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Recently there have been a rash of articles in the local press about problems with home contractors. Some complaints refer to shoddy workmanship, others to contractors who are consistently behind schedule, and in one recent case, a general contractor did a complete disappearing act.

When you run into problems with a contractor and your remodeling project stands half finished, your first instinct may be to run to a lawyer.

There are, however, some steps you can take before you march into court. Lawsuits, although they certainly have their place, are often expensive and time-consuming, and result in bitter feelings between the litigants.

The two alternatives to legal action are mediation and arbitration. In the first case, you and your contractor must agree to submit your case to a trained, impartial mediator.

The three of you will meet informally, and the mediator will listen to both sides of the story, try to clarify the problems, and to suggest ways to reach a settlement. This process is usually relatively short-lived, taking a day or less.

The main difference between mediation and arbitration is that in the former, the mediator can only listen to the case, look for common interests and options the two disputing parties have not recognized, and offer solutions.

The parties have to decide on the final solution, and the mediator accepts whatever that is. Mediation gives the parties full control over the outcome of the dispute.

Arbitration is a last resort which provides another option to letting the matter drop, or going to court. In arbitration, the disputing parties can agree to represent themselves to a neutral party who will make a binding decision as to how the matter will be settled.

Once arbitration has been chosen, the parties are committed to representing themselves (trying to persuade the arbitrator to accept their side of the story) and to accepting the arbitrator's decision. Cases that have been arbitrated in binding arbitration cannot be taken to court at a later date.

Although the Better Business Bureau of Western New York has been a source for arbitration and mediation since the 1970s, it recently entered into a program called BBB CARE for the benefit of its members.

BBB CARE expedites the process of arbitration by promising that consumer complaints will be reported to the member business within 24 hours.

"This program involves a pre-commitment to arbitrate," said David Polino, vice president of the BBB. "Businesses sign up (to participate in BBB CARE) and agree, in advance, to arbitrate unsettled complaints."

Approximately 100 Buffalo businesses have joined the plan so far, and these have the right to advertise the fact they belong to BBB CARE, and to use the program as a part of their warranties. Businesses which wish to join BBB CARE can do so by contacting the Better Business Bureau at 856-7180.

The mediators in the plan are BBB employees who have received special training in mediation techniques. The arbitrators are volunteers who have been trained and certified by the BBB.

These representatives must disqualify themselves from a case if there is any real or perceived conflict of interest.

"We anticipate that it won't be long before consumers begin to shop for companies that participate in BBB CARE," Polino said. It's a program that benefits both business and consumer by guaranteeing a procedure for the settlement of disputes.

For information on BBB CARE, simply call the Better Business Bureau at 856-7180. A person called a "resolution specialist" will take some initial information and an outline of the problem. The business the complaint is lodged against will be contacted the same day, and if the problem has not been solved within a week, the BBB CARE staff will offer to mediate.

Participating businesses have designated an employee as a customer relations representative to serve as the contact person for the Bureau and the consumer. This person has the authority to deal with the consumer's concerns and make decisions for the company.

Mediation is usually free to consumers, while there may be a nominal fee for filing for arbitration hearings.

These methods are admittedly a big savings over litigation. If, however, neither one satisfies your needs in a dispute, it may be time to call an attorney and invest the time and effort required for a lawsuit.

Jeffrey Freedman is a Buffalo-based attorney.

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