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When a job goes bad, is the contractor the only one at fault?

Joe and Delma MendozaThere’s a story being reported in newspapers and TV stations around Southern California about a solider who returned from Iraq to find his house in Highland, California, a disaster from a remodel gone bad.

You can see different versions of the story on Contractor bails on soldier’s renovation on KABC-TV, Who do you trust? Not unlicensed contractors in the Highland Community News and Soldier returns from Iraq to nightmare at home in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. There are tears and blame and recriminations from the soldier’s wife, who was overseeing the project.

So here’s where we all say in unison: That bad contractor! Shame on him!

But as I scour each article and get different parts of the story, I keep wondering about the missing information. What exactly did the contract say? How much was quoted for how much work? What were the agreements from each party? Information about that critical document — the contract, if there was one — is nowhere to be found in these articles.

But here are some parts of the story, as indicated by the various news-gathering organizations, and some added thoughts.

• First and foremost, one article quotes the "contractor" admitting he is not licensed as a contractor at all, but as an architect, and he had various reasons why that was so. In this state, it is illegal to do more than $500 of home improvement work without being licensed by the California Contractors State License Board.

But what I didn’t read in any of these articles is how this contractor came to be hired by this family. When they checked on his license status and they found he had no license, why did they hire him? And if they didn’t check on his license status, why not? Do they also hire unlicensed attorneys and doctors? Even a beautician should be licensed.

• Also, the various stories quote the homeowners saying the contractor took $86,000 for the work and didn’t complete it. The contractor is quoted as saying it was a $103,000 job and that the homeowners ran out of money to finish it. I have no idea what the real story is, but I can tell you that both scenarios are plausible. Ask any legitimate, trustworthy, successful contractor and you’ll find stories of homeowners who, for one reason or another, did not fulfill their part of the bargain. It’s not always the contractor who is at fault.

• And finally, the homeowners are quoted as saying that other contractors have come by and told them only $25,000 to $30,000 worth of work had been done. I’d like to point out that these contractors have no skin in this game, are not testifying under oath, and the lower the number they come up with, the more justified the homeowners feel in their anger. I would be highly suspect of these numbers.

Obviously this is a tragic event, and this soldier and his family deserve a serene, nurturing home to live in. But simply defaulting to the "contractor is a bum" position does not help any of us avoid getting ourselves in this situation.

The real issue is: How much time and effort did this family spend researching their contractor? It’s been said that people spend more time researching a $100 hotel room than they do the contractor who will execute a $100,000 remodel.

It is my hope that nobody reading this blog will ever put their home, their family and their finances into such a risky situation. If you need help researching a contractor, e-mail me at and I’ll give you some tips on how to do that.

(Photo: Highland Community News)

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