Help Me Hayley:Spokane Valley woman sells precious jewelry to pay for safety upgrade, work never completed

SPOKANE VALLEY, Wash. -- It's that time of year. So many of us are making improvements both in and outside of our homes. Sometimes that work requires us to hire someone to help. One local woman is sharing her heartbreaking story of a project gone terribly wrong because she wants your family to avoid the same.

Judith Ransom was desperate to get an improvement to her fence.

"They just hop the fence and cut right through and walk through my property," she said about trespassers. "It was scaring me."

Judith lives alone with her dogs. She felt it was crucial to get her fence raised as soon as possible, for both their security and her own. She found someone who agreed to take care of it, but he wanted the money upfront. She didn't have enough to cover it. She says she made the painful decision to sell a piece of jewelry.

"That jewelry meant the world to me," she said.

Judith said she had no reason to doubt this man because he had done odd jobs for her in the past, and everything went just fine.

"It started off great," she said. "He was personable, helpful, willing. He told me he was in need of a good job. Day by day, he had me trusting him more and more."

That's why she gave the largest project she had, to him. She obliged his request to have the money upfront. He began working on it quickly but never finished.

"He'd say these posts were on back-order," she said. "I know that is not true."

She believes he also stole tools and other items from her home.

"I'm so embarrassed," she said. "I was too naive. I should have been more aware. How do you be more aware when someone is a predator?"

She says when she looks at the incomplete job, she can't help but cry.

"I had to pawn something so precious to me to pay him to do the fence and all this yard work I had to have done," she said. "It's awful."

Judith reached out to KHQ because she's hopeful you will be more thorough when you make your next hire.

"I don't want anyone else to go through this pain," she said.

Stories like this one are all too common. We reached out to the Better Business Bureau to get their advice on what you should and shouldn't do.

Consider these tips when hiring anybody to work in your home:

  • Research and gather information. You can search for a contractor’s Business Profile at BBB.org to get free information on their history of complaints, read verified Customer Reviews, and see if they are an Accredited Business. BBB Accredited Businesses make a commitment to uphold BBB's accreditation standards including: to build trust, advertise honestly, tell the truth, be transparent, honor their promises, be responsive to their customers, safeguard privacy and embody integrity. Also search for the name of the company online along with "Complaint", "Review" or "Scam" to find different results. Ask the company if employees and sub-contractors undergo a background check. Are they trained and certified? What identification will they show when they come to your home?
  • Ask for references. Ask the contractor for a list of recent local references you may contact. Ask the references about the services performed and their overall experience with the contractor and the quality of the work. Ask if the contractor stuck to the estimated budget and completion date for the project. If possible, inspect the contractor's work yourself. Ask if the contractor is a member of a professional association that has standards or a code of ethics.
  • Ask for multiple quotes. You should always shop around and get at least three quotes from different businesses. Make sure all bids consider the same set of criteria. Remember that the lowest bid may not necessarily be the best bid; if one bid is significantly lower than the others, the contractor may be cutting corners or may not understand your work requirements.
  • Get it in writing. Always get estimates in writing and never let any work begin without a written and signed contract. Do not be pressured into signing an agreement before you are ready and make sure you read and understand everything before signing. The contract should include contact information, start and complete dates, a detailed description of the exact work to be done, any material costs, payment arrangements, and warranty information. Specify who is to obtain necessary building permits and who is responsible for clean-up. Make sure all verbal promises are included in the contract. Ask how much work will be subcontracted and ask for information on the subcontractors. Ask questions if you do not understand any part of the contract. Never sign an incomplete or partially blank contract.
  • Verify license and insurance. Always be sure that the company you decide to work with has the necessary licenses and insurance to work in your region. In the United States, you can get to your state’s licensing agency to learn more here. In Canada, requirements differ from province to province, so make sure to search for information specific to yours. Your local BBB can help. Once you have your contractor’s insurance information, call the carrier to confirm appropriate coverage for worker’s compensation, property damage, and personal liability in case of accidents.
  • Confirm building permits. Your contractor must have the correct permits before starting your project. They will usually obtain the permits, but you will probably pay for them. That should be detailed in your contract. Request that all final inspections be completed by the local building official prior to final payment.
  • Inquire about a lien waiver. A lien waiver, in the United States, is a statement from your contractor that says all suppliers and subcontractors have been paid for their work. In some Canadian provinces, there is a mandatory Builders Lien holdback, so ensure you understand any financial obligations you may be liable for.
  • Think about future service issues. Make sure you are aware of your warranty coverage and how to deal with service issues.
  • Arrange a payment schedule. Never pay in full up front. Stagger your payments so your final payment is not due until the work is complete and you have fully inspected it. Do not pay cash; make sure your check is written to a company, not an individual, or that you use a credit card. Paying with a credit card will provide some recourse should the job not be completed as stated in the contract.
  • Get a receipt. Request a receipt marked “Paid in Full” when the job is completed and your final payment made.
  • Keep your contract. Hold on to your contract for future reference or if any questions arise after the work is complete.

Better Business Bureau® (BBB) urges people to be on the lookout for problematic sales pitches and to have a plan in place when you hear that knock:

  • Ask about licensing. Many cities require door-to-door salespeople to have a peddler or solicitor license. Ask if the salesperson has checked in with the city and gotten proper licensing. If you are not sure if your city requires a permit, call your city offices.
  • Check identification. A reputable seller will give you all the information you ask for, including a photo ID and a business card.
  • Verify the individual and the company. Tell the salesperson you want to call the company directly. A legitimate salesperson should not have a problem with this. Research the company and contact them to check if the salesperson is an employee. Read the company’s Business Profile and customer reviews at bbb.org.
  • Read the contract closely. If you are interested in a product or service, get everything in writing including price, contract details and all other terms and conditions. Tell the salesperson you will check it out and get back to him or her. Make sure you understand all the terms and conditions before signing on the dotted line. Verify the physical address and valid contact information for the company are included.
  • Don’t give in to pressure. Watch out for high-pressure sales tactics and be aware that anything you sign could construe a contract.
  • Do the Math. Paying $30 to $40 per month for magazine subscriptions may not sound like much, but it can add up. Be wary of automatically renewing subscriptions and make sure you check the average subscription costs for any magazine that interests you. Most magazines have detachable postcards inside with some of the lowest rates available.
  • Know your rights. The Federal Trade Commission’s Three-Day Cooling-Off Rule gives the customer three days to cancel purchases over $25 that are made in their home or at a location that is not the seller’s permanent place of business. Along with a receipt, salespeople should also include a completed cancellation form that customers can send to the company to cancel the agreement. By law, the company must give customers a refund within 10 days of receiving the cancellation notice. In Canada, the cooling off period varies by province.
  • Stand strong. Be careful about allowing strangers into your home. If you do allow a salesperson inside your home and decide during the presentation that you are not interested in making a purchase, simply ask them to leave. If the salesperson refuses to leave, tell them you will call the police – and follow through if they do not leave immediately.

People who have issues with door-to-door solicitors can file a complaint with BBB at bbb.org, as well as with their local law enforcement.