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September 15, 2004 Editor.  Pattaya, Thailand home construction, home building.  Must use caution when prepaying or giving deposit money for services.  Engineers that are rip-offs.  The legal system here is civil law as opposed to common law.  The written word and contracts are very important.

You always hear complaints about rip-offs in Thailand, but aside from this incident and a cell phone being ripped off by beggar children near the Cambodian border, I have to say I've been pretty lucky and found the Thai people to be hard working and honest.  That being said, the Pattaya area is not your normal area in Thailand.  There are many foreigners here and there is a virtual building boom going on.  This has drawn to the area a new class of contractor -- the contractor rip-off.  This class of contractor is only for foreigners, charges too much and doesn't do a good job. 

Here there really are no building inspections.  On big projects, ie. hotels or condos, the operator will normally have an on-staff engineer.  The engineer will primarily do structure checks but will also check various building details and recommend changes.  For single housing projects sometimes the engineer will actually be the contractor who bids the project.  He will show up every other day or so and check out the progress and have the builders make adjustments as appropriate.

On this project I always liked the idea of having a engineer come and do a weekly inspection, but I was talked out of it by my wife and the builders, who said it was unnecessary and expensive.  As we went along everything seemed to be progressing normally  until we encountered problems with the roofing.  In hindsight it was a minor problem which was easy to correct, but I did panic a bit.  Specifically, what happened is this; the roof tiles were laid on the back side of the roof prior to the completion of the supporting wall, and the sheer weight of the tiles caused some of the steel (of the metal supporting roof structure) to bend.  It caused the back part of the roof to not look straight.  After noticing this the builders took it upon themselves to recommend a solution, which involved supplementing heavy metal beams in the roof and jacking up the bent beams to be straight again.  Which is essentially what was done, probably overkill on the metal support.  Now the roof has got to be about the sturdiest roof around.  And since that time I've noticed that on just about all of the roofs in which I observed construction, the metal support does have some 'give' - which is OK (in other words not to panic).

This preface leads up to the introduction of the engineer.  Once I saw the problem with the roof (as mentioned above), I went out to find an engineer.  I wanted him to check the roof structure, recommend a solution and then come periodically (once a week or so) to check building details.  Checking around a bit didn't yield any recommendations, so I checked at a Thai school where I was taking some Thai language lessons and knew the principle of the school quite well.  They said that they didn't know an engineer directly, but they did know a restaurant manager who had a lot of contacts and who could recommend an engineer.  So this recommendation was made through the teacher contacting her manager friend and then passing the contact information on to me.  With the recommendation made I felt pretty comfortable in meeting the engineer.

Firstly, as it turns out it wasn't really an engineer at all, but a general contractor who has a retail shop selling a electrical building supplies.  However, he said he had a team and could provide the service I needed - which was specifically to make a recommendation on the roof and then have an engineer come once or twice a week to check progress.  He needed payment in advance for 1 months service which was 10000 Baht - which I paid.  He wrote me a receipt and we were off to the races, or so I thought.  In reality it turned out to be a plain vanilla rip-off.  He did show up one time with an engineer, but they never made any recommendation and there was no report.  When I called him to make an appointment I would wait at the site for hours and he never showed up.  Essentially, the long and short of it is he got paid for a service which he never provided.

This situation surprised me since, first off, I had got a recommendation and secondly this person has a retail building supply shop.    I went to my lawyer (not just for this issue, this was one of a few) although I already had written off the 10000 Baht.  More than anything I wanted to find out if there was some kind of complaint that could be filed or something which could be done.  I'd sure hate to see someone else get ripped the same as me.  The lawyer, who I really think is very thorough and gives good information, took the receipt and listened to my story.  She contacted the engineer.  When I met her again she gave me the conclusion.

The law in Thailand is civil law, not common law.  Nothing the contractor said is of any importance, the important thing is what is in writing.  The receipt was vague and open ended.  It basically translates to fee collected for checking the work in progress at the work site.  It doesn't provide that a report is to be written.  It doesn't specify that a specific recommendation is to be made.  Essentially it is an open ended receipt, not a contract.  The contractor who wrote the receipt knew the law and knew basically I could do nothing.  The lawyer advised that if this person was an actual licensed architect or engineer a complaint could be filed with the licensing agency.  But since he was neither (although he claimed to be both) no complaint could be filed.  Not only this, if I wrote a letter explaining what had happened and sent it to the restaurant manager who had made the recommendation, I could get in trouble for libel.  In other words, this isn't America, you've been burned and there isn't anything you can do about it.

The amount of money here is small, and well worth the education.  What I got out of it is: Try not to pay for services beforehand even if the provider appears legitimate.  Secondly, always get a contract and review it before entering into any business agreement.  This fits with my experience here, the written word is extremely important - what is said really doesn't matter much.

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