I RECENTLY learnt a very costly lesson. It was costly enough to ensure that my recent year-end bonus went towards legal fees — my own and those of my adversary.
Although I cannot name the supplier who did me in (lest I risk more legal costs), I want to share the torrid tale in the hope that it serves as a warning to other potential victims. We often learn best from the misfortunes of others.
Even though the matter was finalised a few months ago, it goes back more than five years and sadly predates the Consumer Protection Act.
It all started in 2007 when a tile-sealing expert (or so he called himself) was contracted to strip and reseal my home's indoor and outdoor clay tiles. Besides his foreman and staff spilling chemical all down my front steps, the sealant applied began to peel within days of the work being done.
Despite several attempts at remedial work by a different foreman (the original one, I was told, had been caught drinking on the job), the peeling returned.
Six months later, despite numerous assurances that he would sort it out, the supplier stopped returning calls. I kept detailed logs of each call I made, but I lost this evidence when my diary was stolen in a smash-and-grab incident a few months later.
Lesson one: always keep a back-up of important notes, preferably electronically.
The trump card I thought I held was that I hadn't yet paid the R7,500 cost of the job. When the defects were noted, I offered to pay half on the condition that he commit to a date to discuss the problem. He didn't and so I didn't pay.
My view was that he would soon come round (figuratively and literally) when he wanted his money.
Lesson two: never assume.
I put the issue on the back burner and got on with other home and work priorities.
Lesson three: never leave a problem unresolved.
I did not hear from the man for the following two years and assumed that he had abandoned the job - and his chances of being paid.
Then, out of the blue, he wrote to me threatening to sue if I did not cough up. Staggered at his audacity, I reminded him that he had never completed the job. His reply? "Tell it to a judge." So I did. On principle.
Lesson four: legal battles are seldom won on principle.
My lawyer counterclaimed for the cost of fixing the damage, which equalled the tiler's claim. Then I assumed (yes, that mistake again) that he would settle to avoid a costly trial. Not so.
So, five years of court adjournments later, we finally got to trial. I had done my homework — too late — and discovered the supplier had left a trail of unhappy clients all over town. Clearly, the "housewife", as he referred to me in court, was an easy target for him.
I was confident that the magistrate, who visited my home to inspect the tiles, would see the merits of the case, be appalled at such treatment of a consumer and vindicate me. At worst, I hoped she would call it quits, absolving both of us from having to pay anything to the other. She did neither. Instead, she ruled in the supplier's favour - and awarded costs. She believed his story that my tiles' wide grouting was to blame for the peeling and that I had been warned about this prior to accepting the quote.
The fact that the grouting had never been raised with me during or after the job was done and was not mentioned in the detailed quote seemed lost on the magistrate.
My expert witness argued that the peeling was a result of a poor and inadequate sealing job. But she did not buy it.
She also did not buy my legitimate reasons for why I hadn't taken action against the tradesman in the two years prior to his summons. That I had just moved into a new home, had a demanding toddler underfoot, was commuting between Durban and Johannesburg almost weekly for work and would have needed to move out of home to have the job redone was not enough.
Maybe if I had told her that I had also been distracted at the time chasing dodgy arms deal payments and tackling a notorious health minister with a fondness for the bottle and a new liver I would have got more sympathy.
That the man himself had done diddly-squat about the stalemate for more than two years didn't seem to count.
Anyway, it's now all spilt milk. So what should I have done? For starters, I should have checked his track record far more carefully - a silly oversight about which I will remain eternally ashamed.
I should have insisted that he put in writing before the job any misgivings he had about doing the work. It's way too convenient after a botched job to apportion blame.
Most significantly, when he ignored my phone calls I should have sent him a registered letter outlining the defects and demanding he make amends, failing which the agreement would be null and void. That would either have prompted his speedy return, or, if not, certainly have strengthened my position at trial.
Fortunately, we now have the Consumer Protection Act on our side — and a consumer commission to rule on such disputes.
Granted, the commission is underfunded, underresourced and painfully slow (I'm praying for improvement this year), but it cannot possibly be worse than going the tricky legal route and pouring one's hard-earned cash down the drain.
* This article was first published in Sunday Times: Money & Careers