Furnace job is costly lesson for frantic owner


March 06, 2007|By DAN THANH DANG

If there were do-overs in life, Thomas Park would go back to that day a few weeks ago when his Rheem heating unit conked out in the middle of the night.

Temperatures were hovering in the upper 20s as a mess of snow and ice covered the ground outside. Panicked, Park grabbed the phone book, flipped through the yellow pages and began calling companies located near his Joppatowne home.

The first company was swamped. The second, Economy Heating & Air Conditioning in Joppa, said it could come out that afternoon if he paid a $106 fee to have them show up.

Park did almost everything you're supposed to do when hiring a contractor. He called other companies for estimates. He researched the problem on the Web. He questioned the companies rigorously about how they charge.

Only he did those things way after the fact, when it was no longer of any help to the Harford County homeowner.

When we are caught in what seems like a dire situation, we tend to freak out.

We convince ourselves that there's no time to call around. We believe that any company that will show up is the only company that has time for us. We persuade ourselves that we have to pay the price, fair or not.

In our fear, we feel powerless.

But more often than not - unless water in your home is rising up to your neck or an uprooted tree is hanging precariously over your roof - we actually have plenty of power in that moment of dread. We can avoid paying more than we should.

Alas, Park said he forgot all that when he immediately agreed to fork over the $106.

That afternoon, an Economy technician did show up carrying an electrical test probe and a hot surface ignitor, a device that lights the gas to start the unit.

"He hooked up the probe to make sure it wasn't an electrical problem and then it took him 30 seconds to diagnose the problem," said Park, who is a shipping technician for a manufacturing company. "Then he took off the furnace panel, replaced the ignitor and then put the panel back on. He was in my house for a total of 15 minutes."

For that, Park coughed up $380, which means he paid the guy a little over $25 per minute.

"I was really hesitant to pay it, but I felt like I had no choice," Park said. He asked how he was charged and was told that the electrical test probe cost $97, parts and labor cost him another $177, plus the $106 to show up. (The invoice made no breakdown of parts versus labor.)

The minute the Economy tech left the premises, Park went online and discovered that a broken ignitor, which costs about $30 brand new, is often the culprit when furnaces stop working. Then he called two other HVAC companies for a price quote. One said they'd charge him $200 and the other told him the job would cost about $250.

So if Park could do it all over again, he says he would have armed himself with all that knowledge beforehand.

Ah, yes ... if only.

"It is more than what most would charge," said Larry LeDoyen, a retired HVAC contractor who worked in the business for 50 years. These days, LeDoyen sits on the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation's HVACR board (the R stands for refrigeration).

"The $106 fee should have included a half-hour of work," he said. "I know 99 percent of HVAC contractors do it that way. ... [But] the board wouldn't be able to do anything about that."

Had Economy performed shoddy work, run off with Park's money without finishing the job or fraudulently or deceptively used a license, the state board could have intervened if Park filed a complaint. But none of those was the case here.

According to Deputy Commissioner Harry Loleas, however, the state board does not typically get involved in fee disputes.

"That would be considered a civil matter," Loleas said. "The board does not get involved in what can be argued as being a reasonable fee dispute."

In other words, Economy might be able to make a reasonable case that could justify that fee.

To avoid such disputes, call around for price estimates. Ask about any walk-in charge, and how a company will charge for services. Is it by the hour or by the job?

And if you don't already do it, make it reflexive to call 410-230-6231 or go online at www.dllr.state.md.us/pq/ to check if a contractor is licensed and insured. It's important to understand, however, that you need the individual contractor's name to check the state licensing database, not the company's name.

Being fully plugged-in allows us to make informed decisions.

Park, unwilling to write the company off, tried discussing his complaint with Economy's owner, Robert L. Allen, who is licensed and insured, according to the state board database. "He said, `Next time you have a heating problem and you don't like my service, go somewhere else,'" Park said.

To be fair, I called up Economy to give them a chance to comment. Someone who identified himself as Jerry refused to disclose his last name and said the owner was unavailable. He declined to explain how Economy sets prices per job. He did say he would relay my request for an interview and forward Park's complaint to the owner.

No one from Economy ever called back, so we'll never hear their side in this dispute or find out if they were fully justified in their calculations.

This is of little comfort to Park, but at least his furnace is working. And this time, he's got two choices: He can walk away from the whole debacle or he can pursue the matter in civil court.

"It's a lesson learned," Park said.

Seems to me, everyone involved in this might be wishing for a do-over.

Reach Consuming Interests by e-mail at consuminginterests@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6151. Find an archive of Consuming Interest columns at baltimoresun.com/consuming.

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