Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Lesson learned: Always check out your handyman

This is a difficult blog entry for me to write.

It’s a story that reflects poorly on me, as some of my more feisty posters will no doubt quickly point out. It isn’t particularly newcomer-oriented, though newcomers are more likely to risk finding themselves in a similar situation. But it’s a story with a lesson that could help others avoid my mistake, so I’ve decided to share it.

I’m a homeowner who occasionally needs the help of an experienced handyman – I own no power tools, if that gives you an idea of my lack of skills. About six months ago, I had a fairly urgent need for help when my ceiling sprung a leak. There was a handyman in standing in my neighbor’s driveway that morning, taking a break from doing work on my neighbor’s garage, so I asked him if he could help me. He fixed the leak, and did a nice job.

After that, he painted my place, and changed some door hardware and light fixtures. Then came a backsplash in my kitchen. Though he was occasionally erratic about when he showed up, his work and his prices were good. I felt his experience with my neighbor was recommendation enough, so I never checked him out.

When I decided to renovate a bathroom – the biggest project yet – his bid came in much lower than the other contractors I talked to. So I gave him the job.

After two months – a full month longer than anticipated – and with the job still only half-done, my handyman and his helper buddies disappeared.

He left his key ring, with van keys and his housekey, in my home (apparently he left in a buddy’s car the last day he was there). He left all of his equipment in my bathroom – hundreds or perhaps thousands of dollars’ worth of power tools, fully stocked toolboxes and more. And he disconnected his phone.

At first, I thought he was just being erratic as he had been before. But after a week with no word, I was seriously worried. I thought he might be in trouble, injured or dead. I had no other way to reach him. I checked area jails and hospitals and found no record. So, I talked with a police detective and he said it would be appropriate to file a missing persons report.

I did, and before I even returned to the Observer building, I received a call from the patrol officer who visited his last known address. His brother was there, and assured the officer my handyman was fine and not missing. And, someone in the rental office at his trailer park told the officer my handyman had a history of drug use and binges, and that a binge is the most likely explanation for his vanishing act.

There was more: I learned my handyman has a criminal record that includes an arson charge.

So, for nearly two months, I gave a substance abuser with a fairly long criminal history a key to my home and the freedom to come and go with his buddies while I was at work. I have access to Nexis here at the Observer; I could have checked his criminal record in 30 seconds, for free, and avoided ever being in this situation.

Needless to say, I feel extremely stupid. And incredibly lucky that nothing happened to me or to my home that can’t be fixed. Nothing has been stolen; in fact, if he never tries to claim his equipment, I may come out ahead on the deal. I’m changing the locks and, as usual, faithfully using my burglar alarm.

I’m hoping that by sharing this, others will remember to thoroughly check out anyone doing work inside their homes.

Here are some tips on how to do that, thanks to one of our librarians, Sara Klemmer:

The public can go to the courthouse in his/her county and do the searching on the computers there for free.

Also free: NC Dept of Correction: http://www.doc.state.nc.us/offenders/
Search by name or ID number for public information on inmates, probationers or parolees since 1972. This system allows users to view and download any/all public information from the Department of Correction database for convicted offenders. Also includes information on inmate releases and escapees.

These sites may charge for records:

People finder: http://www.peoplefinders.com/Search/Criminal/Default.htm

123nc.com: http://www.123nc.com/

Public Record Finder: http://www.publicrecordfinder.com/states/north_carolina.html

CrimeNC: http://www.crimenc.com/court.htm


If anyone else out there has some more commonsense safety tips to share, please feel free to post them here.


Blogger Susie said...

I am sorry about the fact that you had to go through such an ordeal! However, I am a little concerned about your safety, especially just outside of your residence. What if he gets into a fit of drug-addled rage and wants his equipment back and comes looking for it, incendiary or club in hand?

I think that although you could profit from the sale of his equipment (which could possibly be stolen or ill-gotten), returning the tools to his brother is a safer alternative, even if it means sustaining a loss on the bathroom upgrade.

2:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow- sorry that happened to you Leigh. I moved here a year and a half ago and also got taken by a handyman. He came highly recommended by the Realtor selling the house we purchased but he overcharged me and I found out later that he didn't do all that he said he did. Thanks for links. Next time we'll know better.

2:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's another website to check for possible criminals in Mecklenburg county:


Do the inmate, warrant, and arrest inquiries.

3:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Angies List.
When I first moved to town and bought a house, we tried to hire people to paint, do repairs from the phone book. It never worked out. Angie's List is a great resource- take the time to read the user reviews and ratings. My last 3 people hired through that service landscaping- (honest enough to put my project off due to drought and save me a couple thousand in dead plants), fence (built a good fence for a good price and came back to make some small repairs), and general handyman (worked for 4 straight hours to knock out a list of minor repairs). They have all been excellent. And reliable.

3:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow Leigh,
I am glad you weren't harmed physically by this guy. I agree with "Susie" give the brother his tools and keys.

4:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds to me like you got a lot of work done at a reasonable price. Of course, he screwed you here. Hopefully you haven't paid him anything yet. It sounds like you didn't. So he has a criminal background. Does that mean that for the rest of his life he should be treated as a pariah? Ostensibly, if he has a criminal record and is out free he has paid his debt to society for those crimes and should be allowed to live a normal life. That shouldn't be a reason to not hire him. I don't agree with what you wrote, to an extent, nor do I agree with what many of your posters have had to say. At the same time, I don't find any fault with your actions and I don't think you should be ashamed at all. He did a good job on a number of things, for which I am sure you paid him. He didn't finish this one, and hopefully you have not paid him. Whoever you hire next ought to be able to pick it up where he left off. (You may be entitled to keep the tools to pay off the difference in his contract price and that of whomever you hire next.)

All in all I think 1) your posters are being too hard on him, and 2) you are being too hard on yourself.

4:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A second for Angie's List. The small subscription fee really does pay for itself with the first job.

I know just enuf to be dangerous when it comes to home improvement/fix it and there is no substitute for information.

And, frankly, there are contractors out there who WILL try to take advantage of females. Arm yourself with info and that is unlikely to happen.

Plus -- and not trying to scare folks -- but you must assume that any stranger you invite into your home is a potential threat, if not directly, perhaps via a friend of a friend of a friend.

One simple approach -- mention that you work erratic hours and/or from home a great deal, that'll you'll be popping in out all the time during the job.

A lady who lives alone might want to drop the her brother/dad/boyfriend will be dropping by later, sometime maybe, who knows.

Most of all, trust your gut. You are not running a charity. If something seems out of whack, it probably is.


PS -- And Realtors are not good sources of info for fixes. Their values are quick and cheap -- not right and proper.

5:27 PM  
Blogger unicorn1824 said...

Leigh, don't feel too badly. Everyone's been burned at one time or another when it comes to hiring someone to do a job, and we do have a tendency to hire the cheapest we can find. I do hope he doesn't come back to try to hurt you, and I think you've taken the proper precautions.

What can we take away from this?

1) If it's too good to be true, it probably is. His bid was the lowest by far for a reason: his unreliability meant he needed work and would take a low price to get it.

2) Unless you really know someone (or work with someone who's bonded), don't leave them alone in your house. Try to arrange someone to be nearby all the time, or only have the work done when you're there.

3) It's probably a good idea for you to give the brother the tools and toolboxes-- less of a reason for him to come by.

4) Unfortunately, there are those (especially in construction and auto dealerships) who will take advantage of single women. My ex-girlfriend took me along whenever she went someplace where she thought someone might try to intimidate her (I'm 6'4" and can be menacing when I haven't been fed). Bring a male along to provide some cover. I might even be willing to volunteer for that role... ;-)

5) Take this opportunity to learn some basic home skills and get some good power tools, so you'll be able to do some things for yourself.

I hate the idea of not hiring someone just because they were ex-cons, but they do have a higher burden of proof than someone without a record. Get several references and don't leave them alone if at all possible.

We can all learn from your experience, and hopefully everything will work out for you.

8:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1) Give the tools and equipment back to his brother. You don't want any reason for any further contact with this guy. Period.

2) Invest in the following - no need to go crazy with it, but don't scrimp and get cheap stuff either:

a) a decent drill and set of bits
b) needle nose pliers
c) an adjustable wrench
d) standard pliers
e) an adaptable screwdriver

You'll be amazed at how many household jobs you can do with these.

11:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Leigh, for not making the title of this, "Are northern handymen better than southern handymen?"

2:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I worked at a HOME IMPROVEMENT store and some Customers would tell other Customers that they were licensed plumbers ; The next day the same Person that said they were a PLUMBER would deny they told someonethat; Thats when I knew to check People out before you deal with them.

8:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even Home Improvement stores have problems with so called contractors; One thing with a large company is that eventually they will fix it right; There are many good contractors in the Carolinas but there are to many , thats the problem.

8:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lets face it the Charlotte area is getting ripped off with consumer fraud; Many jacks of all trades and few masters of one. To many People coming here starting a business without requirements. To many cant find a job and throw a magnetic billboard on their vehicle and without insurance , bonding no rules here.

8:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Liegh I used to help build small 1200 sqf houses and anyone can learn to do many of the tasks you descibed; LOWES , HOME Depot , and ace hardware have many experienced People and Lowes has a lot of Nomenclature or literature phamlets on everything; People get frightend at home improvement but mistakes are part of experienced contractors; Sometimes I have heard of unaware plumbingand wires that had to be relocated ; Even the best gets suprise, just watch ' THIS OLD HOUSE" . Even Norm of this old house finds things that other People quick fixed.

8:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

North Carolina Legislation didnt even know that it wasnt a LAW not to take criminal back round checks; I didnt either. Anyway Charlotte is getting to be a crime magnet because of al the nooks and crannies in the woods; Why there is a ton of woods and 8000 homeless living in the woods. I feel for them and we need to have them into a tenant situation rather than their safety and ours.

9:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Check out this website of NC District/Superior court calendars. You can check by defendant, officer's name, citation number, etc. Best of all, its free! If you scroll down under the list of counties, you can do an all county search, and also check for drunk driving arrests.


Most county sheriff's departments, at least the larger ones, have websites where you can search for active warrants, inmates, etc.

Last but not least, you can always look on the FBI's website too.

4:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I lived in a neighborhood near Freedom Park which seems to attrach an undue amount of people walking through the neighborhood asking for yard work. One time a man offered to rake my front lawn for $20, a ridiculously low price, as I had two huge maple trees. After doing half the work, he asked for $10 and said he'd be back after lunch. Needless to say, he never returned and we found some items had been stolen from my son's car. Another time, a man who mowed several of my neighbors' lawns and did handy work for two business owners I know, mowed my lawn. His mower had been stolen so I let him borrow mine to do my neighbors' lawns. He became a pest and showed up on my doorstep every morning to beg for other odd jobs. Finally, one day I returned home to find my mower gone and he never returned. In both cases, the police officers I contacted were well aware of the presence of these two people and their habits.

From then on, despite their sob story, it is my policy to say no. Actually, now, as a single woman, I don't answer the door for anyone; friends who drop by know to call me first.

1:10 PM  
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1:31 AM  

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