A Vulture in the Palms

I am a big fan of working on projects around the home to save money. Painting, replacing broken sprinkler heads, changing fuses and installing outdoor lighting are projects that don’t require a great deal of technical expertise or backbreaking labor. For other projects such as air conditioning repair, large outdoor tree installation and major electrical or plumbing issues, I will usually contact a professional to avoid making the problem worse. While I enjoy saving money, I’m certainly not a hero handyman, and the satisfaction of having the job done right the first time is cheaper than repairing the damage I’d likely cause through a costly “oops” moment. Caution should be exercised when hiring professionals, however, as some hero handymen and con artists pose as legitimate experts in the field they claim to be in. In this article, we’ll explore a hard lesson learned in hiring non-professionals for landscaping needs followed by steps we can take to reduce the risk of being scammed by anyone we seek to hire for our servicing needs.

Many years ago, when I was in my teens, a group of three guys in a single cab, disheveled pickup truck pulled up in front of my parent’s house. They extricated themselves from the close quarters and approached the front door, ringing its bell on contact. I kept the screen door locked and secured as I answered the front door cautiously, not knowing what to expect from the trio of strangers as they waited patiently for a response. Instead of ripping open the screen door and barreling past me to carry out evil intentions, they asked if I needed my palm trees trimmed. With a sigh of relief, I asked them to wait while I moved into the living room to tell my dad about the offer. I made sure to close and lock the door first just in case. It doesn’t hurt to be too cautious, especially as a kid, so be sure to emphasize that point with your little ones as my dad did with his. After ambling over to the front door, my dad talked with the men briefly through the screen before moving outside with them to discuss the potential job. After a few minutes of examining our two very tall palm trees in desperate need of trimming and discussing the price for the proposed work, an agreement was reached and the men began their work.

After a short time, one of the men rang the doorbell. He apparently had to buy or pay for something quickly and had asked my dad if he could get paid early to take care of the problem. After a brief hesitation, and inspection of the remaining two men hard at work, my dad agreed. The man drove off, leaving his friends behind. Several minutes later, one of those friends asked for a glass of water while his co-worker was gone, and I promptly gave him a plastic tumbler filled with ice and tap water. It didn’t take his absent friend long to do whatever he needed to do and he returned from his trip to continue his work. After an hour or so, I looked outside the window and noticed that the men had gone. I told my dad that the men had left and we moved outside to inspect their work. We expected to see two neatly trimmed trees and a yard clear of debris. What we found was a yard littered with palm tree trimmings strewn about and two unfinished palm trees that didn’t look much better than when the men had started their work. We were scammed out of our money, as well as a plastic tumbler, and had to pay someone else to come along and finish the job we had already paid for.

We didn’t have to lose our money from people who were only interested in getting away with free cash. The biggest mistake we made was to pay the men their full compensation before the work was complete. Some companies do ask for half of the required amount up front to cover costs and ensure that the client is going to follow through with the request for service. No licensed company that I’ve worked with has asked for the full amount due when the work has just barely begun. We fell for a sob story from a stranger and we ended up being the ones with our own genuine sob story to tell following the deceit of those unscrupulous bandits. There are those in this society that will say anything to get what others have. This isn’t a new practice or something that’s come up in any particular generation. People have been selling fake tonics, beachfront property in the middle of the desert, can’t lose investment opportunities, and broken promises for millennia. While this unending cycle of deceit will probably continue as long as there is a need for money, what can change is our resistance to the lure of empty promises dangling before us.

So what exactly can we do to limit the possibility of being ripped off when requesting services for landscaping, plumbing, roofing, and other needs? The first step is requesting such services from actual professionals. It sounds simple, but you’d be surprised by how many people will jump at the chance to save a few dollars by giving business to individuals with no verifiable background. Strangers knocking on the door to see if they can offer unsolicited work would not be the best approach to accepting services, especially if they’re soloists with only their promise to do a great job as their bond. Always check their background no matter how tempting their offer is.

It’s great to know that we should check a company’s background, but where exactly should one go to do that? That’s a great question, and a great start is the Registrar of Contractors web site. If the business states or alludes to the fact that they’re licensed, bonded, and insured, then they’re going to be listed on that web site. You can do a search on Yahoo! for the ROC site specific to your state. For my state, I go to http://www.azroc.gov. Type the name of business you want to check out in the search engine of the ROC site and a number of business matches will pop up for your perusal. Check out their status to see if the license is current, expired, inactive, rejected, or even suspended. I’d stay away from any business listed as either of those last two options or any company not even listed at all.

If the business that you’re investigating has a current status at the ROC, dive in further to find out even more about them. Click on their license number to get a brief, but detailed status report on the company. The report should list the business address, phone number, license dates, names of personnel associated with license, as well as bond information. The most scrutiny should be applied to the complaint information section that details any open and closed cases involving complaints about the company and the current status of that complaint. If there are any complaints, delve into why those complaints were made. While not all complaints warrant avoidance of a particular company, if somebody is taking the time to lodge an official complaint with the ROC, the least we can do is take the time to figure out why and determine for ourselves if that company is one we would want to do business with.

For additional information on a particular company, type their name in a Web browser search engine as well as the word ‘review’ to see what information pops up. I’ve found many reviews on both products and services that can add an additional layer of information to help me make the most informed decision possible. Many people are more than willing to share both their positive and negative experiences with the companies they do business with, so be sure to take advantage of this valuable free resource. Once your business is concluded with the company you’ve chosen, add your own comments on their performance to the sites that record them to help others make as equally an informed decision as you.

After all of the appropriate research has been conducted and one or more companies have been selected, it’s time to request a quote from them. Always be sure to request a quote from these companies and send them on their way while you check their history. Requesting multiple quotes from different companies is another great way to ensure that the price we’re quoted is a fair one and it gives us a paper trail that outlines what services we’ll receive in exchange for a specified amount of compensation. It’s an easy layer of protection to add to the search for a prospective business and it helps us determine if the company is a good fit for us. Go with your instinct on this one. If the representative of the firm makes you uncomfortable, go with another firm. Do not feel obligated to hire the company just because they gave you a free quote. If the fit isn’t right, then keep searching for one that is.

There are many legitimate companies that seek to do business honestly by providing a service in exchange for fair compensation. While such businesses may be in the majority of those proffering their services, there are some in the minority that seek to take our money without providing a fair exchange. It’s up to us to protect ourselves from these individuals and a good way to accomplish that is to be as informed as possible. Look up a company on the Registrar of Contractors web site to determine their legal status. Search the web for information others have written about a business to determine if they provide more problems than services. Request a quote from businesses to check out their pricing and to have a written statement outlining what they will provide in exchange for the compensation they’re requesting. If you’re not comfortable with a company for any reason, move on to another. Sometimes your first instinct is the best one. If we follow these steps in searching for the right company to do business with, then the services they render to us are more likely to lead to beneficial results and a brighter smile on our faces.

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