Dispute with Contractor on extra fee. Nothing written. How to resolve?
December 2, 2016 2:02 PM   Subscribe

At the end of a 3 month project, the general contractor brings up an extra $1200 charge for work done by a sub that we thought was included. The contractor said he or his sub (he's unclear on this!) told us it would cost more and we agreed. We do not agree. There's no written documentation on this specific issue at all. Now what do I do?

We've spent a ton of money (way over $100K) with a GC to remodel our kitchen, bathroom, and other work around the house. (It's a total contractor's market here. We were "lucky" to find someone to even do a "small" project like this. Silicon Valley economics.)

We've been paying in installments as the project went along. Now, in the final invoice, there's a surprise charge of $1200 for dovetail construction and upgraded lazy susans.

We agree that we asked for both. However, in our recollection, when we talked to his cabinet sub, the guy said "of course" for dovetail, and "no problem" for upgraded lazy susans. (The sub was really patronizing.)

Now the GC is saying that the sub told us it would be $1200 more - that dovetail construction is an unusual request.

A yelling match ensued the day my spouse and the GC met to review the invoice. (I had to take an emergency phone call from work.) The GC said he already paid his sub, and wasn't making any money on this - said we weren't being honest - said we weren't being adults.

This is the point where the smart people would say: "Well, what did the contract say?" Unfortunately, we were total newbies and have nothing written down about these two particular requirements.

In fact - the GC and us cannot even agree on when this conversation happened: before or after the general contract was signed! Heck, it doesn't seem like the GC knows when this conversation even happened. (I believe it was before signing.)

The GC does good work. I have a lot more work that needs to be done. I was really hoping to use him again. But this is a pretty nasty dispute.

I have a meeting with him coming up, since he doesn't want to talk to my spouse.

I was thinking of offering 3 choices: $0 for a great Yelp review, $600 for a good Yelp review that mentions this dispute, $1200 for a Yelp review that's entirely about this dispute.

This feels like it would put him in a corner though, which may further escalate things.

Thoughts on what you would do in this situation? (without building a time machine and getting everything in writing like a smart person would)
posted by Mushroom12345 to Home & Garden (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
With over $100K of work into the project, I would pay the $1200 with the written agreement that all extras with be approved in writing from here on out. And I would acknowledge their awesome work thus far and tell them that everything has to be in writing from here on out. I'm not sure I would apologize for the tone, I might explain that things escalated because the communication process was previously unclear, with a hope to moving forward with the new understanding that everything is to be in writing.

Then I would take notes in a notebook for every conversation, etc., and do that professional follow up thing people do with emails to avoid misunderstandings.

Pray this works out amicably. $1200.00 is peanuts. You don't want this to be a habit on their side, sure. In the end, hopefully the good-cop/bad-cop routine between you and your spouse and these guys works out in your favor. Maybe buy the crew coffee and donuts the next time they are working onsite? Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 2:12 PM on December 2, 2016 [17 favorites]

Forget Yelp, its really not going t make him change his mind. Is he licensed? a report to the authority which licenses his business is much much much more likely to get a result. Here in NYC this would be the Department of Consumer Affairs. It looks like there is a state licensing board in CA.

The fact that it is not in the contract works in your advantage - he has no legal basis to charge you money for something without documented evidence you agreed to it beforehand.

That is if you want to play hardball - as you say you have more work to be done (you'd think that he would have considered that before nickel and diming you for 1200 bucks). We are currently at the tail end of a home renovation project and its become painfully obvious that the entire home renovation/construction industry is just run abysmally when it comes to communicating and delivering things as promised. You could find another contractor for the rest of your work. They could pull stuff like this also.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 2:15 PM on December 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

To my second point above - the honest way to do this would be to get you to sign a change order before doing the dovetail or upgraded ls's that specifies the added scope and outlines the additional cost. The fact that they didn't do this should leave them without a leg to stand on, IF you wanted to force their hand.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 2:16 PM on December 2, 2016 [5 favorites]

But really, what does the contract say? It might be silent on the two 'changes', but how should a change order be handled?

Usually I see the contract is a lump sum, which anticipates change orders are approved. If he can't show that you signed off on the additional expense, he can't bill you for this.

I mean, a 1.2% variance is pretty small, and potentially worth the good will and peace of mind. But that's you giving him a break.
posted by politikitty at 2:19 PM on December 2, 2016 [5 favorites]

You don't want to act out of anger. Your "offer" to the contractor could be construed as extortion. Don't do that.

Even if you don't want to work with this particular contractor again, word would get around that you're a nightmare customer and if you still have more work that needs to be done, that's the last thing you want. The fact that it devolved into a yelling match (over $1,200? Really?) between your wife and the contractor, who you say has already done over 100K of good work, honestly doesn't look good on you guys as the customers. Customers change orders all the time and then get angry when extra charges are incurred. The contractor should've gotten written approval for the extra charges, yes, but since he didn't and you also didn't get in writing that these extras were included, I say "live and learn", especially since you have more work that needs to be done and the amount isn't outrageous in the grand scheme of things.

Pay him and move on.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 2:25 PM on December 2, 2016 [18 favorites]

Of course the sub agreed to everything you wanted, especially as the price went up in his mind. 'of course' and 'no problem' do not mean, 'I'll do this extra work for free'. The GC screwed up by not being in the conversation, and you screwed up by not checking on extra cost, but the sub did what he was asked to do. Does the GC have a lien on your home? You could probably argue that you're going to pay part or none of it, but it's going be a huge PITA.
posted by IanMorr at 2:25 PM on December 2, 2016 [9 favorites]

I wouldn't threaten with Yelp. That seems petty to me. Subs will always agree to do things that get them more money, so hopefully your learned your lesson there.

Can you just sit down and say what you've said here?

"Look, this situation sucks for both of us. I'm very happy with your work and this whole project and for our relationship to fall apart over $1200 would be really unfortunate. I have other work in mind for my house and having already found a contractor I trust, it could really benefit both of us. I've learned a valuable lesson here about documentation and knowing exactly what goes on in my project. How about..."

and then fill in the blank with what you want to have happen.

"... we split the difference and we pay $600."

"... start documenting things much more clearly from here on out. Here is your $1200."

"... you read the contract we both signed, let me know when you put a lien on my house and whom my lawyer can talk to."
posted by cmm at 2:27 PM on December 2, 2016 [10 favorites]

If this is the first sign of shenanigans, I would pay it and then say you will dispute any further charges that don't have a written change order. Seems like at least mostly a genuine misunderstanding here, especially if you would have paid it if you'd been told.
posted by vunder at 2:32 PM on December 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Just to be clear, this is the literally the end of the current project - so there shouldn't be any more change orders from this point on.
posted by FlatHill at 2:40 PM on December 2, 2016

Final invoice means that the project is done, correct? If it's done, let them know that this is the first time you're hearing about this and that you either won't pay or that you'll agree to split the cost (your choice). But, an upcharge that you were never notified of isn't something you need to pay.
posted by quince at 2:48 PM on December 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

You specifically requested the extra work. Did you think it was going to be free? It's not like they're just making up a phantom line item.

Yeah, they messed up by not putting it in writing. You messed up by not putting it in writing. If you want to maintain goodwill with the contractor, just pay it.
posted by LoveHam at 3:54 PM on December 2, 2016 [14 favorites]

There's a legal question and an ethical question here. Legally it's going to depend on what is in the contract and state laws. On the ethical side, if I am reading your question correctly you asked for extra work, received extra work, and are happy with the extra work -- the only missing step was informing you of the price.

If that is correct (as well as in light of the fact that the overage is less than one percent of the total price), I'd pay it and do so with grace and tact. It's a chance to show goodwill, discuss future projects, and also establish a need for better change order documentation going forward.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:00 PM on December 2, 2016 [11 favorites]

Yep, in contract work, especially subcontracted stuff, people will try to add shit on as softball free things and then get mad when they are charged for it. Sometimes you get away with it, sometimes you don't.
posted by Ferreous at 5:02 PM on December 2, 2016

>You specifically requested the extra work. Did you think it was going to be free? It's not like they're just making up a phantom line item.

Actually I did expect to be included - the local cabinet shops and 1 other custom cabinet vendor I talked to said that this request (dovetail construction) was included at that price range.

So it only made sense to me when the guy answered "of course".

And this was before* contract signing - when the total price of the contract fluctuated by thousands on a daily basis because of other unrelated changes. (There were also days where the individual lines of the multi-page contract didn't add up to the total because the guy did everything by hand.)

*I say before. The GC disputes this and says I asked for it after the contract was signed.
posted by Mushroom12345 at 5:17 PM on December 2, 2016

>You specifically requested the extra work. Did you think it was going to be free?
Unless the person doing the work tells me there is a cost increase, and how much, then I would assume it's free. It's not up to the customer to know which changes are cost neutral and which are not.
posted by mrgoldenbrown at 5:21 PM on December 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

You should always get changes in writing. The written contract is all that counts. He would probably lose in a lawsuit but you would lose a contractor you like for $1200. Your call.
posted by JayRwv at 5:42 PM on December 2, 2016

"He would probably lose in a lawsuit, but you would lose a contractor you like for $1200."

Repeated for truth.
posted by jbenben at 6:05 PM on December 2, 2016

They'll just put a lien on your house. It's not particularly difficult -- the work was done as you requested, and you're happy with it. That's not under dispute at all, right? No documentation to boot? Heads up: judges tend to be overwhelmingly sympathetic toward contractors in these cases and generally do not side with people who refuse to pay for work.
posted by halogen at 6:11 PM on December 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

The work is always going to be done as requested. That's the point of the client contractor relationship.

Most requests don't have budget impact. You hadn't decided the color before starting, or you're deciding on drawer pulls, or want to move something a few inches. There are plenty of small details that need to be made, but aren't finalized at the outset, because it would be too expensive to get a full design down to buy list before getting a contract signed.

Sometimes those changes happen late enough in the process, it does incur additional costs than budgeted. Or they're more complicated than the client realized. But as the professional, the duty is on the contractor to disclose when it impacts the budget and when it doesn't.
posted by politikitty at 6:30 PM on December 2, 2016

We've spent a ton of money (way over $100K) with a GC to remodel our kitchen, bathroom, and other work around the house. (It's a total contractor's market here. We were "lucky" to find someone to even do a "small" project like this. Silicon Valley economics.)

The GC does good work. I have a lot more work that needs to be done. I was really hoping to use him again. But this is a pretty nasty dispute.

Your description suggests the nastiness is all from your side, from your spouse screaming at them to you planning on trying to blackmail them, basically.

It is a contractor's market. You feel this was a ton of money. They feel this is a small job.

I suggest you graciously apologize for your spouse's bad behavior, try to smooth things over and show up with a check in hand. Even if you never hire this contractor again, you don't want word to get around that you are a pill and not worth working for when there are other jobs to be easily had that are worth far more money.
posted by Michele in California at 6:50 PM on December 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

You are pulling your hair out over a charge that amounts to 1.2% of the total. And not with someone who has been bad to you. I would pay this after a conversation about why the GC wasn't in the loop, and how to communicate better (eg if you talk directly to a sub, give the GC a heads up, or if the GC brings in a sub, the sub must check in with the GC about any addons) in the future.

Keep on the good side of the GC whom you've liked for the other 99% cost of this job.
posted by zippy at 10:37 PM on December 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

If the scale were any different, I'd have a different answer, but this is $1.2k out of a $100k project. I'd let this go for the sanity of everyone involved and grumblingly pay it.
posted by whitewall at 2:29 AM on December 3, 2016

Welcome to Home Renovations 101, rule #1 is to get everything in writing. EVERYTHING.*

Rule #2 is whenever discussing ANY single variation after you have signed and approved a line-item contract is to ask, "What will this cost? Can you write this up?"

Rule #3 is that you should ALWAYS build in an additional 10% to any project because of things like this happening.

In short, pay your contractor. I get you're frustrated, but this is on you. Pay the person, have your husband apologize for yelling at him also.

*I would also like to add that from your description, your contractor stayed mostly in budget and finished the job as promised. You have NO IDEA how unusual that is and how lucky you are. Projects never being finished, subquality work, "hidden" expenses of over 100% of the original budget, missing contractors, subcontractors never showing up -- sounds like you got yourself a great deal. Enjoy your kitchen.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 5:11 AM on December 3, 2016 [6 favorites]

I would recommend paying him, not so much because you owe it (if it ain't in writing, the GC probably doesn't have a legal leg to stand on), but because 1) compared to the over 100K you've already spent, it's peanuts; 2) you generally like this GC's work and say you have more work to be done; and 3) as you mention, you're in a 'contractor's market', and pissing off this guy (who would talk to other GCs in the area) would make hiring anyone to do that future work a major pain in your butt.

Pay him and chalk it up to experience, also lesson learned: get everything in writing.
posted by easily confused at 6:19 AM on December 3, 2016

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