Taking the heat: The dark side of moonlighting

Martha Bryant now rues the day she believed that she could save money by hiring a moonlighter. If you've thought the same, this column's for you.

First, a definition. I'll use the term "moonlighter" here to mean a tradesperson who does a job on his own time. In Bryant's case, she hired a former neighbor, Larry Rhodes, to install an American Standard heat pump as a side job from his employment at Clyde E. Smith Inc.

Bryant says she worried that if Rhodes did the work on his own, there could be problems. Specifically, she wondered whether the warranty would be affected, and claims she asked company president Clyde Smith that question. According to Bryant, Smith assured her that even if she bought the unit through Rhodes– and paid him directly to install it– the warranty would remain in effect.

Rhodes installed the heat pump in Bryant's house at Lake Monticello on May 15, 2004. On the handwritten contract, in addition to American Standard's equipment warranty, Rhodes stated that workmanship would be warrantied for one year.

Bryant claims that from the beginning, the heat pump "had lots of noise." Rhodes states that he returned "five or six times" to look at the unit, accompanied by Jim Zeeff, who is director of sales and service at Clyde E. Smith.

Zeeff, who also helped Rhodes install the unit, says that they tried to appease Bryant many times."It's been real hard getting along with this lady," he says.

Bryant was equally frustrated. The 2.5-ton heat pump, she claims, continued to be so loud– and the repair visits so ineffective– that she asked another firm, Fitch Services, to take a look.

On September 17, two Fitch technicians replaced the blower wheel, re-wrapped a drain line, and re-mounted the unit.

The unit, which is in a crawl space under the house, had been attached to the floor joists, and Bryant believes the hanging installation explains why the heat pump was so noisy. The unit vibrated the joists and the floor whenever the blower came on.

Once Fitch employees removed the unit from the joists and set it on cinder blocks on the ground– which could then absorb any vibration– Bryant pronounced herself satisfied.

The blower wheel was covered by the warranty, but re-insulating the drain line and moving the unit weren't; parts and labor for those two items came to $159.09. Fitch sent Bryant a bill, which, in her opinion, either Larry Rhodes or his employer, Clyde E. Smith, Inc., should pay.

By the time I entered the picture, on November 16, Fitch was sending overdue notices and adding interest.

My conversations with Rhodes and Zeeff were cordial, but when I spoke with Smith, things got a little contentious.

"This job was never, ever brought to me," he said. "This has nothing to do with my company."

Shortly after that, however, he said Bryant had asked him whether she "would have a problem" if Rhodes did the job as a moonlighter.

I went on to report that Bryant claimed he'd assured her there would be no problem if Rhodes took the job. "If that's what she said, that's probably true," he replied.

"Somehow," he finally said, "we'll work this out."

He must have done something, because Rhodes appeared on Bryant's doorstep that evening with his personal check for $200 and a note of apology. "For your Fitch bill and any other late charges that may apply," the note said. "Just keep the rest for any of the troubles."

A happy ending of sorts, but Bryant now wishes she'd simply dealt directly with the company.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at Box 4553, Charlottesville 22905.