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Dealing With Deadbeats: "So You Don't Want to Pay Me Huh?"

In Robert Frost's poem "Mending Wall", the neighbor uses the proverb "Good fences make good neighbors" when explaining the need to place more stones at the property lines between him and the poem's narrator. As much as fences separate people, they also bring them together with a mutually acceptable understanding of boundaries. In construction, it's not fences but rather contracts, that provide a similar understanding between two individuals.

In my 25 years of plumbing, I've learned the hard way, contracts are always necessary. I draw up simple to understand contracts using two lists. "The Plumber will do the following:" and "The Plumber will not do the following:". This type of contract is the simplest way to set the terms. Using plain English, the two lists describe what I'm doing and what I'm not doing. Every contract can be renegotiated, so I'm not surprised when customers want to amend certain terms. That's okay. What I'm looking for is a mutually acceptable contract with terms that are easily understood. Let me be the first to say it "Good contracts make good customers".

Over the course of my career, I've done smaller jobs that I didn't believe required contracts. And it was those types of jobs that caused me the most grief. I was at a customer's house replacing a faucet and at the same time, an HVAC company was there to replace the gas furnace. The owner of the HVAC company asked me if I could give him a price to make the final gas connection including the permit. It was a simple job, the only hard part was driving to Town Hall to file the permit. I told him $150 plus permit fee. He agreed to it and when I was done he paid me cash.

Two weeks later he called and said he needed some gas fitting at an empty house in a town 30 minutes away. I'd have to file a gas permit, pipe from the new gas service to a furnace and a water heater, and stub for a future stove and clothes dryer. I gave him a price of $650 plus a $45 permit fee. He agreed. I trusted him and didn't bother to write a contract. I filed the permit, ran the gas pipe (black iron), called the Inspector and met him for the pressure test. When I left, everything was done and ready to go. I immediately called the HVAC contractor and told him it was all set and he said he'd put a check in the mail…

Two weeks later I hadn't received payment and so I made another call, this time leaving a message on his answering machine. After not hearing back a few days later, I called him again, but this time the message I heard was from the telephone company "the number you have reached is no longer in service". I was fucking livid! I was out $695. I worked for nothing, provided all the materials, and paid for the gas permit too!

This HVAC contractor earned my trust on the first job and used that to set me up on the second one. Over the years I met other guys who'd been taken by the same HVAC contractor. I bumped into him in a supply house years later and I got right up in his face. He apologized and told me he was hospitalized immediately after completing that job, which I heard about at the time, and he felt terrible that he couldn't pay me. He took my address and said he'd mail me a check now that he was back on his feet. I didn't believe him, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt. He never sent the check… 

Another time, a condo-owner who was the brother of a guy I worked with at UPS years before I became a plumber, called me to have pipes fixed under his master bathroom's double vanity that froze as soon as the weather dipped below 30 degrees. I met with him and when I saw that the original plumber ran the water pipes in the outside wall, I told him I'd have to cut and re-pipe them from the basement up through the bottom of the vanity, two sets of hot and cold. There were draws in the middle so doing the piping inside the cabinet wasn't possible. In addition, he wanted me to replace his kitchen faucet. I gave him a price of $600 including parts and labor. He agreed to the terms without issue and said he'd leave a key under the mat. He was a veteran still serving in the reserves and the president of the condo association. I had no reason to suspect he would turn out to be a "deadbeat".

I did a flawless job. I soldered new piping with new shutoffs and installed new supplies under both bathroom sinks. I also installed a basic Delta faucet with spray and two new supplies in the kitchen. I left a bill and gave it a "due date" at the bottom of the invoice in the space provided. Due within 10 days. When I hadn't received payment in ten days, I sent him a late notice/reminder, with a new total that included a 2% late charge. After two more weeks passed without payment, I called him. He was short with me, said he wasn't going to pay, and then he hung up abruptly. I did not see that coming…

Nati Harnik. Shutterstock Images.

Going to court sucks. Usually, the "deadbeat" is a no-show, twice, and found guilty on the third court date, unless he/she asks for an extension. Then they get more time to appear. The whole ordeal ends up costing more than getting beat because of all the wasted time. And still, winning in court doesn't guarantee you'll be paid. People move out of state, file bankruptcy, or just ghost it and you'll never find 'em. You can pay for a warrant and if they get pulled over they get arrested. At that point, you just cut your losses and move on…

Early on when I was self-employed, I had a PO Box in town. Although it was a pain to go pick up my mail, I didn't have to give out my home address, and being at the post office with my lettered company van was good advertising. I bumped into customers and potential customers and it helped me become a recognizable member of the community.

It's always best to avoid the Bull…

I was at the PO picking up my mail when I saw the deadbeat condo owner. I reacted like a bull who had just seen red. I raced over to him, looked him in the eyes, maybe I snorted a couple of times, and then said "So you don't want to pay me huh?" I stared at him until he got pretty uncomfortable and then I got up closer to him, looked around to be sure no one could hear me, and whispered "You better have eyes in the back of your fucking head". Then I turned and left, got in my van and drove home, which took about 10 minutes. I walked in and my answering machine was blinking, meaning I had a message, maybe a potential job. I pressed "Play Messages" and it was him. His voice was shaky, but he said he was putting a check in the mail with the 2% late fee added and I should have it in two days. He ended with "thank you for the excellent work". I wondered what caused the change of heart?

When I told my wife about it she didn't like the part about "better have eyes in the back of your fucking head". And I agree, in most cases the mention of potential violence is a bad look for any local business, but in this situation, dealing with a deadbeat, I believe I made the right choice. I was paid in full. I had a mortgage and three growing boys who never once arrived late to the dinner table. I did what had to be done. 

In retrospect, if I had taken the time to write a simple contract, had him date and sign it, he probably wouldn't have tried to pull that crap. After that incident, I wrote simple contracts for all jobs over $400…

Forget Robert Frost. Here's one for the ages…

Caution to the wind...

If all I had were words that stand
as tall and strong as any man

I'd arrange them in such a way
in the wind you'd hear them say

"He who passes with unjust cause
needn't stop, or even pause

For if you should upset my peace…
the last word for you will be DECEASED!"

- Vindog (Now that's fucking poetry!)