How to best resolve a dispute with a home contractor

Hand shake of engineer and building contractor on table. / Photo credit: Getty Images/iStock/10255185_880

The final column in our painful moving saga concludes today by continuing the right moves to resolve your trials and tribulations. Sure, that expensive - at least to your family - undertaking may have turned out to be a lovely conclusion, but the stress was so intense, every hair on your head turned gray during the debacle. Let's see what other options consumers "enjoy" to help resolve their dispute.

Arbitration clauses often are integral in dispute resolution cases, and professional arbiters can help fairly with a settlement. Even if no clause is included, you may be able to get the contractor with whom you are having your disagreement to agree to an arbitration proceeding to avoid dragging him or her into court. The objective in our current litigious society is to get the parties to present their case to an impartial third party (the arbiter) who will then render a decision. Whether it is binding or not is a question of the paperwork; for instance, did everybody sign a written agreement upfront guaranteeing compliance to the decision of the arbiter?

Fortunately, it goes without saying that cooler heads do prevail, and sitting down in a room with this mindset and a "leader" to try to solve the problem may succeed. I might add an option not usually mentioned is to use Mr. Trump's reality punchline, "You're fired!" if a contractor doesn't perform quality work or - in my case - doesn't work on the property consistently. Shoddy work will require fixing by a competent contractor, plus it may cost extra to undo the poorly completed work. Several years ago, we once hired a contractor to enclose a porch; the work was so substandard that we went through five other folks before the screened porch was effectively completed!

And, even if the project begins to turn out like you envisioned yet complications still ensue, use every bit of the documentation you've been noting over the course of the assignment, particularly if you've lost time and money plus gained a bunch of those gray hairs yourself, and terminate the contract. Do not, however, think Carolyn Contractor will set back and smile; in fact, prepare to defend your ground when she demands payment. Along this same line, I would urge readers to consult a lawyer first before the firing, especially before you either find yourself the plaintiff or defendant in a court of law!

One reason to use licensed contractors is that you can report problems and disputes to the state licensing board; check your state's own board for more info. To maintain an unsullied license, contractors often correct the problem rather than risk their permit being pulled. If the contractor is unlicensed or the licensing board refuses to take on your complaint, then request mediation or arbitration. The two are similar but in mediation, the parties can choose to ignore the mediator's recommended solution. On the other hand, an arbitration solution is not a recommendation; it's a Hey you gonna-do-what-I-say-and-do-it-now!)

Let's imagine that none of the previously discussed measures work for whatever reason, and the Robe of Justice calls you and your attorney to the courthouse:

* Compile all paperwork. Before taking the first step, always document the contractor's efforts and lapses. Take photos before work begins and at each stage of the renovation.

* Keep copies of all written communication. Save all emails, texts or any photos sent back and forth. For verbal communication, keep a log of each conversation and be sure to get any important agreements in writing.

* Compile canceled checks or other payments. If you can't prove that you paid a contractor, then there's no way to recover the money.

Nobody truly wants a day in court and suing a contractor is no exception. Definitely a last resort, it's expensive, time-consuming, and leaves you open to counter suits. Nevertheless, when Caroline or Carl don't contractually complete a job - even allowing for a few days' overages - or when you're discombobulated as to what action to take when he or she performs poorly, then court may be your final recourse.

Finally, legitimate dissatisfied customers can file complaints and post public reviews, such as at the Better Business Bureau, where many businesses keep a profile and rating, and Angie's List, Google and any other public websites you can find. Just be very careful not to defame the culprit or you'll for sure end up in court. Do not ever state as fact that, Head Honcho is unprofessional and his work isn't worth two cents. Rather, always specify, "In my opinion, HH acted in a most unprofessional manner when he failed to abide by our contract." According to many exceptional attorneys that yours truly has interviewed over the years across many states, making your assertions as what you feel, rather than as fact, protects you all the way to Judgment Day.

Contact Ellen Phillips at

photo Ellen Phillips