THE FEARLESS CONSUMER- Clipped: Lawn service charges grow like weeds

When I read Heather Sweet's account of her dealings with Albemarle Super Wash and Lawn Maintenance, I must admit I felt a thrill. That's because it held out the promise of another visit to owner Andrew King's house on St. Clair Avenue, where all the windows have bars, all the doors– including closets– have deadbolts, and all manner of things, from surplus electric typewriters to AK-47s, are for sale. 

I'd been there once before, in the spring of 2004, when I was looking into a complaint from Virginia and Raj Paul about some mulch King had sold them ["Mystery mulch," June 10, 2004]. The mulch, King later admitted, had come from the Ivy landfill; according to photos supplied by the Pauls– and confirmed by Corbin Snow of Snow's Garden Center– the mulch was full of shards of metal and glass, caution tape, and 12- to 18-inch pieces of tree stumps and limbs. 

The Pauls refused to pay King's $695 bill; instead, they met him in Albemarle County General District Court on November 10, 2004, where Judge William Barkley ordered King to pay the Pauls $1,125. That's what Waynesboro Nurseries estimated it would cost to remove the old mulch and spread new mulch. King appealed. 

The Pauls' suit was the first thing I asked King about when I hailed him outside his fortress. He hasn't paid anything, King replied, because he hasn't gotten around to pursuing his appeal– and because it would mean starting from scratch, but this time in Albemarle County Circuit Court, neither have the Pauls followed up on the matter. 

"Watch out for the ferrets," King warned me as we approached the front door, which has four locks. I thought he said parrots, and was looking forward to seeing birds flying around the living room. Instead, I saw a large open cage about the same time I noticed that the place smelled, ah, a little musky (probably from the odoriferous nests to which ferrets are prone). 

I never did see the cute little mammals; instead, I sat on the couch and watched TV while King chatted on the phone. When I got restive and made signs of leaving, he ended his call, and we talked about Sweet's complaint.

Sweet and her husband claim that they hired King last April to cut their lawn every other week. All was fine, she says, until they noticed he had switched to every week. According to Sweet, she left a voice-mail message for King pointing out the discrepancy, but got no reply; also, her husband spoke to King once when he came to mow, and Sweet claims King replied that he was cutting the grass every other week, not weekly.

The Sweets cancelled their service in July, with the last cut on July 15. Sweet claims they've paid $180, which is what they owed for six $30 cuts between April 28 and July 15. King, in contrast, claims the Sweets told him to begin with weekly cuts and only switch to every other week when the growth rate slowed. But the dates on his bill, as reported by Sweet, don't support his claim: April 28, May 13, May 27, June 2, June 9, June 16, June 23, June 29, and July 15. That means he went from every other week to weekly, just the opposite of what he claims. 

"We do waive late fees," King said, "but we can't arbitrarily delete charges just because the customer says they're wrong." So it looks like this dispute, like the one with the Pauls, may be headed for an impasse. 

Before leaving, I asked how the selling-guns-on-St.-Clair-Avenue business is going. King cheerily reported that he had sold "a couple hundred" guns last year. I asked what his bestsellers are, and he replied, "cheap guns." He charges little or no markup, he explained, which accounts for his success. 

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