Here’s what works when your carpenter doesn’t

Posted June 23, 2009, at 12:22 p.m.

Q: I hired a carpenter to do renovations to my kitchen, but after tearing out the linoleum and half of the old cabinets, he stopped, and I haven’t been able to get in touch with him for five weeks. We paid him $15,000 upfront so that he could buy the new appliances and materials, with the rest – $10,000 – due on completion of the project. How can I get him to finish the job, or give me my money back?

A: Your saga is a cautionary tale for others not to make a large down payment (no more than one-third before work is started) on renovation contracts, and to make sure before you hire them that the tradesmen you hire are sufficiently capitalized and insured. The carpenter in this case may be in violation of one (or more) of several statutes under Maine’s Unfair Trade Practices Act, the Maine Home Construction Contract law, and other statutory and common law claims. So the short answer is, “See an attorney who practices consumer law.”

The long answer is: What you do depends upon how your situation lines up with the pertinent laws. It’s possible that your situation meets certain criteria that will lead the court to make the carpenter pay your legal fees. So it’s important to see an experienced attorney to determine which laws may pertain.

An attorney will most likely advise you to start by issuing a “demand letter,” which may be sufficient to prod the carpenter into cooperating. This involves putting your complaints down in writing and requesting the contractor fulfill his contract, with a “respond by” date, and sending it off by certified mail. While it is not illegal to do this yourself, it is highly advisable to have the assistance of an attorney so that you do not omit or misstate anything that will make a difference later.

If the carpenter refuses to complete the job or return the money, there are additional legal actions you can take, such as freezing the carpenter’s bank accounts through the attachment and trustee process. When a tradesperson breaks a contract, written or not, you are best served by consulting with a consumer law attorney before taking actions yourself that may actually cost you more time and money than necessary.

This column is a service of the Lawyer Referral and Information Service of the Maine State Bar Association. Its contents are a general response to the question and do not constitute legal advice. Questions are welcome. Go to http://mainebar.org, describe your question and note you are a BDN reader. Written questions mailed to ” Ask a Lawyer,” Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329 will be forwarded to the LRIS.

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