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How to resolve an issue with a contractor

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Author
Dan Holohan
Published
August 11, 2009
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The Internet has become a popular place for homeowners to go ballistic when things go wrong on a job. Sadly, many homeowners use the Internet as their first choice, and that often makes finding a resolution more difficult. So some tips for your consideration before you start cranking up your blood pressure.

Begin with an understanding. I know that by the time you get to a Web site such as HeatingHelp.com it may already be too late. You're trying to find out what to do now that things haven't gone the way you thought they would. But there will probably be another job down the road, and another contractor, so here's my advice.

Explain to your contractor exactly what you expect to have when the job is done. This may be a subjective feeling. For instance, you expect to feel warm in a room that's always felt cold. If you're contracting for a new boiler, that cold room may not be apparent to your contractor. Tell him. Or there may be banging in the pipes that keep you up at night. The contractor is there to change the boiler. Have you told him about the banging pipes? Please do.

You get the idea. Begin with an explanation of what's bothering you, and how you expect to things to be when the contractor is finished. Begin with an understanding and you probably won't need the Internet after the job is done.

Understand the chain of distribution. It works like this. A manufacturer makes a product or a whole bunch of products. They find that it's less expensive for them to contract with manufacturers' representatives than to have their own employees. So they search for reps that have the right mix of products and the right people in the field. They contract with the rep, and almost always for just 30 days. Either party can walk from the deal with a written notice and 30 days. This makes the heating industry very interesting.

The reps sell to wholesalers, or what you might call plumbing & heating supply houses. Wholesalers are all over the place, and there are other, competing, reps stopping by to see those wholesalers every week, trying to get their products onto the same limited shelf space. This is also interesting to watch. It's American business at its best, and it's good for you to know that there are always competitors.

The wholesalers sell to the contractors and the contractors sell to you.

Now consider what happens if there's a problem with a product. You call the contractor. He gets there as quickly as he can. He then has to check with his wholesaler to find out the stauts of the warranty on that product. There are date codes to consider and all sorts of logistics if the product is big and heavy (such as a boiler). The wholesale calls the manufacturers' rep, who may or may not have an answer right away. The rep may have to check with the factory. The replacement product may not be in stock, especially these days when just about everyone is cutting down on inventory. Meanwhile, you're going nuts, and you may even be without heat.

I realize that having this knowledge about the chain of distribution isn't making your home any warmer, but it is what it is. I'm telling you about it because often the contractor has the best intentions, but is being held up by the chain.

My experience is that a good contractor will stand behind the job and make things right for you as quickly as possible, even if it costs him money. These are the contractors that have enough inventory in stock to take care of you, and enough money in the bank to rise to the occassion and then take it up with the chain afterwards. Rarely, will that contractor be the low-bidder on any job.

Buyer beware.

Don't threaten to sue. Everything stops at that point. Your lawyer will be talking to the contractor's lawyer and your blood pressure will be rising. Stay calm and talk it through. Most contractors are homeowners too. Keep talking and you'll find a resolution.

Don't take the battle online. Calling someone names on the Internet just makes things worse. A better use of the Internet (and sites such as HeatingHelp.com) is to ask for the name of someone who is a few links in that chain. Trust me; that person cares about your experience with the product. He or she wants you to be happy. A phone call to the right person can often shake things loose and resolve the conflict your having with the contractor.

Accept that nothing lasts forever. We replace our cars, our computers, our furniture, our appliances, our TVs and radios and everything else every few years. And yet, we expect heating equipment to last for the rest of our lives. It won't.

I've seen boilers do a fine job of keeping a house warm for 20 years, and then there's a problem. Maybe the boiler develops a leak, and this is often caused by poor maintenance or acidic or hard water. Is it reasonable for the homeowner to think that the boiler is still in full warranty, and that he or she is entitled to a free replacement? What would your car dealer say about that sort of thinking? How about the guy at your computer store?

Nothing lasts forever. Not even heating equipment. Accept it.

Appreciate that the contractor isn't looking for problems. I've never met a contractor who wakes up in the morning and says, "Hmm, who can I cheat today?" The contractors I've met are reputable businesspeople who care about their reputation in the community. They want your business again, and they want your neighbors' business as well. If you stay calm and try the things I've suggested, I'll bet you two can work it out.

Give it a try.