‘He broke down in tears’: I gave my contractor $100,000, but he used it to pay off his debts. What chance do I have of getting my money back?

I’m in a home-renovation nightmare. My interior designer accepted $100,000 in payments for appliances, cabinets, flooring, fixtures and hardware but never paid the vendors for those items. When confronted he broke down in tears, and confessed that he needed to use the money on other business expenses. 

Meanwhile, my project is at a standstill and I’m left living in expensive short-term rentals in California. I could go to the police and have him arrested for embezzlement, post warnings on social media, and/or sue him for the money but it’s apparent that he doesn’t have the money to repay me unless he can somehow stay in business.

My dilemma is do I stay quiet and continue dogging him for money until he pays me back, or report him and put him out of business thereby protecting others from a similar fate? 

Looking for Justice in a Desert City

Also see: I’m 34 and have 5 to 10 years to live — I want to spend $50K on a new kitchen, but my wife is vehemently opposed

“He was not shedding tears when he stole your money that you worked very hard for.”


MarketWatch illustration

Dear Desert City,

The most important thing to remember is that those tears were for himself. They were not for you, they were a result of the realization that he had been caught using your money to pay his debts, and that he could face legal and public consequences. He was not shedding tears when he stole your money that you worked very hard for. 

Why do I say this? Because you are very likely dealing with a narcissistic personality who will do what he needs to do to ensure his own business stays afloat — because your money means nothing to him except as a solution to pay his way out of debt. And because if he senses that you are a soft touch, he will string you along for months, even years.

You will need to light a proverbial fire under him to let him know that you will go to the local press, the District Attorney’s Office, the Better Business Bureau and, yes, the police if he does not repay your money within a set period of time. Of course, he will likely ask for more time, and more, and more. Send him a registered letter that establishes a firm deadline and what you will do, as outlined above, if he does not meet it.  

Before taking legal action, which would be expensive and prolonged, you are in a face-off of confidence. Anything that threatens his reputation and ability to do business will do more to get him to treat you as a serious contender, someone not to be messed with, and who does not take the theft of $100,000 lightly. Presumably, he has a lot of money running through his accounts, but he chose you as a soft touch. Prove him wrong. 

Angi, the home-services website, has other suggestions. “If you hired a licensed and bonded contractor, you can file a complaint with the licensing board against their bond,” it says. “But you need to provide proof, which is why your written contract, payment history, and records of contacting the contractor are essential.”

“Arbitration is a low-cost process where a neutral or third party mediates a resolution between you and the contractor,” the company adds. “These out-of-court hearings are a great way to come to a final agreement without stepping into court. Ask an attorney about how to approach arbitration and what they recommend for your case.”

Always get your contractor and/or interior designer to sign a contract, ask for their insurance information and license, don’t pay for services and fixtures and fittings up front, and make sure you get receipts for everything. Your case falls beyond the remit of the small-claims court. And if your contractor declares bankruptcy, you will have to get in line as one of his creditors. 

In California, “theft by false pretenses” involves one party taking your property by either lying to you or by making a false promise. “The fact is that ‘false pretenses’ is a theft crime just like shoplifting or grand theft auto,” according to the Shouse California Law Group. “If you are charged with this crime, you may face the same kinds of penalties as someone who is charged with one of those more conventional kinds of theft.”

Know your audience: This is a person who will do whatever it takes to make sure he gets out of the hole he dug for themselves. It will be hard to see them post about their business on Facebook and Instagram
META,
-2.17%
,
encouraging others to use their services, so make sure he knows you mean business. If he wants to avoid a PR armageddon, he should deal with you first.  

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You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions at qfottrell@marketwatch.com, and follow Quentin Fottrell on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.

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