Austro-Hungarian Web Site

CAVEAT EMPTOR

© by Felix G. Game

The well-known warning of caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) is often featured in newspaper articles dealing with disenchanted consumers, and is normally aimed at door-to-door, or mail-order purchases that turned out to be somewhat less than expected. Quite often it turns out that the purchaser did not have his wits about him, or just acted in a very uninformed manner. In other words, the vendor was not really trying to cheat the purchaser. But herein lies the difference between ethical and unethical dealings. No ethical vendor will take advantage of an uninformed customer. If he does, he is not interested in his reputation and/or future business from the same customer.

Before you start wondering out loud what this has to do with genealogy in general, and Hungarian genealogy in particular, let me just quickly point out that the above concept is not restricted to the purchase of vacuum cleaners and used cars, but also affects such decisions as which lawyer to pick, which dentist to go to, and the engaging of a professional genealogist. Particularly a genealogist in Hungary with whom you wish to engage in a long-distance business relationship. I have some first hand experiences from which I felt the readers could benefit, but I wish to make clear that this is my own experience and that some other person could have a more positive experience with the same firm.  Consider the following case history, then draw your own conclusions.

Several of my clients had many leads in Budapest that needed developing. Some of this can be done by mail but the majority really needed someone to be there and do the work in person. I knew of four genealogists for hire in Budapest and drafted an identical letter which I sent to all four, asking for a quote of their fees. I should mention that I had written to these people on my own letterhead, and had enclosed my business card as well as a photocopy of details about me as they appeared in the catalog issued by the Association of Professional Genealogists. I had fully, and clearly identified myself as a professional genealogist acting for a client.

The responses to my form letter were as follows:

Firm #1:  I was sent preprinted promotional material in both English and Hungarian. The cover-memo was typed in flawless English. Their activities are segregated into three groups: Genealogical research, Personal research, and Other fields of research.

The first one is an eyebrow raiser in that it promises as the end product of their research "a book containing the detailed description of the members of your family." It boldly states "We can guarantee to find your relatives who lived in the last three centuries (from the 17th century onwards). We provide photocopies of all documents." The research fee is $600. The second group is the kind of work most of us do; the fee is $15/hour. The third group deals with  inheritance cases, coats of arms, nobility certificates, search for tombstones, search for (former) family homes, and arranging meetings with relatives. An order form was enclosed providing three alternatives: A free assessment of the prospects for research; commissioning a genealogical research; commissioning a personal research. The last two require an advance payment of $200 by American Express, Visa, or money order. The final bill will include additional fees for travelling, library fees, translations.

Firm #2:   The owner identifies himself as a lawyer and historian with 50 years experience who also has partners who are archivists. The response was written in passable English, but the writer said that he was more comfortable writing in German. The first response told me nothing about fees. I wrote my second letter in German pressing for an indication of cost, and I provided a hypothetical case (find the probate of a person whose name, date of death and last known address were known) which closely resembled the assignment I had in mind. I got a bit of a gentle slap on the wrist when he replied that it was difficult for him to understand that a person like I, who knows genealogy would think that it is possible to quote in advance what the cost would be. He then proceeded to explain how difficult it would be to find a Will: Wills are stored where they were made public, or in the case of a contested will, where the judgement was rendered. Consequently the Will could be in the office of a Notary Public, or that of an advocate, or in an archive, or even in City Hall. For how long? Generally such documents should be kept in place for 30 years after which the respective archive would take them over; if there is no room in the archive, they would remain in their original place for a longer period. Advocates and Notaries Public retain documents for 30 years, or as long as they want or are able to do so. He concluded that this would be a very difficult assignment, and would cost somewhere between 300 and 500 German Marks.

Firm #3:  I received a very brief reply in excellent English, which assured me that they would be happy to be of assistance and once I had a specific job in mind we could then discuss details.  I have known about the firm  for several years, and during that time I know at least of four changes of address and telephone numbers.

Firm #4:  This name was given to me by my client who saw an ad in the Genealogical Helper. The principal of this firm simply did not bother to reply to my letter.

I decided to pursue Firm #1 which had provided the most information. There was some further correspondence where I tried to coax a more meaningful estimate out of this firm but ran into considerable reluctance despite the fact that their brochure offers free estimates. The best thing seemed to try them on a simple, small job, and thus find out what makes them tick. The task I assigned was to find the records of the sale of a business to corporation X. The widow had sold the business after her husband's death; she also died a year later.  Names of the principal and his wife, their dates of death, and their address at the time of death were known and provided, as was the name of the corporation that purchased the business. The name and address of a solicitor involved in the estate was also provided. It seemed a simple assignment if the researcher knew where such documents were located in Budapest. The letter was sent by fax which Firm #1 seemed to favor. Ten days later there had not been an acknowledgement of having received the assignment, so I sent a follow-up fax. The instant reply was that it had been received. Thirty-five days later, not having had any sort of progress report, and fearing that someone was needlessly fumbling around at $15/hour, I sent a fax stating that because of lack of contact I had lost confidence and was canceling the assignment. In other words I was firing the firm. A fax came back simply stating that archives had been closed during August but that I would have a report within two weeks. After consulting with my client, our decision was to go along with the firm which had ignored getting fired, and wait out the two weeks in case something good came out of this yet.  

I did receive a big envelope about three weeks later. It was full of surprises - most of them unpleasant. First of all there was an invoice in excess of  $300, secondly nothing was said about the sale of a business, nor was any explanation given why the one and only item specifically requested was not mentioned in the five page report. There were quite a few pages of photocopies about corporation "X" in which we had no interest at all. There were also a few photocopies of the birth entries of some of the deceased's children, which I had not asked for. There were a number of references to family events in the text of the report without sources being cited or photocopies being enclosed of what the researcher might have been looking at when writing the report. The amount invoiced asked included $25 for translation (which I, being a translator myself, had specifically forbidden) and no copy of the original text was included. Also included was a charge of  $30 for "packing and postage" (there was no packing beyond a simple large envelope, and the stamps added up to about $5). I was not a happy camper, and my client nearly had a coronary.

The lesson to be learned is that some people will try to get every last Dollar out of you once they get you interested in dealing with them. I have no quarrel with someone setting a high price for his work, as long as the client is aware of it in advance, and as long as the work is of an equally high caliber. I have, however, absolutely no patience with "professionals" who ignore clearly written instructions and research objectives and then pad the invoice with such phony items as translations they were told not to do, and postage and packing when the packing does not exist, and the postage is six times what they paid.

The truth is that clients do not always communicate very clearly, often simply because they do not have specific research goals, other times because they just are not eloquent when it comes to verbalizing what they want. In my mind, it is up to the professional to ask the right questions of his client until both are satisfied that the issue is clearly understood.

There have been many articles written about how to hire a genealogist, what to watch for, what to ask, etc. so I will not go over it here. From the above case history it is obvious that things can go wrong even if you know what to do and provide clear instructions. Perhaps the most important protection is to hire someone who has been referred to you by a friend or relative, not someone who is unknown. This is not always possible, so you should be prepared to write a detailed outline of exactly what you want to achieve, and send it with your request for an estimate. If you cannot get a satisfactory answer, then perhaps you are better off to pass, and try someone else.


Send comments to: fggame@rogers.com

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