Sued for bad reviews on Angie’s List – what happened? (Updated)

Back in March I wrote a post about homeowners getting sued for bad reviews on Angie’s List and have been wondering what happened … I hadn’t seen any follow up stories until reading Eric Goldman’s Technology & Marketing Law blog. Since then I’ve found more info and this post has been appropriately updated.

To recap, home improvement contractor Stephen C. Sieber ( SCS Contracting Group ) launched multi-million dollar defamation lawsuits against 2 homeowners who wrote negative reviews (with F ratings) on Angie’s List, as originally published in this Washington Post story.

So what happened? According to the recent John Kelly article, Sieber dropped the lawsuits against the home owners. The lawsuits (Sieber v. Mattera and Sieber v. Hammock ) were settled and dismissed without prejudice a month after filing meaning that they agreed to settle but without setting any precedents. Sieber could technically sue the homeowners again for the same reason. From answers.com:

A plaintiff is not subsequently barred from suing the same defendant on the same cause of action when a court grants a dismissal without prejudice of his or her case. Such a dismissal operates to terminate the case. It is not, however, an ultimate disposition of the controversy on the merits, but rather it is usually based upon procedural errors that do not substantially harm the defendant’s rights. It effectively treats the matter as if the lawsuit had never been commenced, but it does not relieve a plaintiff of the duty of complying with the statute of limitations, the time limit within which his or her action must be commenced. A dismissal without prejudice is granted in response to a notice of dismissal, stipulations, or a court order.

Meanwhile, Monica Hammock’s $83,000 civil lawsuit against Stephen Sieber for damage done during her home renovation is still ongoing.

Interestingly, it seems that Sieber has been representing himself in the proceedings as his lawyer is listed as “PRO SE”. Maybe business has been a bit slow lately? Lawyers are pretty expensive.

Sieber wasn’t going to initially sue Angie’s List (as reported in the Washington Post) but ended up doing so for “malicious interference”. He was upset with the “consumer alert” Angie’s List sent out about him and charges that it

“was used solely as a public relations ploy to gain more market exposure and revenue for Defendants, at the expense of the business and reputation of SCS Contracting Group and Stephen C. Sieber personally.”

“I’m standing up for all the service providers who this will not happen to, ever.”

You can see the full details of the lawsuit at www.angiegotsued.com.

Several Angie’s List principals were named as defendants in the suit (including Angie Hicks herself) but they were subsequently dropped. Sieber is still suing Brownstone Publishing however; Brownstone “does business as” Angie’s List. You can monitor the online court records by going to:

https://www.dccourts.gov/pa/

and searching by case number.

  • Sieber v. Mattera – Case # 2007 CA 002063 B
  • Sieber v. Hammock – Case # 2007 CA 001726 B
  • Hammock v. Sieber – Case # 2006 CA 006940 B – pending
  • Sieber v. Brownstone Publishing -Case # 2007 CA 002549 – pending

Pennsylvania – stronger protection from home improvement fraud is on the way

Pennsylvania has new legislation in process to establish better consumer protection for homeowners.

Bill highlights:

  • a state-wide home improvement contractor database
  • written contracts required for all jobs over $500
  • the scope and cost of work be set out in the contract and clearly understood by the customer
  • makes home-improvement fraud a criminal offense
  • with stiffer penalties for scammers who target seniors

Although receiving senate passage is promising, the bill won’t become law until approved by the House of Representatives and Governor Ed Rendell.

Pennsylvanians should also note the gotchas:

For a contract to be enforceable against a customer, it would have to be signed by the customer and dated, and disclose the approximate time frame of the work and materials to be used, as well as the specifications and description of the work. It would also have to include the total sales price.

In addition, a contract would be voided if it has a clause that releases the contractor from building code requirements or liability, or that strips the customer of legal rights.

Source: phillyburbs.com.

The Top 5 Unexpected Pitfalls of being your own General Contractor

Acting as your own General Contractor is a DIY option which sounds good on the surface. What a great way to save lot of money on your renovation (typically 15%) by replacing the General Contractor. How hard could it be?

Hard. Here are your responsibilities as your own General Contractor:

  • managing the details of the renovation project,
  • securing the required building permits,
  • hiring, firing and scheduling subcontractors,
  • ordering building materials & supervising installation,
  • inspecting the work of subcontractors,
  • coordinating formal building inspections (with the permit office),
  • ensuring work is done to code, and
  • troubleshooting design or logistics issues.

That’s a tall order. It should be clear from the job description that not every homeowner is suited to being a General Contractor.

Acting as your own general contractor works best if you’re highly organized, detail-oriented and have a clear idea of what you want in your home.
- Bankrate

Even if you’re “organized”, you still need to decide if it’s truly worthwhile as the pitfalls may eat up your savings handily and then some.

“Don’t do it just to save some money,” he said, “because it’s a lot of work and a lot of research. If you’re not interested in the process, if you don’t want to learn more about construction than you thought you’d ever want to know, then don’t do it.”
- Graham Irwin from Remodel Guidance, SFGate

Ok you’re highly organized, good at planning and management, and really want to learn the ins and outs of construction. Most people understand that they will pay more for supplies which seems to be an acceptable trade off for the control they gain over the process. And everybody knows they have to do their research when hiring subcontractors. But are they aware of the surprise gotchas?

Here are my Top 5 Unexpected Pitfalls of being your own General Contractor.

1. Not having the same relationship with Subcontractors

A reputable general contractor usually has a good long-standing work relationship with the subcontractors, the ones who actually do the work. The general takes care of them and the subcontractors make an extra effort to do a good job on schedule.

If you are your own general contractor, the subcontractors will not have the same allegiance, so you can plan on running behind schedule a little. This can eat up at least 5 percent of the savings
- Ms Builder

That’s 5% gone …

2. Not having the time to closely monitor the project.

You need to be available to spend time on site. When needed. Could be anywhere from 10 to 40 hours per week, depending on the stage in the process. If you have a demanding full time job, be prepared to take time off. You must also

… have an intimate knowledge of the plans so that you notice any accidental deviations. If you miss something early, repairing or modifying the plans later, to accommodate the error, can use up much of your 10 percent savings. …
- Ms Builder

Ok so now your 15% savings could be gone and maybe some of your vacation time. What’s next? Ah yes …

3. The Building Permit Maze

Many people underestimate the time it will take to get building permit approval.

“Sometimes half of the project is just getting the permits … Go into the permit office as early as possible in the process to find out the restrictions. That way, you’re not spending time and money developing plans that you can’t get permits for.”
- SFGate

This homeowner relates how his building plan estimate went south because of permit problems stemming from a lack of awareness of the local building regulations, among other things. “My conservative estimate of six weeks for plan approval was woefully inadequate”.

4. Liability Insurance, Workers Compensation & Lien Laws

When you act as your own General Contractor, you become responsible for any third party injuries that may occur on your property or damage to property by subcontractors. If they aren’t covered the claim could end up landing on your homeowners’ insurance … or worse. Also, if your subcontractors don’t pay their suppliers or subcontractors, a lien could be filed against your property.

And finally, on a personal note …

5. It can KO Your marriage.

Anderson, the Oakland homeowner, remembered a book that “quoted a higher than normal percentage of DIY construction couples ending in divorce,” he said. “Be sure you’ve got a strong relationship and that you’re in 100 percent agreement about doing it yourself.”
- SFGate

Summary Judgment:

This testimonial summarizes the pitfalls very well:

While we learned many things while serving as our own GC, the top three lessons are as follows: first, if you are looking to save time, don’t be your own general [contractor]. We can easily say that the project took twice as long due to our lack of experience and limited time. Second, be sure that you and your spouse can work together and are like-minded when it comes to what you are looking for in a finished product. Last, what we saved in money we paid for in sleepless nights worrying about what needed to be done before the next subs arrive, lack of free time, and lots of other unforeseen costs.
- Jonathan Norling

How can you act as your own General Contractor, get around these pitfalls and sleep better at night? I would suggest hiring a Renovation Advisor to help bridge the gaps in your knowledge and experience. Yes it’ll cost you a few bucks but in return you might be able to keep more of your General Contractor savings, a good return or payback on your consulting investment.

New York’s Consumer Protection Board investigates Home Improvement Industry

I love New York. The New York State Consumer Protection Board’s Home Improvement Initiative is on. The CPB hopes to better protect consumers while encouraging opportunities for contractors through a multi-step process.

Phase one involves online surveys for both homeowners and home improvement contractors plus making a comprehensive hire-a contractor tips complete with model contract package available online. Phase two, the public hearings, are now in progress.

Watch the video report or read the source story on News 10 Now. Plus another news report on Channel 9.

Read about New York’s Home Improvement Initiative on the New York State Consumer Protection Board website or call the Board directly at 1-800-697-1220. You can still have your say – take the CPB Homeowner Survey online. If you are a home improvement contractor, you may want to take the Contractor Survey.

I do admire the CPB for the effort. But if I was a contractor, I might not be enamored with the Contractor Survey questions which are all about qualifications / credentials; the survey reads like a reference check more than a way for contractors to join in a constructive discussion on how to improve the situation. What contractor in his right mind is going to put down he’s an unlicensed contractor then his name and address in case they want to contact him??

But it’s the thought that counts right?

Pump up your Home Remodel with a Renovation Coach

Browsing the news, a phrase caught my eye – “Renovation Coach“. What a marvelous idea! Personal coaching & training has been all the rage. So now you can get a coach for your home improvement projects?

I imagined a “Renovation Coach” as someone who calls you early on Saturday morning to get you back on the renovation horse when you’ve fallen off or have an unpleasant maintenance job to do. Or gets you up at 6am to go to Home Depot for those needed materials. Or trains you with that nifty new nail gun before you hurt yourself.

Well … not really. A Renovation Coach is the same as a “Renovation Consultant”, which although less catchy is every bit as useful. In 2007, the Renovation Coach or Consultant is an idea whose time has come.

Previously, I wrote posts about the rising number of DIYers needing to be bailed out by professionals. And interviewed online “Electrical Coach” Wayne Gilchrist. But it’s not only the DIYer using and needing this type service. People who are going to hire someone to do the job are also discovering the benefits of a little “renovation coaching”. This Old House goes so far as to call them “a new breed of therapist “.

“The thing about home renovation is that very few people have been able to practice for it,” says Irving, who honed his skills working on 33 whole-house projects in his 17 years with the show. “They get wound up and ner­vous, facing this potential money pit, and it doesn’t have to be that way.”

I second that emotion. An experienced Renovation Coach can help with …

  • setting goals or developing a vision for your large home renovation
  • determining the return on your renovation investment – Cost vs. Value or Move vs. Remodel – to help you decide
  • identifying the professionals you will need (like an Interior Designer) for a quality renovation
  • giving you a ballpark figure against which you use in evaluating quotes from contractors
  • navigating the building permit maze
  • a wealth of experience about products & approaches, pros and cons
  • negotiating or communicating with contractors during the process
  • planning and project management
  • Quality Assurance to ensure a job well done and up to code
  • mediation in disputes with contractors

And yes, he or she can even go shopping with you for building materials and supplies if need be.

Although they work on an hourly rate, and they usually don’t come cheap, the benefits of using a Renovation Coach or Consultant are numerous. They bring planning, project management and experience to both flesh out and ground your renovation ideas. The result? More understanding for you the homeowner. More control over the process and your budget. A successful project. An empowering DIY experience. And of course, a beautiful renovation. All you need to be “home improvement happy”. And put in that context, well … maybe they are therapists after all.

Smart Homeowners: Pamper your Contractor

That’s right. You read correctly. Pamper your home improvement contractor. I’m not talking about giving him a pedicure and a massage (he he, he he he), just showing your appreciation in small ways throughout the course of the job. It’ll make a big difference in your relationship and the quality of workmanship you receive.

I enjoy visiting ContractorTalk.com and reading the threads there. As you have to be a professional contractor (in construction, remodeling or related trades) to participate and I am a homeowner with 2 left hands so to speak, I can only lurk and learn. But learn I do about how the “other half” feels and thinks ( we care about contractors here at RenoCheck / RenoWire ;) ).

One recent thread, “Good homeowner stories”, was especially insightful. I guess that means contractors might have “bad homeowner” stories too? Why yes they do, but they wanted to talk about something else for a change ha ha … So! What makes you a “good homeowner” in the mind of a contractor? What makes a difference? You would be surprised.

It’s home-made cookies or food to take home. Cold water or beverages on a “sweltering hot day”. Bonuses or tokens of appreciation (gift certificates for dinner) for a job well done. Referrals to friends and family. One contractor, “woodmagman” made a very interesting observation:

I don’t think most customers realize that we don’t hold back 10% of our service; they just get an additional 10% by being nice.

So smart homeowners: pamper your contractor. You’ll be glad you did. A little genuine thoughtfulness (good karma) goes a long way. It’s easy to just focus on how much you’re paying and wanting the job done yada yada … But contractors are people too. And when you make an extra effort on their behalf, they’ll go that extra mile in return. It’s the difference between someone just doing the job they were contracted to do and someone genuinely committed to the outcome of your home renovation or remodeling project. I know which I’d rather have …

Read the full thread Good homeowner stories and learn …

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