It began with drips of water under the kitchen sink and ended in a tidal wave of debt. After spotting the small leak, Bob and Arlene Schuster, homeowners in Santa Monica and both in their eighties, called Kaley Plumbing. The Kaley plumber took a surprisingly quick look under their sink and then walked out the Schusters’ back door. (All names and identifying details are changed in this composite story.)

“What the devil is he doing out there?” asked Bob. Restlessly fidgeting with Kaley’s business card, Bob sat across the kitchen table from Arlene.

Arlene stood and peered out the window over their sink. “Not much,” she said. “I think he’s on the phone.”

The plumber finally came back inside. “You have a plumbing emergency,” he declared. “All of your pipes need to be replaced.”

“All the kitchen pipes?” asked Bob.

“No, all the pipes. Here in the kitchen and everywhere else in the house.” The plumber gestured at the door. “And outside, too. I’m checking on the availability of a backhoe.”

“A backhoe?!” exclaimed Bob.

Kaley Plumbing gave a work estimate of $25,000 to the shocked couple – and demanded half the money down before they started work. On a fixed income, the Schusters had nowhere near that kind of money. But the plumber said they had little choice: if they did nothing, the “emergency” would only get worse. The Schusters used credit cards to pay the $12,500 deposit.

After the re-piping was done – and after paying the full $25,000 – the Schusters learned that Kaley’s work was sub-standard and overpriced. It would cost them $13,000 more to fix Kaley’s mistakes. They also had no way of knowing now if the job was even necessary.

Unfortunately for the Schusters and other California homeowners, especially seniors, not all contractors are fair or honest. But there are things you can do to protect your rights. The Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office recommends:

Three bids: Get at least three written bids on every job. This will help confirm what actually needs to be done, and give you a better idea of a fair price.

Licensing: Confirm the contractor’s license at www.checkthelicensefirst.com. A license is required by law for all jobs over $500.

Only 10% down/$1,000 max: Contractors can’t require up-front payments of more than $1,000 or 10% of the total contract price, whichever is less. You should never pay more than this before work starts. Also, don’t ever make your final payment until the job is complete and you are satisfied with the work.

Written contract: Be sure to get a written contract that’s easy to understand and holds the contractor responsible for all permits.

For disputes with a contractor, you can file a complaint at cslb.ca.gov. If you or the contractor are in Santa Monica, you can also call the City Attorney’s Consumer Protection Division.

In the Schusters’ case, the City Attorney worked with the state contractor’s board to make Kaley reimburse all their money, since the company had broken the law.

Remember that you have legal rights with contractors – but it’s up to you to use them.

Gary Rhoades is a Deputy City Attorney with the City of Santa Monica.

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