THE FEARLESS CONSUMER- Off the fence: Delay has horsewoman on the ropes

"Please, fence me in!" That was the subject line of Karen Knight's email, and she wasn't being facetious; it was also the plea she said she issued repeatedly to a fence builder who took her $2,500 deposit but never got around to building the fence. 

On April 12 of this year, Knight signed a contract with Kelly Hensley, owner of Timberline Fence Company in Scottsville, for roughly 1,230 feet of four-board oak horse fencing. Knight chose Hensley because he'd done a smaller job for her the year before and she'd been pleased with the results. So when she signed Hensley's contract for $5,000– and paid the $2,500 deposit– she says she had "no reason to expect trouble." 

But trouble she got. The fence never materialized, and the situation soon became urgent: Knight had originally owned 33 acres, but had sold 22 and built a new house and barn on the remaining 11. As the time to move her two horses onto the new property got closer, she says, the messages she left on Hensley's answering machine got more desperate. 

"I called and called and called and called and called," she claims; she also spoke to the contractor who had originally recommended Hensley. He suggested she call Hensley's parents, and told her how to contact them. She did, and it worked; the next day, Knight says, the fence man called and was full of apologies– and excuses. 

According to Knight, Hensley told her the wrong materials for her fence had been delivered and that he'd been swamped with work, much of it out of town. "He also promised to call me the next day when he was in town," she claims, and told her he would probably be able to start the job two or three days after that. Instead, that was the last she heard from him. 

On May 23, at her lawyer's suggestion, Knight sent Hensley a letter stating that the contract was null and void and asking for her $2,500 back. Again, there was no reply– or refund. 

Finally, when the moving date was so close that she simply had to have the fence in place, she found a builder who, although he was already booked up, took pity on her and rushed the job through. On June 16, just in time, the fence was finished. 

Knight wasn't finished trying to get her money back, however. "I had committed every dollar" to build the new house and barn, she says, and truly needed the $2,500. Finally, on August 29, she contacted me. 

On September 5 I left a message on Hensley's home phone, which is also his business phone. That evening, concerned that he might be out of town on a job and not get my message, I followed Knight's lead and called Hensley's parents. About an hour later, Knight called and said that although she still hadn't heard from Hensley, a third party had arranged to pay her back. The next day, she had her $2,500. 

On the surface, it's easy to see why Knight chose Hensley: Hiring someone who has previously done good work– and done it in a reasonable time frame– seems like a savvy move. 

But here's what struck me when Knight gave me more details. Hensley had contracted to do the fence for $5,000– yet when she gave up and hired the second contractor, he charged her $8,200, or 64 percent more. Knight says that that price, in turn, was significantly lower than estimates she got before signing up with Hensley. 

It's always tempting to go with the lowest estimate, but this is an example of why it's not always the wisest choice. Knight would have been prudent to wonder how Hensley's estimate could be so much lower than his competitors'. If she had spoken to people Hensley had built similar-sized fences for– and learned whether he'd delivered on time– a higher bid might have been a money-saver in the long run. 

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at 100 Second Street NW, Charlottesville 22902.