Brenda Banasiak needed some minor plumbing work done in her Plainfield home.
She wanted someone trustworthy, she said, so she asked for recommendations.
Another professional she’s worked with before recommended Michael A. Blair. Banasiak called, and they set a time for Blair to come to the home on May 7 for a free estimate.
“He seemed to know what he was talking about, and walked through the house looking at the job,” Banasiak said of Blair’s May 7 visit to her home.
The job would entail replacing the bathroom faucet and vanity, the kitchen faucet, and fixing an inside-the-cabinet on/off valve. The bottom shelf under the cabinet collapsed because of a prior leak, she said. Also needing replacing was an 8- to 10-foot section of pipe, and the outside water fixture also needed fixing and sealing. Finally, the job would include sealing and reinforcing a basement door.
“Michael gave me a price, and wrote up the estimate for a total of $310,” she said. “He asked for a deposit. In good faith I gave Michael $150 in cash. He deducted the deposit from the write-up.”
The estimate was for the labor only. The two agreed to talk on May 12 — a Monday — so they could arrange a meeting at a home improvement supply store to pick up the needed parts.
But Blair never called, she said.
So she called him on Tuesday, May 13.
“He said was having car trouble and he and two roommates had to share a car, and could we meet on Wednesday or Thursday?” she said he asked. “We left off that he would call me if either day was good.”
He didn’t call, she said, so she left him several messages. Disheartened, she said she asked on the messages if he planned to do the work, and if he didn’t, to please return her money.
But he never called her back, she said.
Banasiak went back to the professional who initially recommended Blair, and he tried to call on Banasiak’s behalf.
“He didn’t answer the phone for him, either,” she said.
Banasiak thought perhaps something happened to Blair, so she tried to be patient.
“I figured I would give this person time,” she said. “But no excuses. If something happened — sick, debilitated, overworked — he should never have taken the money. He should refund the money. It wasn’t a good faith loan.”
Banasiak then heard rumors that Blair, who also worked at a local gas station, may have moved. She tried to track him down through the gas station, then she searched online to see if she could find him, but she couldn’t find anything definitive.
While $150 may not seem like a lot to some people, it’s a lot to Banasiak, who is divorced and struggling to keep her home, which she said also needs a new hot water heater and a refrigerator.
“The money I lost could go toward a couple things that are getting ready to break,” she said. “I would like to make sure he isn’t doing this to anyone else and have my much-needed money returned to me.”
A REAL BUSINESS?
We took a look at the estimate and the business card Blair gave to Banasiak.
The estimate was hand written on a generic order sheet — the kind you can buy at a home improvement or office supply store. It wasn’t pre-printed with Blair’s contact information, or any information at all.
It didn’t show a business address, license number, registration number or insurance information.
His business card proclaims he’s a “master craftsman” for “professional home services.” It lists some of his skills, saying he specializes in indoor and outdoor painting, window and door installation and general home maintenance.
It does not indicate Blair has plumbing expertise, even though plumbing was the main part of the job for which Banasiak hired him.
We checked with the Division of Consumer Affairs, and while it doesn’t have any complaints against Blair, it also doesn’t have a record of him registering as a home improvement contractor. There are also no businesses recorded with the state in Blair’s name, records show.
We reached out to Blair though voice mail messages and emails.
He didn’t respond to us, either.
Banasiak said she will file a complaint with Consumer Affairs, and also visit her local police department.
While it seems Banasiak is out her money, she wanted to make sure other homeowners learned from her mistake.
She was smart to get a recommendation from someone she trusted, but as her case shows, a recommendation isn’t everything.
You need to do some homework, too.
If you find a contractor you’re tempted to hire, contact Consumer Affairs to see if the pro is properly licensed or registered with the state, and see if there are any complaints against the business. If the contractor is a specialist, such as a plumber or electrician, check with the correct state licensing board to be sure he’s in good standing. Call (800) 242-5846, or check online.
Also, know your rights.
Contractors must give a written contract for any job over $500. Even if the job is for less than $500, Consumer Affairs recommends you get the details in writing.
By law, the contract must include the legal name and business address of the contractor, a start date, a completion date, a description of the work and the total price.
The contractor’s registration number must also be on the contract, and you
must be given a copy of the company’s commercial liability insurance policy and contact information for the insurer.
Handwritten contracts aren’t any less legal than pre-printed ones, but if your contractor doesn’t bother with paperwork that includes company letterhead or the company’s registration number or insurance information, ask why.
If you sign a contract, you legally have the right to change your mind and get your money back within three business days. If you cancel, make sure you do it in writing and either hand-deliver it to the contractor or send it registered or certified mail, return receipt requested.
Even if the contractor checks out and his paperwork seems to be in order, Consumer Affairs says consumers should watch for red flags.
It’s customary to give a deposit worth a third of the entire bill. If the contractor wants more, be suspicious. Also be suspicious if the contractor wants cash only.
Consumer Affairs also says to be wary if the contractor uses a post office box as the business address.
And if a contractor knocks on your door — finding you, rather than you actively looking for someone to do a job — be cautious. We’ve written too many stories about hucksters who case a neighborhood, knocking on doors unsolicited, trying to drum up business, and offering too-good-to-be-true pricing.
If you think you’ve been had, be sure to file a complaint with Consumer Affairs. You can do that online or by calling (800) 242-5846.
Banasiak said she wishes she did more homework before handing over cash.
“Things definitely will change and I will do a background check rather than just take someone’s recommendation,” she said. “To see this kind of behavior, taking advantage of people, makes me sick. I’m hoping this contractor doesn’t do this to anyone else.”
Have you been bamboozled? Contact Karin Price Mueller at firstname.lastname@example.org.