Nonpaying Customer owes $429 - worth small claims?

Discussion in 'Landscape Maintenance' started by banjogum, Jun 7, 2011.

  1. banjogum

    banjogum LawnSite Member
    Messages: 25

    I should have known better because something didn't seem quite right with this woman from the start but ...
    I got a new customer recently who told me up front that she had between $500-1,000 to spend for weeding, planting, mulching, etc. the flowerbeds in her backyard. The way I HAD been doing things was to require a deposit prior to doing the work and purchasing supplies (plants mainly). She gave me a GOOD $300 check, so things seemed fine.
    Job was going to take 3 days (this place was in extremely bad condition). When I met with her on the 1st day and again saw her on the 2nd day, I did mention I was a little concerned about accumulating costs - her response: "Oh don't worry, I'm good for the money." After 2nd day (this past Saturday) I asked her for the balance which was $429, based on the understanding I would need a 3rd day to finish, including mulching the beds and still having 4 plants to get planted. At that point she said no more money without a detailed invoice, so I wrote one out on the spot (at her suggestion) - showing supplies/equipment costs/labor. She didn't seem too happy about my request, but gave me a check for $200, and said nothing else.
    Prior to coming out for the last day, she called me & it was as if I was talking to a completely different person! She had a dozen complaints, including contesting almost everything on the invoice, including how many hours I was there, costs of various supplies, criticized work she knew was NOT finished yet, etc. Then claimed she didn't need things she specifically requested. I listened, and responded appropriately to her concerns, but when she said the place looked worse than before I started, I had enough. I suggested we not continue with the project since she "can't trust me." She then insisted on references and insisted I return to complete the job. I told her I would send her references and call her about returning sometime.
    At this point, I wanted to get a couple things in order before contacting her again. First, called some regular customers and warned them this nut might call them, and briefed them on her grievance (they were as confused as I was). Second, cash the $200 check she gave me Sat. I went to her bank and as I could probably have figured, check was no good (whether she had the money in her account or put stop payment is unknown). I called the police to see if I could go back to her house and get MY supplies - unused soil, unplanted plants, etc. They were fine with that so I went (this is the kind of person who would claim I was trespassing and I didn't need that trouble on top of everything else). She took the supplies and maybe hid them somewhere - mind you supplies she claimed she didn't want or need.

    With all this, I have not contacted her at all (including not sending her any references). With the bad check, she owes me $429 now. I did a simple credit check and nothing on her but 29 cases on her soon-to-be ex-husband (17 in the last year). I could ask her for the money (in cash) but I doubt she will respond. I could try small claims but this could wind up being a she said case, despite my before and after pictures (also no written contract). And, she could counter sue me (for what who knows but she obviously has experience with the courts given her husband's history).

    I am a very small business - just me, and an occasional labor hand. Maybe I'm lucky, being in this business for about 5 years and never having had this situation, but it doesn't feel good anyway! So, what to do? I'm inclined to let this go and chalk it up to a learning experience. Any suggestions from you guys in my industry would be greatly appreciated.
  2. mnglocker

    mnglocker LawnSite Senior Member
    Messages: 758

    Have a lawyer draft a letter explaining that they need to pay up NOW, not when they feel like it. And that if they don't, you're going to court.

    It'll probably cost you $50 but it'll be worth it.
  3. GMLC

    GMLC LawnSite Platinum Member
    Messages: 4,345

    If she owns the property and your state allows, put a materials and labor lien on her property. She wont be able to sell, refinance etc. etc. until your paid. Some states call it a mechanics lien.
    Last edited: Jun 7, 2011
  4. Showpropserv

    Showpropserv LawnSite Member
    from mn
    Messages: 242

    and remind here checks that are written with knowing they are bad is a nono:nono:
  5. Think Green

    Think Green LawnSite Silver Member
    Messages: 2,746

    Lien's are still submitted by an attorney. If it was this easy.......everyone would be putting up liens on every little bill not paid.
  6. cpllawncare

    cpllawncare LawnSite Silver Member
    Messages: 2,659

    Yep, that's what I would do. I recently had one bail on me with a $45 balance I let it go, but not a $429 balance :nono:
  7. GMLC

    GMLC LawnSite Platinum Member
    Messages: 4,345

    Every state is different, here in NH it requires simple paperwork and costs about $40.00 at the county court. Its good for 120 days and if the debt is not paid you can extend it in 120 day intervals. A mechanics lien is good for labor and materials installed on a property. These liens are available to contractors and tradesman because you cant repo installed materials on private property. Again mechanics liens are not allowed in every state and Im sure some states require an attorney.
  8. FLAhaulboy

    FLAhaulboy LawnSite Senior Member
    Messages: 852


    Buy yourself a cheap digital camera and always take before and after photos of the work, that way if you ever have to sue, you'll have clear proof of what was done...along with a written contract that will show the client tried to cheat you.
  9. banjogum

    banjogum LawnSite Member
    Messages: 25

    Thanks for all the advice, guys. I'll look into a mechanics lien in Wisconsin. I just hate to throw good money after bad (can't make her pay, but maybe with this lien idea I could). She's mentioned foreclosure on their house several times so a lien may not matter anyway though. I also hesitate because this is the kind of person who's a lot slicker than me. I file small claims on her and she could employ her evil powers to twist things around and I end up losing ... somehow.

    I DO have a camera (and not cheap either) ... I have before and after pictures. But we did NOT have a written contract.
  10. GainesvilleLawnscaping

    GainesvilleLawnscaping LawnSite Member
    Messages: 59

    You won't win anything in court without a written contract, so don't even waste your time. Never step foot on a property to begin work without a contract or agreement in writing.

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