Doug Sutton remembers well his first sales call. It was 30 years ago and Sutton, in his 20s at the time, was sitting in with a grizzled rep running a siding lead. The presentation concluded with the rep giving his prospects a price: $6,900.
“And how much is it with the labor?” the female head of household earnestly asked.
“I was just coming to that,” said the rep, not missing a beat. He informed the couple that the labor would be an additional $3,800, but because they'd agreed to supply referrals and allow the company's yard sign on their lawn, he would discount it to $2,400. “I can do that for you if you buy tonight,” said the rep, “and it includes the materials.”
Back in the car, Sutton asked the rep how he could, in good conscience, ask for an additional $2,400 when the first price already included labor and materials.
“They're schmucks,” was the reply. Case closed.
Sutton says he was left thinking: “What kind of business have I gotten myself into? He just made $2,400 that he had no business making.”
Today Sutton, who is owner of Sutton Siding & Remodeling in Springfield, Ill., and is president of the Central Illinois Better Business Bureau, hands every prospect a brochure titled, “Home Repair: Know Your Consumer Rights.” Among other points, the brochure advises homeowners to determine if the contractor has insurance, will guarantee the work, and has secured proper permits and inspections. The document lists four 800 numbers consumers can call to contact the Illinois state attorney general's office if they have any reason to believe they have been defrauded. Every contractor in the state is required to print and furnish the pamphlet to customers.
Consumerism's Bad Boy Sutton contends that practices such as those he witnessed his first time out are now rare. “At the time, I was shocked that that type of thing went on,” he says.
But while out and out chicanery may no longer be common, a glance at the type of publicity currently generated by the home improvement industry indicates that the industry's black eye, its image as the bad boy of American consumerism, has far from faded. During the last five years, at least three large home improvement companies — in Indianapolis, Minneapolis, and Omaha — have gone out of business, leaving thousands with unrefunded deposits and unfinished jobs. Each demise created news stories, making that black eye a bit darker still. And big companies going bust are only part of it. Day in and day out, stories appear about flimflammers pretending to be home improvement contractors. They knock on your door offering home improvement services, collect deposits, and then skip town.