. I would not agree to payment in full if he did not finish it. Send him the pictures. I think it is ok to agree to not review him online if you come to a resolution about the cost. I think it is ok to make it clear that if the final resolution is full payment in order to avoid the hassle of going to court, that you have no incentive to not leave an accurate accounting of the experience. Under no circumstances would I agree to a good review in exchange for a lower bill unless the service provided was indeed good.
posted by AugustWest at 10:16 PM on September 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

Don't pay the second half and don't write any review. Most likely he'll give up after a while and you will have saved enough to pay someone to put it right.
I've had all this, and stopped hiring contractors based on online reviews and reverted back to proper old word of mouth.
posted by Coda Tronca at 1:39 AM on September 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

You didn't say how big the project was, or how close it is to completion, but I think it's important to be clear about what fraction of the work has been done. If there's a threat of a lien, then I think you'd better have a solid basis for the amount of payment that you withhold. One way to do this would be to hire someone else to finish the job, and deduct that second contractor's price from the final payment to the first guy. It doesn't make any sense to try to keep 50% of the price if the job is 90% done, regardless of how frustrated you are. Imagine trying to justify that to a judge.

However it's resolved, you should feel free to leave an honest review. Using the threat of a bad one as leverage would not be a good idea.
posted by jon1270 at 4:10 AM on September 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

In some jurisdictions, saying "I will post a bad review of you, unless you agree to lesser payment" is actually a crime. Extortion. (Similar, in the eyes of the law, to "Pay me $x or I will tell people the following embarrassing true thing about you ...") Don't do it.
posted by sheldman at 4:57 AM on September 6, 2016

Your honest review on a website does not need to be part of the discussion. What does your contract say? Payment is generally contingent on delivery of a product (in this case, you are paying both for services and for a complete physical product). If you didn't get a complete product, dispute that using evidence (photos and list of needed work to reasonably complete the project). If the damages were not repaired, include that. Make an estimate for the remaining work using either the contactor's own estimate, if itemized, or by getting another estimate. That estimate is the amount for which you might reasonably refuse payment. Send a letter/email offering the second payment less the amount for the remaining work. Don't talk about online reviews. Involving a lawyer would be a good idea as well, especially of this is not a small amount of money for you or if your contract is unclear.
posted by zennie at 5:21 AM on September 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

A contractor's lien is a Real Thing, and (depending on your contract) can affect your mortgage. Read your contract with this guy, and maybe consult a lawyer if you really don't want to pay.
posted by dbmcd at 5:35 AM on September 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

Thanks to all for your input. To clarify a few things: the total cost of the project at last count was $3600, and we have paid half of that. There never was a contract (lesson learned). This is not a small amount of money for us, but we would pay it to avoid a hassle, especially as we are on the verge of putting the house on the market for sale. Finally, under no circumstances would we give a good review in return for a cost reduction, just no review.

Based on what everyone said (especially the scary word "extortion!") I think we'll go ahead and pay off the project and give honest reviews in the spirit of making such online services accurate and useful to future customers.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 5:41 AM on September 6, 2016

I'm a little confused as to how someone can threaten a contractor's lien when there was no actual contract, as you indicated in your last post. Obviously there is likely ways to prove that you agreed to the price based on services rendered, but I'm not sure the contractor has the same legal recourse without a written document.

Of course you are correct that the lack of a written document also reduces your chances of any legal recourse. I'm happy that you now understand the need for a contract for any kind of similar work. I hope you mention that when you discuss the issue with friends so that they don't make the same mistake.

Finally, make sure that you avoid emotion in any review. Too often it can be the tone of the review that will be more incendiary than what you actually say. You also want to read the review carefully before posting to make sure that you have provable points. It's more difficult to sue for libel when the issues can be objectively shown.

Good luck!
posted by jwt0001 at 5:52 AM on September 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Based on what everyone said (especially the scary word "extortion!") I think we'll go ahead and pay off the project and give honest reviews in the spirit of making such online services accurate and useful to future customers.

The contractor threatening a lien on your house unless you pay him for work that hasn't been done (?) could also fall under the category of "extortion." Is the $3600 for work already done, or was that supposed to be the full amount for the finished project? I wouldn't pay for work he didn't do.
posted by lazuli at 6:09 AM on September 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

OK, so basically you already paid $1800 and the contractor wants another $1800. Call a lawyer, get a quick consultation. Yes, a contractor's lien is a real thing, but if you get the lawyer to send a letter that may be all that's needed. Definitely don't make the review a part of this, and don't leave a review until it's all over. Once it is, leave a negative one and just make it factual. When I leave negative eBay feedback it's basically "Paid for item. No item, no contact. Disappointing." Keep it factual.

I don't see any reason to pay the second half considering that the work isn't done.
posted by Slinga at 6:17 AM on September 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

Is the guy licensed? Reporting the issue to the state contractor's licensing board might have more teeth than some online review.
posted by LionIndex at 6:41 AM on September 6, 2016

The contractor threatening a lien on your house unless you pay him for work that hasn't been done (?)

Yeah, but arguably part of the reason the work wasn't finished is that they fired him (We let him go last week...). He might plausibly argue that the work was 99% percent done, so the OP needs to either pay or have a rock-solid argument for whatever amount is withheld. Arbitrarily holding back 50% simply because that's how much they've still got control of is not going to be defensible.
posted by jon1270 at 7:07 AM on September 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

This seems so straightforward: you paid for him to do a project; he did not complete the project. It doesn't matter that you fired him. He's asking for money for a thing you didn't receive. He can and should be told to piss off.

Tell him to stop harassing you and that if he feels the need to contact you again, he should do it via his attorney. Remind him of the agreement, make your own threats noting that you feel he is harassing you, trying to extort money and run a con, that you do not have an issue with escalating things to court, etc, etc, and then will hold him responsible for the damage to the floors, the visible taping and so on. (Hopefully you have already taken loads of careful photographs.) Do not discuss reviews; "We're beyond that now" might be a suitable response if he brings them up again. If he is that desperate for that bit of cash after BSing you and doing a terrible job, it is a wonderfully safe bet that his business abilities and smarts are garbage and he doesn't have the ability to pursue this beyond briefly being a pest to you. All of this is how con men, not ethical tradespeople, behave.

Here, any attorney will give you a free initial consultation; my understanding is that in jurisdictions where this is not the case, it is at least cheap to interview one at the get-go. I would talk with one to reassure myself and make sure I (or other internet randoms) are not giving you terrible advice for your part of the world.

Wait a while, and leave factual, unemotional reviews. (Your review will probably better for the delay, too; you'll be more detached and more able to focus on the shoddy work and review/$ extortion attempts rather than 'total @#$! jerk! AVOID!')

I am really sick of these sorts of dirtballs. I would be very, very confident that he will drop the matter quickly. Do keep in mind that a person with such poor skills and such poor ethics is extremely unlikely to go after you legally. After being scammed by a plumber and registering complaints with the BBB and Ontario College of Trades, one thing I discovered, from his written response to the BBB, was that the guy could barely string a sentence together. He couldn't have done anything to me legally without paying quite a lot to an attorney; the poor lad couldn't write, could not have taken things to small claims court or otherwise escalated without paying somebody a lot of money to...write. His literacy level was so low I don't think he fully understood anything that was going on. Which explained a lot about the whole experience with him; he was a moron, living a hand-to-mouth existence trying to get by on simple jobs that he could do an okay job on. Mine was less simple, he claimed skills he did not have, left me worse off than I had been before. Because...moron. Do not discount the high odds that a big part of the problem is that the man is simply pretty stupid (and unethical to boot). Why else is he advertising himself as a person who can fix things when he can't fix things?

The Ontario College of Trades took over a year to respond and the response was remarkably useless; they were toothless and inept and left me with another thing to be irritated over, but the fact that they and the BBB had at least been a time suck to him was pleasing to me. The only mentions of his rag-tag business on-line are my write-ups, including the one on the BBB site -- I am Canadian and rural and unfortunately reviews count for a bit less here, but... Your jurisdiction may vary as far as governing bodies go.
posted by kmennie at 10:23 AM on September 6, 2016

Hello again all -- here's a followup: we sent the contractor a letter outlining our concerns with the project and extensive photos of the work, floor and fixture damage and screenshots of texted commitments that were unfulfilled. Without directly threatening to post reviews, I did ask for a compromise amount to cover the work that had been completed. They responded that they were very sorry and had not realized the extent of the floor damage (I had covered it with cardboard after the first day to prevent further abuse). He said he would take what we had already paid and call it a day, and would "communicate better" with future customers about timelines, commitments and expectations. I feel good about the way it all worked out.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 12:33 PM on September 6, 2016 [11 favorites]

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