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I will hopefully close this out. Thanks everyone. I started this because I was curious whether or not the covid pandemic had resulted in other people experiencing very long delays such as I have. Every situation is unique; I was looking to see whether I was alone in this or not.
Hopefully you feel better for having got all that off your chest.
None of which changes the fact that no matter how many excuses one could put up, or how bad things are, the simple truth is someone out there has been repeatedly lying to their customer. Either the instrument is in progress and will be shipped out next week, month, year or whatever, or someone is lying. Ok, I get the unexpected can always cause a delay but from one and a half years to two and a half with missed promises and no communication? Something else is wrong there.
Or simply life intervenes.
There is a ton of risk in having a guitar built by a one man shop. What happens to your deposit if that luthier dies before your guitar is finished? What happens if you do not like the guitar? And then there is shipping, customs and your own health to consider. For all of these factors, I have never chosen to commission a handmade guitar. I own six guitars that were built by an individual luthier, but all were bought used.
I did bring one of my handmade guitars to a local luthier for some restoration work. The original builder lives a long way away and was too busy with his waiting list of new builds to do a restoration. The local luthier told me that the job would take 6 months to a year to complete and asked for no money up front (the guitar itself provided him with all the security that he needed). It took about 18 months for me to get the guitar back. I hounded him quite a bit during the last 6 months, figuring the squeaky wheel gets the grease. The work done is superb, but knowing that his word is not to be trusted means that I will not be using his services again.
There are other luthiers whose word is their bond. To the OP, good luck!
Stringswinger brings up a good point regarding deposits and luthiers longevity. Legally deposits are then considered a debt owed from the estate to the creditor. In the simple situation where the luthier doesn't have a legal spouse, estate rules usually require that the assets of the estate pay off the biggest creditors first. If there is anything left then one may end up getting their deposit back.
That assumes the deposits were refundable. Many including myself state a policy in writing somewhere where their deposits are non-refundable in the event of cancellation etc. Usually since most of my work is ordered through PayPal. I would refund with some sort of extracted service fee just to avoid unnecessary hassles. In one case a client pissed me off but in that case, PayPal had no issue and enforced my statement. He may have gotten his money back though his credit card but nothing came out of my pocket nor did it affect my good ratings with PayPal.
It becomes complicated if the maker has a spouse. Is she or he liable for refunding deposits? I know of one really awful situation and horror story where the maker kept taking fully paid orders for his instruments which were to be built with the assistance of local CNC shops. But then as soon as the CNC shops got tooled up and in production these CNC shops lost interest and flaked out - so the work never really got into production. Meanwhile this maker had a spot of colon cancer. He didn't have health insurance and didn't trust Western medicine so he sought some miracle cure in Brazil, and funded its expensive application with the deposits and what other moneys he could muster and he and his wife went off for a 6 month long sabbatical in Rio. Orders kept coming in and promises kept going out and to some extent his income was justified - all makers use deposits to pay the mortgage when due, the utilities, medical expenses, food, etc. Even when the maker has collected everything. In many ways its basically a ponzi scheme which most of us eventually pay off in full.
Its doubtful if my friend reaped any benefit from this Brazilian adventure other than a belief that somehow it cured him - and then 3 years later it suddenly turned aggressive and got into his liver in a really bad way. He was gone a month later. Liver/Colon Cancer is about the worst way to die - my wife and I have seen that up close with some family members. Meanwhile his wife and adult son were left holding the bag for medical expenses, not to mention this unsolvable liability for all of these instruments that would never be finished. A number of us tried to offer some direction and advice of what to do and in most cases it was to simply walk away. I don't know the details but I suspect his wife sought protection through bankruptcy or simply shined it all on since there was really little anyone could do about it!
Just from my proximity I felt really exposed for myself and my wife. I have had some health issues and then when Covid hit it put this feeling into overdrive. This is why I stopped taking orders and I have transformed the prepaid value of instruments in my queue from a toxic exposure worth a year or two's gross income to less than five thousand dollars at this point. If I suddenly croaked, all my wife has to do is put a few lathes and a milling machine up for sale, and sell my blackwood pile to a colleague whose sons have a 30-40 year stake ahead of them. She will have lots of money left over.
I am now sleeping much better!
Covid has delayed my colonoscopy though a simple screening sample that one mails in and the lack of any kind of symptoms was all good. Fortunately I get my innards examined next week. I'm looking forward to the Verapamil high afterwards when one can eat anything again. Hopefully if I have to head to Rio it will be to gather with musicians there.
It seems this simple question has gone way off topic.
I fully understand all that life can throw at you, but there is NO excuse for dishonesty and lies.
If we are posting our respective tragedies, then yes, my wife had not only stage three ovarian cancer a few years ago, but breast cancer was found at the same time, and the two were unrelated and required different treatments. I took early retirement to care for her. Thankfully with some great doctors and her fighting spirit she is still with me, but yes, we went to hell and back for a while there. And yes, I know how deadly Covid is, my Mum died April last year in a London hospital. At age 89 with kidney problems she probably did not have long left anyway, but she caught the virus while in hospital and was declared another of the UK's Covid statistics. Worse, because of travel restrictions, I was not allowed to fly over for the funeral.
But this is not about sob stories, the original question just highlighted our mutual responsibilities to each other, a question of trust and how that trust should be reciprocated with honesty. I could add other problems along the way, but my point was, and still is, there is no excuse for lies. Whether a one-man guitar making operation, an established business, or just a simple private individual, it is always easier in the long run to come clean and tell the truth. Lies will catch up with you one day, but most people if you are honest with your communication will have some understanding.
As for deposits, yes of course, we could all die waiting, luthier or customer, and in the overall picture who owes who a couple of hundred dollars when someone has died really doesn't matter and whatever the deposit paid it will certainly be less than a lawyer's bill so either the luthier refunds it out of sympathy or you kiss it goodbye.
I'm assuming from this story that your friend was in the US. Uniquely American where a health misfortune causes your whole family to go bankrupt. USA, USA....
Exactly as Chris said. Lots of people here are making several hypothetical points. Good points but the gist of what's happening with OP isn't that.
From my experience as small business owner, being straightforward with your clients is indeed the best way. Thing is, it's not even about honesty. It's about not assuming everyone out there is an a-hole out to get you. I've seen this perspective of life over and over again from others in the same business. Some even thought I was silly with my forthcoming. As in "you have to play the game because they're playing the game". I did as I felt was the right thing to do and during the 8 years I did that, never had a heated argument, never got stiffed for a payment and lost one customer as far as I know. A lady who ditched me also ditched a contractor who recommended me to her and he said "good riddance" when he realized he's nixed by her. I didn't make as much money as I could've if I "played the game" but I made enough to sustain me and continuously grow the operation and made close friends among my clients. One guy, who I was apprehensive about in the beginning, even called me one time to warn me that his friend was going to call me but said not to do business with the guy; "find some excuse that you can't handle the job because he will never pay you a dime". I mean I wasn't naive either, I kept my eyes and ears open and I wouldn't start a job without a deposit which would cover my cost of equipment in the case of worst outcome. But if something went not according to the plan, I'd communicate and at the same would have a plan to offer to remediate.
So whatever happened with the luthier in the original question and his inability to deliver could be justifiable, who knows, the OP will likely never find out. But regardless, it's not an excuse to run a business that way.
To state a positive experience, when Risto was building my guitar we went back and forth a few times over some details and he sent a few pictures during the build and he delivered when he said he was going to deliver, around 6 months. Actually the guitar made from him in Skopje to me in Chicago in one day once he shipped (I have no idea how he does that but I've heard the same from others) but then customs held it for a week, for whatever reason, before they released it.