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Your contractor didn't show up on time, botched the job, won't fix what's wrong, and now is demanding full payment.
You're so mad you could spit.
So you go online to post a negative review and vent some choice words, hoping to warn others about the yo-yo whom you hired in good faith. Next thing you know, that contractor is suing you, claiming you harmed his business.
Yikes! What happened to the First Amendment? Can't you say what you want?
Apparently not. In Virginia, a homeowner who felt shoddy workmanship had ruined her remodeling project posted scathing reviews of her contractor on Angie's List and Yelp, even implying that he stole her jewelry.
The contractor didn't take the heat lightly and sued the homeowner for $750,000, claiming the defamation resulted in loss of business.
What followed was a series of suits, countersuits, and more online accusations. Ultimately, a Virginia court ruled in favor of the contractor, but refused to award any damages, saying that both parties had managed to defame each other.
A botched remodeling job is a major headache -- both emotionally and financially. A negative online review can be a potent way to shed a light on shady contractors and poor workmanship.
But voicing an opinion isn't a carte blanche to launch into tirades. In fact, the Virginia homeowner was lucky on two counts:
She lost the case but avoided paying damages because the contractor had publicly criticized her in kind.
Her case was handled by a pro bono lawyer. Otherwise, she would have been on the hook for court costs and lawyer fees, win or lose.
"The fact that she had to get a lawyer and go all the way to a trial has got to be a cautionary tale," says Paul Levy, an attorney for Public Citizen, a First Amendment advocacy organization. "If you get sued, it can end up costing you thousands to defend yourself, even if the verdict goes your way."
Check your homeowners insurance policies to see if you’re protected in the event of a libel lawsuit.
If your policy covers personal liability, you're probably protected against claims of libel and slander.
If not, you can purchase an umbrella policy that covers libel, or add a rider to your current policy for about $200-$300 per year.
If you have a beef with a building contractor, you're in good company. Here's a quick rundown of the businesses that received the most Better Business Bureau consumer complaints in 2012, the latest year for which it has comprehensive data:
In addition to registering a complaint with the BBB, an online criticism posted at Angie's List, Homestars, Service Magic, Yelp, and other forums makes the issue more visible.
A public expose not only exacts retribution, it may help solve the problem. Many professionals take negative criticism seriously, and will work with the homeowner to fix problems and right wrongs in the hopes that the homeowner will either retract the negative comments or at least say the issue was resolved to her satisfaction.
But the reality is that by the time a contractor has a chance to smooth things out, the damage to his reputation may already be done. A negative review tends to pop up more prominently in search results than a host of positive reviews, says Michael Fertik, CEO of Reputation.com, a company that works to protect the respectability of companies and individuals.
"For homeowners, dealing with contractors certainly can be an emotional issue," says Fertik. "A homeowner might not understand the complexities or skill set of a contractor's business, and the result may be a review that's exaggerated and deleterious."
Turning the tables -- and suing a homeowner for posting negative comments -- doesn't necessarily make the best sense for contractors.
For one, proving libel is difficult. A contractor would have to establish that whatever was said about him and his business was false and slanderous, not simply a complaint.
In response to the Virginia trial, Yelp's senior litigation director, Aaron Schur, wrote, "Litigation is not a good substitute for customer service. Businesses that try to sue their customers into silence rarely prevail, end up wasting their own time and money, and usually bring additional, unwanted attention to the original criticism."
Not only that, but, "who'd want to hire a contractor with a reputation for suing his customers?" questions attorney Paul Levy.
Nevertheless, even the threat of litigation is a powerful option for contractors. When a Toronto couple posted a 2,000-word negative review about their $400 home improvement project, their contractor threatened litigation unless the review was removed. Intimidated, the couple revised their review to a mere 30 mild words.
When it comes to posting negative comments, there's a good way and a not-so-good way. Here are guidelines for writing critical online comments that help readers understand the problem, and help the offending party (your contractor) improve its services.
Take a deep breath before posting. Vitriol and anger have a way of backfiring.
Avoid hurtful words: thief, liar, crook, rip-off artist, stupid jerk.
Document your concerns with facts. For example, if your contractor was habitually late, note how many times the crew failed to show up on time and how many days you estimate your project lost due to absences.
Without specific documentation, present any specific issues as your opinion. For example, if you didn't see them do it, don't say, "They damaged our siding while unloading their truck." You can, however, make your point by stating it as an opinion: "I believe our siding was damaged when they unloaded their truck." Those qualifiers -- it looked to me; it felt as if -- help establish your comments as personal opinion and help put you on safe legal ground.
Keep your comments short and to the point. Remember that you're talking to peers who want to be informed and who probably will dismiss a rant as too extreme to be trusted.
Online reviews have been a boon for homeowners, allowing us to gather firsthand info on every subject, from roofing contractors to lightbulbs. A 2013 consumer survey by BrightLocal says that 79% of consumers trust online reviews.
And 58% of respondents to a study by Dimensional Research say they’re "more likely to tell others about their customer service experiences today than they were five years ago."
But not all is calm in review-land. There are concerns that online reviews are too easily tainted, such as:
Positive reviews posted anonymously by a company's own employees
Underground reviewers-for-hire who'll post five-star accolades for money
Companies that try to undermine competitors with fabricated negative reviews
Opinions vary on whether review sites do enough to ferret out false reviews. Amazon, Angie's List, and Yelp insist they do. After all, it's in their own best interests to have trustworthy reputations.
Angie's List, for example, has an engineering group that randomly selects reviews for analysis and runs algorithms specifically designed to identify suspicious patterns.
"Overall, I do think entities like Yelp provide useful value for consumers," says Levy. "I'd hate to see people deterred from participating in them."
Contributing insightful, fair, honest reviews is a service to your fellow consumers.
Sorting out fact from fluff takes due diligence. As a reader of reviews, try to get the big picture before letting negative (or positive) reviews influence your decisions.
Get opinions from multiple online review sources -- not just one.
Be wary of extremes. The worst contractor alive; the best experience of my life.
Balance the good and bad. Don't let a small number of bad reviews overshadow the positive. With negative reviews, check to see if the contractor has followed up and attempted to appease his critics.