The Brother-in-Law Trap

Every so often I am asked to help pick up the pieces after a homeowner or association’s repair project went awry because a cut-rate contractor was used. As tempting as it might be to use a PDR contractor (guy with a pick-up truck, dog and radio), the more prudent action is to hire a fully qualified contractor. It might cost you a bit more in the front end, but literally will save you a whole lot of money and headaches in the long term. Below is some information to help you identify the qualified contractor.

Once a vendor is identified, ensure they are insured, licensed and bonded. But what do these terms mean, and what protections, if any, do these requisites provide?

“Insured” means that the entity or individual has appropriate insurance to cover the vendor’s negligent acts. Most insurance policies exclude intentional conduct. Also, insurance often does not cover general breaches of contract, unless the breach results in bodily injury or property damage resulting from an unforeseen, sudden event or occurrence. For example, insurance would not cover a painter who only applies one coat of paint instead of the contracted for two coats, or the landscaper who overzealously prunes the association’s favorite rhododendrons. Insurance should, however, cover the cost of repainting a car that was covered with overspray from painting the condominium exterior, or for bodily injuries suffered when a plumber neglects to set the parking brake and his truck rolls over a homeowner’s foot.

For major contracts, it is important for the association to insist on an adequate dollar amount of coverage and to be a named insured on the vendor’s policy. It is not enough to simply be identified as an “Additional Insured” on the vendor’s insurance certificate or declaration page. The Association should require the vendor to provide a copy of the “named insured” page of the vendor’s policy.

“Licensed” simply means the vendor or service provider is registered to conduct business in the state. For more specialized vendors, such as general contractors and specialty contractors, it is imperative to know that the individual or company has followed the regulatory requirements to conduct its specific type of business. Although not a guarantee of quality or proficiency (because most state licensing requirements are simply a revenue generating process rather than a testing methodology), it is more of a red flag if the vendor is not licensed. Plus, many insurers require the policy holder be licensed in order for coverage to apply.

“Bonded” is another form of insurance, ordinarily for vendors who have access to client’s personal items or other similar losses. Bonded coverage is ordinarily limited to a nominal dollar amount, such as $5,000 or $10,000, and often covers intentional acts such as theft. This coverage would apply to a painter who has a bond and steals a homeowner’s $3,000 diamond watch. In such a case, the homeowner or association could file a claim directly against the painter’s bonding company.

A “Performance Bond” is another type of bonding insurance. Unlike standard business or commercial general liability policies, performance bonds are designed to provide coverage to the aggrieved association or homeowner who suffers a pecuniary loss resulting from the contractor’s malfeasance, breach of contract or intentional act. As with standard bonds, the dollar value of performance bonds is quite low and may not cover the total value of damages suffered by the association.

To avoid tax, human resource and heightened litigation risks, it is important for the vendor to be an independent contractor, and not an employee of the association. The contract should be clear on its face that the relationship is between a client-vendor, and not between an employer-employee.

As with most decisions, common sense is the most effective tool in the decision making process. Due diligence, prudence and following the foregoing steps should also keep you from falling into the brother-in-law vendor trap.