I’m Glad my Laptop Doesn’t Have a Built-in Camera

 

This is a detachable webcam

My detachable webcam

In George Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother—that is, the omnipresent government—uses hidden cameras inside residents’ homes to keep an eye on them.

Well, in case you were unaware, anyone who is proficient at hacking might be able to do the same to you if your computer is on and it has a built-in webcam.

Ergo I’m glad that my laptop uses a USB clip-on camera for the rare times I Skype.

Hackers who are so inclined can manipulate websites and imbed an invisible permission prompt for the use of the webcam. The nefarious no-goodniks place the prompt on top of a video’s “Play” button, or on another button or link, so that an unaware user gives the hackers permission to start taking pictures through the webcam.

The website www.MakeUseOf.com recommends that folks with webcams download the most recent security updates for their cameras. They also recommend that you regularly scan for malware (better yet, have a security program running on your computer). Of course, you should use a firewall. And just to be sure, watch your webcam’s external light (if it has one) to be sure it’s not on unless you are using your webcam.

If all of this is too technical for you, just place a piece of paper over your webcam when you are not using it.

Now, where the hell did I put my camera?

Airline Fees – I Like Them! Say What?

Let’s say that you book a hotel room and the rate includes drinks from the in-room liquor bar, use of the workout room and the pool, in-room coffee, pay-per-view movies, and afternoon tea in the lobby.

Now let’s imagine that you are a person who doesn’t drink alcohol, nor work out, nor swim, nor drink coffee, nor watch movies, and who hates tea. What if you could book that room for, say, a 50 percent lower rate that does not include the amenities. You’d jump at that price, right?

Well, guess what, that’s exactly what the airlines have been doing. In 1954, a roundtrip ticket between San Francisco and New York cost about $200 plus a 10 percent government tax. Not long ago I booked that trip for a little under $400. I took carry-on luggage. I brought my own meal, which I purchased at Trader Joe’s, including fruit and a little dessert, for about 10 bucks. The flight was hours shorter than the typical flight of 60 years ago when coast-to-coast travel was by four-propeller planes.

Let’s calculate inflation. 200 smackers in 1954 would equal about $1,700 today. I would rather not pay for baggage handling, a meal, a snack, extra legroom, etc., and instead save all that moolah. If I want to check a large bag or two, I can pay for it. Same goes for extra legroom, airline food (which is never as tasty and healthful as the stuff I bring along), a movie, or any other airline perks.

So, as with the hotel room example I posed, I would rather pay for only those amenities of which I avail myself. In the old days, we paid for all that stuff whether or not we used it.

So quit kvetching about how little the airlines give us and thank Southwest and other no-frills carriers for bringing a price-saving revolution to the airline industry. Now where’s my neck pillow?

How I Earn More on My Credit Card Than I can From a CD

(Note: None of the companies, credit cards, or investment strategies mentioned below constitutes an endorsement.)

                If you pay off your credit card balance each month, this article is for you. Otherwise, it’s best you move along to another article. I just heard a radio commercial for a bank that pays a “generous” return of 0.7 percent on its certificates of deposit (CDs). Say what?                 For years I used a Capital One Venture® Visa card as my primary charge card. And I charged all purchases greater than five dollars on it. Why? Capital One pays me 2 percent back on all my purchases. Get it? I was making three times as much on my credit card as a I could get from my bank (actually, my credit union). That money is usable for travel expenses, which means the cost of travel, like airfares, hotels, and meals. But I can also use it to payCredit Card - Captial One Venture for any expenses while traveling.                

You can search for other cards that match that deal. I have one that beats it and I’ll get to that in a moment.                

The catch? Capital One charges a $59 annual fee. So, do the math. If not, Capital One also offers a Quicksilver® Rewards card that pays 1.5% with no annual fee for those with excellent credit. If you charge enough to make the rebate exceed the annual fee, you’re in like Flynn with the Venture Card. Otherwise, you can go with Quicksilver, which has no fee.                

I invest with Fidelity Investments. It now has programs that beat even Capital One’s. Fidelity offers an AmerFideltiy American Express cardican Express card that pays 2 percent and a Visa card that rebates 1.5 percent. Neither levies an annual fee.                

My point? If you have a good credit rating and you pay your credit card bills in full each month, find yourself a suitable rebate card and charge away for on the purchases you would be making anyway. You’ll make a lot more with it than “investing” in CDs.

Are you Willing to Swap Convenience for Privacy?

 

Orchard Supply Hardware

An OSH Store

I am downright paranoid about privacy. Getting my Social Security number from me is less likely than a cow jumping over the moon. It amazes me how easily, even in this day of rampant identity theft, consumers are willing to turn over their personal information to any web site or merchant who asks for it.

Orchard Supply Hardware, commonly known as OSH, has 85-plus retail outlets in California. Their stores are smaller than big box stores like Lowe’s but considerably larger than the typical Ace or True Value location. Some years ago OSH became a subsidiary of Sears.

There is an OSH just three blocks from my house and I have often joked that if I had an employer I would ask for direct deposit, not to my credit union, but to OSH. I have bought everything from power tools to screws to plants at that store.

I recently returned a 2 ½ gallon jug of driveway cleaner to the store and was asked for my driver’s license. I showed the license, still in my wallet, to the staffer. “I’ll need you to take it out of the wallet,” she remarked.

            “Why?” I responded, as if I didn’t suspect what was coming, much to my chagrin (I brought my chagrin along on this trip as I always do. My chagrin hates to be left alone at home).

            “I need to run it.”

            “Gee,” I thought, “She’ll definitely win that race. My license has no legs.” But what I said out loud was, “No.”

            “Excuse me?” she interrogated.

            “If I let you enter the information on my driver’s license into your computer, it will go into a data base. There, anyone who works for your company can access all my personal information. And if a hacker gets into your system they (Ed. note: yeah, I know, bad grammar) can steal my identity.”

            “We use a company to maintain the database and it’s secure,” she politely retorted.

            “If the Pentagon can’t keep its data bases secure, and UCLA had 300,000 personal records hacked, I somehow believe that OSH’s database can be hacked into as well,” I rejoined, not that I ever joined anything to begin with.

            Here’s the Reader’s Digest version of this rest of this epic tale. Store policy: no refunds without driver’s license.

            “But California requires that all such restrictions be conspicuously posted near the cash register.”

            “But the new policy is on the back of the receipt.”

            “Did anyone point it out when I made the purchase?”

            Here comes the store manager.

            I explain my concerns, i.e., giving OSH my name, address, date of birth, driver’s license number, hair color, eye color, etc. And since you did not make me aware of the return conditions, you have to pay up.

            “May we at least copy down your license number?”

           “OK.”   Here’s the upshot. Most people I know say they would never hand over this info, but they don’t have the cojones to stick to their guns. Because I stick to my guns, I often complicate my life, like when my new dermatologist’s staff said they could not process my insurance claim without my SSN, even though my health insurer does not even want to know my SSN. So I had to seek reimbursement through a claim to my insurer, which claim they lost, then forgot to act on the second submission, then had to reimburse me through payment back to the doctor. And it took seven freakin’ months!           

         So I called OSH headquarters. Mind you, this is a company that was started in 1931 as an orchard farmers’ cooperative in the town of San Jose. San Jose is now America’s tenth largest city. Company headquarters is just a few miles from my home. I want to support a business that employs local people. And I expressed this desire to Barbara, the company customer service gal. Why, I wondered out loud, do I not need show my driver’s license when I use my credit card before walking out of the store with $200 worth of stuff, but I do need to have my personal information recorded when I ask that the return be credited back to the very same card?

            Barbara was flummoxed, if that means what I think it means. And when I told her that although I had shopped at this OSH hundreds, if not thousands, of times, I would not be likely to shop there again, until they dropped the driver’s license requirement. She said she would pass my concerns onto management. I’ll be writing more about that type of process in large corporations in an upcoming blog.

            So here I am, about to leave for The Home Depot to pick up a dishwasher discharge hose, lamenting my trial separation from OSH, the local company swallowed up by the big-name retailer; the company that was once my local hardware store and is now just hard.

            But I rest assured that my ID will not be stolen, at least not because of OSH’s unreasonable demands.

  • P.S.  – I am a commissioner on the all-volunteer Santa Clara County Advisory Commission on Consumer Affairs. I have just requested that this issue be placed on our next meeting agenda and that we ask the county board of supervisors to recommend to the state legislature (after all, what else does the State of California have to worry about?) that they outlaw this type of invasive refund requirement. So there.

YOU CAN BANK ON BANKS BANKING ON YOUR FEES – or, how to get more bank for your buck

 

           Until a few years ago I was a Washington Mutual Bank customer. The branch was close to my house and there were no fees for the services I used, with the exception of a safe deposit box. (No, it’s not a “safety” deposit box. It’s a box in a safe.) When the banking scandal hit in 2008 Wamu went bye-bye. Seems it was in the illegitimate mortgage business that eventually bit it on the ass.

            That’s when JP Morgan Chase got into the picture and picked up Wamu’s business for a song (I think the song was George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun”). So my Wamu branch became a Chase branch.

            Then three things happened. I became uncomfortable with all the money Chase got as part of the federal bailout. Then Chase had a few more scandals. And as I waivered as to whether I should take my money and run because of ethical considerations, Chase announced its new fee schedule.

            Hasta la vista baby. I moved my money, primarily deposited in a checking account, across the mall parking lot to a credit union. And I’m glad I did. As if the big banks aren’t making enough, they’ve come up with some pretty sneaky fees. According to USPIRG and California PIRG (PIRG is the acronym for Public Interest Research Group) here are some fees and how you can avoid them.

            Some banks will allow you to withdraw more money from your automatic teller machine (ATM – that’s why it’s bad English to say “ATM machine”; “machine” is already in there; if you say “ATM machine,” I will report you to the FBI of investigation) than you have in your account. Then you get hit with an overdraft fee.

Solution: Check your balance to make sure you are not withdrawing more money than you have in the account.

            Many financial institutions are now charging several bucks for non-customers to use the banks’ ATMs to make withdrawals from the user’s bank. On top of that, the user’s bank may charge a fee as well. You could end up paying five dollars or more in fees for a 20-buck withdrawal.

Solution: Use only your own bank’s ATMs or become a credit union customer and use an ATM that’s a member of its affiliated network. Some groceries will allow you debit additional cash as well, when you make a purchase .

            Here’s a swift one, and to me it’s just a rip-off. Let’s say you inadvertently write several checks in a short period for which you have inadequate funds in your checking account. What many banks do is deduct the largest check amounts first from your account. This causes the most checks possible to bounce. At the usual $29 to $39 returned check fees, plus the potential penalties levied by the offended merchants, you are getting – as they say in the financial industry – screwed big time.

Solution: Keep track of how much money is in your account. That’s why there’s a register in your checkbook. And don’t forget debit card expenditures. If you’re not sure of how much is in there, check with your bank. It’s a good idea to use a check book that makes carbon copies of checks as you write them. I wonder if that’s last situation left where we make carbon copies.

Some banks are now even charging five to 10 smackers if you deposit a check you received from someone else and that check bounces.

Solution: Don’t accept checks from someone you don’t know to be trustworthy.

            There are banks and credit unions that charge fees for not having a set minimum in your account unless you use direct deposit from your employer. Others charge dormancy fees for not actively using your account

Solution: Find a financial institution (I think that term is so pompous; institution?) that doesn’t levy those fees.

Here’s a cynical one. Fortunately for Californians, it’s a no-no in that state: You buy a gift card at a bank. After a set minimum period the bank charges non-use fees of two to three dollars a month.

Solution: Move to California. Or, if that’s too drastic, buy gift cards from retailers that don’t attach such fees to their cards.

            If your bank charges a fee for your talking to a teller or a telephone representative (or even an automated telephone system!), ask yourself: “Why am I doing business with people who charge me to check on the money I am, in essence, lending to them?”

Solution: If this situation isn’t enough to motivate you to look elsewhere for a bank, at least ask the leaches how many free teller visits or calls you are allowed each month. If you call or visit to correct a bank error, be sure that you are not charged a fee.

            Since I don’t use – or even have – a debit card, I was not aware of this one. If you choose to use your personal identification number (PIN – see grammar lesson for ATM at the top of this article) instead of signing for a debit card transaction at a merchant,, your bank may charge 25¢ to $1.50 for each transaction. Really?

Solution: If your bank imposes such a fee, use your credit card instead of a debit card, providing, that is, you’re not carrying a balance on your credit card account. You don’t want to add to the balance for which you are already paying interest. Otherwise pay cash or by check. Or find another bank that appreciates your business. By the way, I don’t carry a debit card because a debit card is like cash. If you lose your wallet or purse, you could be in for a heap of hurt.

            In conclusion: Know your bank’s policies and fees. When you get those occasional notices that describe changes in bank policy, take a few minutes to read them. They may be significant enough to prompt you to change financial institutions. And keep in mind, the big bank bailout that cost the American taxpayer so much did not involve credit unions.

Are you an Environmentally Conscious Consumer?

(The first in a recurring series on consumers’ impact of on the environment)

Going to a coffee place? Bring your own mug. Photo courtesy www.GreenEarthBamboo.com

We hear it time and again. Americans make up less than five percent of the Earth’s population and we consume approximately 25 percent of the world’s goods. Why and how? In a word: money. We have lots of it. And even when we may not have quite enough moolah to satiate our families’ desires for material goods, there seem to be few limits on how much we’re willing to borrow in order to satisfy our collective hunger. Credit cards, home equity loans and refinanced mortgages fuel our materialistic society.

And with those financial resources, we indulge ourselves in all sorts of stuff that strains our ecosystems, the air we breathe and our very lives. How many times have we seen so-called soccer moms driving around town alone, after they’ve dropped the kids off at . . . fill in the blank: school, soccer practice, dance lessons, Little League, etc. – in their Chevy Yukons or Ford Excursions? And as they go about their shopping chores they’re guzzling down (or is it “up”?) a gallon of gasoline every ten miles, give or take.

The law of supply and demand is going to change all that and more quickly than most of us think. Petroleum and natural gas are not renewable sources of energy. And prices at the gas pump are just beginning to show that. As countries like India and China (accounting for almost one half of the world’s population) modernize, the demand for fossil fuels, lumber and water is skyrocketing. One projection sees the price of gasoline in the U.S. to ratcheting up to eight dollars per gallon in the next ten years. And that’s in 2005 currency, not adjusted for inflation.

So what are you willing to do in order to contribute your fair share to – if not turn things around – at least slow the pace of consumption and the strain on Mother Earth? After all, at two-and-a-half bucks a gallon, a 40-gallon SUV gas tank now costs 100 bucks to refill.

There are waiting lists for 50 mpg Prius and Civic Hybrids now. When the cost of refilling large SUVS goes to over 300 dollars, where will you be? And a 20-mpg minivan is no bargain either.

Lumber and paper prices are rising as well. Virgin (i.e. not recycled) paper may soon be at a premium. That would be especially true if the current American administration runs into roadblocks from so-called tree huggers, a phrase loosely used these days as a term of derision for anyone who wants to place a priority on environmental protection over unfettered materialism and corporate profit.

What I’m driving at here is this. We can each play a part in reducing the stress on our planet and on each other. Let’s start with a few examples. You know all that paper that comes spewing out of your printer at home (and at work too, for that matter)? Do you toss it after you no longer need what you printed? It seems that most of what we print is stuff we really don’t need anyway. How about saving paper whose reverse side is blank and using it to print out the other stuff that doesn’t require pristine paper, like first drafts, email jokes and Web site purchase receipts? Using this simple method I’ve cut my paper use almost in half. If we all did this we could save gazillions of trees – give or take a zillion – each year. And are you meticulous about recycling paper? Come on! Big deal! For a provocative article on effects on the environment of Starbuck’s coffee cups, check out http://blog.greenearthbamboo.com/20100823/green-is-grand/the-starbucks-dilemma-continues-recycling-rewards-and-the-consumer/.

If you’re driving a gas guzzler, think about a different choice next time. After all, what is an SUV? A sport car? Ha! Most of them are jacked-up, modified station wagons that car manufacturers equip with big tires and call sport utility vehicles. Can you say, “marketing to the gullible”? How many people ever take them off-roading? So where does the “sport” come in? For most folks a car with similar interior room will do just fine.

In the months ahead I will from time to time share more specific ideas on this topic. For now, please ponder the issue of an indulgent consumerist society for a few minutes before you kick back and crank up your DVD player or TiVo or VCR.

Earn Money by NOT Buying Extended Warranties

Which auto accessory would you guess makes the most profit for car dealers? MP3 player? GPS system? 6-way electric seats? How about the accessory most car buyers hope they’ll never actually use . . . and seldom do? Extended service contracts are the bread and butter for many dealers. Recently, Christina, a friend of The Consumer Gal (i.e., my wife) purchased a Honda SUV. She paid an additional 14 hundred bucks for a warranty that extended coverage to 7 years or 70,000 miles, whichever comes first.

Hondas are among the most reliable vehicles on the planet. And Honda’s frequency of producing lemons is close to nil. I suggested to Christina that she return to the dealer and cancel the extended warranty. She followed my advice and used the 14-hundred-dollar refund to reduce the principle on her car loan. Smart move. I have been told – but I don’t have the stats to back it up – that economy car dealers often make more profit from extended service warranties than from selling the cars themselves.

Let me introduce a concept I call "Self-Warrantying". Then I’ll explain when, where, and how to use it. When you buy a car, a refrigerator, a TV set, a camera, or any other device that involves technology – the salesperson will likely ask if you would like to purchase an extended service contract. Ask how much the extended protection costs and if there is a deductible (or copayment) for service. Then politely decline the offer. With automobile salespeople, you may have to go beyond being polite. They can be tenacious.

When you get home, take the purchase amount of the contract you declined – and the amount of one copayment – and put it into an investment account. I would suggest a conservative no-load index mutual fund. Each and every time to make such a purchase, follow the same procedure, adding to the account as you go. Watch your savings grow and, if an item should need a repair during the period of time covered by the extended warranty you turned down, take the money out of your investment account and pay for it. If you make it a habit to purchase reliable brands to begin with, you will watch your money grow steadily.

How does this work? Let’s use Christina’s new SUV as an example. The vehicle came with a standard 3-year, 36,000-mile warranty. The 14 hundred dollar extended contract covers only those repairs the vehicle would require after 36 months or 36,000 miles and before the odometer hits 70 thousand miles (or 7 years). Christina thought that was a good deal because her brakes were sure to wear out and need replacement during that period. Ah-ah. Extended warranties rarely, if ever, cover so-called wear-and-tear items. Not brakes, not tires and not items you damage. The odds that her car would need a covered repair during the term of the contract are slim. And even if it needed repairs, what are the chances that the cost of repairs would exceed 14 hundred bucks? Lower still.

Consumer Reports magazine has a feature I love. It shows the frequency-of-repair records for items it evaluates. They include appliances, electronics, and automobiles and light trucks. The annual April issue is dedicated to new and used vehicles. Look for the most reliable brands when you shop. I always pay with a credit card, except for cars. Why a credit card? Free extended coverage, that’s why. It amazes me how many consumers don’t realize all the free benefits that come with gold or platinum Visa and Master Card credit cards as well as American Express and Discover cards. They almost always double the manufacturers’ warranties that come with any item you buy using the card – up to one additional year (caution: read the card agreement for details and restrictions). They do not, however, cover motor vehicles. I have actually taken advantage of that benefit three or four times over the last couple of decades and it was a snap each time.

Some families purchase new vehicles every few years. And even if you purchase a used car, you can shop smart and get a reliable vehicle or a manufacturer-certified used vehicle that will allow you to skip extended service contracts as well. Think of the amount of money you will save over the years!

When I purchased a minivan in 1996, I resisted the salesperson’s extended warranty pressure and put $675 into an index fund. By the time the five-year contract would have been up, the mutual fund’s value was almost 14 hundred dollars. All the repairs it did require surfaced during the original manufacturer’s warranty period.

Here is the exception to the advice above. If you don’t pay off your credit cards in full each month, I don’t want you adding to your debt. And credit card debt is among the worst (as in most expensive) of all. I used to be okay with extended service plans for computers because they so frequently require tech support or repairs. But what I have discovered is that , if you buy a reliable brand (check out Consumer Reports reliability rankings in their most recent article on computers), the odds of needing a repair  are fairly low and the cost for tech support — typically 40 bucks a pop for each instance, or problem — the odds are you will spend more for the extended warranty than for a la carte support. And if you can find a computer at Costco that meets your needs, they throw in tech support for as long as you own your computer.

Consumer Guy Tip: Pay off your credit card debt first. Avoid new purchases as much as possible until you’re out of debt. Transfer all your debt to one card that has the lowest interest rate. If your cards are maxed out, pay off the ones with the highest interest first, paying the minimum on the rest. Close the accounts as you pay them off until you have just one or two accounts. Then follow the above advice to extend the warranties on new purchases. Buy cars that are reliable and skip the extended service contracts.

Some Privacy Is Better Than None

With all the recent tribulations in the wacky world of California – skyrocketing fuel costs, high unemployment, and the budget crisis from hell – it’s easy to forget some of the trendsetting legislation that has emerged from the Golden State. After four years of attempting to get a wide-ranging consumer privacy bill passed, the legislature in Sacramento rose to the fore a few years ago.


The conflict hinged on so-called "opt-in" and "opt-out" issues. Most consumers have received notices from financial institutions with which we do business, giving us the option to opt out of permitting these businesses to share our personal information. These options are required by the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). 


In essence, FCRA provisions permit customers to opt out of allowing their banks, insurance companies, credit card issuers, mortgage lenders and the like to notify the respective companies that their customers don’t want their information shared with other companies. The idea behind the legislation is that our private information is among our most precious possessions. When it proliferates, our liabilities increase.


Recent statistics indicate that more than one out of every ten Americans have been the victims of identity theft. It is now the most common form of felony theft in America. When our Social Security, driver license and credit card numbers, along with our birth dates, spread from data base to data base, we open ourselves to unwanted solicitations from businesses and unfettered access from all types of nefarious individuals.


The problem with the FCRA is that, while it requires businesses to send their customers notices of their right to privacy along with opt-out forms, it requires each individual to opt out of information sharing. In other words, it requires the individual to take action. What members of the California legislature – led by Senator Jackie Speier – attempted with the California privacy legislation, was to shut down unrestricted information sharing by forbidding it outright. In other words, businesses would have to get specific permission from consumers in order to share credit information.


Financial institutions in California, just as in Washington, hold considerable sway (read, "money talks when it comes to lawmaking"). For four years big business was able to stymie any efforts to get real reform passed. But once it looked as though a referendum threatened for March of 2004 would lead to the toughest privacy legislation in the history of the universe, things began to change. The proposed California initiative would make financial institutions wish they didn’t have to get out of their greenback-stuffed mattresses in the morning. Suddenly the financial guys decided to reach a compromise in Sacramento.


Under the terms of the legislation businesses may share credit information with their affiliated companies that do the same type of business (e.g. an auto insurance company can share info with its home insurance business) without requesting their customers to opt-in. In order for businesses to share information with affiliated, but unlike, organizations they must send their customers a simple opt-out form with a prepaid return envelope. To share data with an outside company, they must request their customers to opt-in. The latter means non-sharing is the default status.
 

The Con$umer Guy’s tip:

 

There’s very little consumers gain from being barraged with mail and phone calls. There’s even less we gain from having our personal information accessed by who-knows-whom. Opt out whenever you can unless there’s a particular company from whose affiliates you really want to hear. Guard your personal information. Tell your legislative representatives –both state and federal – that you want your personal information protected. You don’t want unknown employees at businesses that have your credit information sharing those data with other parties unknown. Never share your social security number, driver license number or date of birth unless you absolutely must. Just because an application or information form requests particular information, doesn’t mean you must provide it.

 


Ellis Levinson has made a career of helping consumers with their complaints against businesses that don't meet customers' expectations. Your business might be employing money-saving strategies in the short run
while alienating customers day after day.

Why do You Think They’re Called “Contractors”? It’s Because of that Contract.

The thought of finding a reputable contractor can strike fear even into the heart of a Green Beret. In the last edition of Inside South Valley, I discussed the ways to choose a contractor for your remodeling job. But even tougher can be negotiating the contract. Why bother nitpicking the details of a contract? You went through the trouble of finding a reputable professional, so why not trust him to do the job right? Right?

Wrong. Have you ever heard the expression, “There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip”? That means what the parties agree upon and what they remember agreeing upon can be quite different. And if there’s a dispute, you’ll need a written document. My friends Rance and Mara hired a contractor to do a second story addition on their house. The document was about two pages long, probably one-tenth of what it should have been. Their descent into contracting hell was rapid and deep.

So what goes into a contract? Everything! And I do mean everything, down to the color and brand of the paint and the appliance model numbers. Never be afraid to negotiate the fine points of the contract. Don’t let a preprinted form intimidate you. Other than for legal requirements, everything in a contract is negotiable.

Make an extensive list of everything you’ll want in the contract. While you and the contractor write the document, include any changes. It’s easier to do at this stage so you won’t have to create change orders later on. Provide for negotiating such change orders as the work progresses.

For substantial renovations, have the contractor include sketches or building plans. Mara and Rance didn’t. If the contractor doesn’t have a design department, consider hiring an architect. If you take that option, interview several architect candidates, as you would when hiring a contractor. Be sure all your needs appear in the remodeler’s contract, as some incidentals may not appear in the architect’s plan.

You can negotiate for upgrades or a price reduction before you sign. But don’t get pushy. And get a warranty – at least one year, preferably backed by a reputable warranty company – on all work and materials.

Include a completion date with daily monetary penalties for late completion.

Anytime you pay for materials or services provided by a subcontractor – plumbers or electricians for example – have the contractor give you a lien release signed by the supplier or “sub”. If you don’t, your house could be subject to mechanics liens if the contractor doesn’t pay these providers.

Include wording that describes how clean the job site will be left at the end of each day and how waste will be disposed of.

Set up the payment schedule based on phases of completion, not upon dates. In other words, when specific parts of the job are completed – say the staircase is finished – the contractor will be paid for that stage of the job (once government inspectors sign off on the work). And be sure there’s a holdback included on the final payment of at least ten percent. Final payment should take place 30 days after completion in order to ensure that all work is done properly and everyone’s been paid.

Include a provision for settling disputes, whether through arbitration or court proceedings. Arbitration means you will not be allowed to sue the contractor.

Purchasing appliances and fixtures on your own might save money or offer more options.

Include a clause entitling you to inspect and supervise the job as work progresses.

Try not to pay any sums in advance. California limits deposits to ten percent of the contract or $1,000, whichever is less. If you have to pay for materials in advance of the job start, you may want to make the checks out to the materials suppliers. Include that in the document.

Rance and Mara did very few of these things. They paid for incomplete work and eventually asked me to rescue them from an overpriced and drastically incomplete job. It cost them a lot of extra money and emotional stress – to say nothing of the additional six months – to get the job finished.

If you’re lazy about putting in your share of the work at the start, you may end up putting in a lot more effort trying to make everything right later on. Good luck.


Ellis Levinson has made a career of helping consumers with their complaints against businesses that don't meet customers' expectations. Your business might be employing money-saving strategies in the short run while alienating customers day after day.