Avoid Home Improvement Disasters
Consumer Affairs Office Promotes "Nail Everything Down Before You Start" Campaign
As the home improvement season kicks into high gear, Massachusetts homeowners are being urged to take important steps before hiring a contractor in order to preserve their rights and avoid poor workmanship, incomplete jobs or fraud.
"All too often the outcome of a home improvement project is not what a consumer envisioned. To prevent worst case scenarios and preserve their arbitration rights our Nail Everything Down campaign tells homeowners to check references and complaint histories, hire a registered contractor and obtain a signed contract," said state Consumer Affairs Director Janice S. Tatarka.
During May and June, the Office of Consumer Affairs is getting its message to consumers through TV and radio advertisements and informational posters being displayed on rapid transit lines and in city and town halls and libraries throughout the Commonwealth.
Tatarka added, "We need to raise the level of awareness because the home improvement landscape is a complicated one that should not be entered into with haste." Tatarka pointed out that consumers are not commonly aware that contractors installing roofs, siding, replacement windows, in-ground swimming pools or doing exterior painting all must be registered as home improvement contractors with the state Board of Building Regulations and Standards. "Many of these jobs also require building permits and if the consumer obtains it instead of the contractor, they may not qualify for Guaranty Fund compensation if problems arise," Tatarka warned.
Last year, over $1.9 million was awarded to homeowners in arbitration settlements with home improvement contractors and $685,000 was reimbursed through the state-administered Home Improvement Contractor Guaranty Fund. "These programs are back-stops for consumers if problems result, but the first line of defense must be a smart consumer offense." Tatarka recommended homeowners undertake all of the following steps to minimize contractor problems:Nail Everything Down Before You Start
- Research at least three candidates:
- Make sure a home improvement contractor is actively registered with the state. Call the Board of Building Regulations and Standards at (617) 727-3200 or look-up the contractor on the web at www.mass.gov/homeimprovement.
- Referrals are helpful, but always ask for and check provided references.
- Find out if a contractor has a complaint or judgment history. There are several resources to do this:
- The Board of Building Regulations & Standards ("BBRS"), 617-727-3200, Option 4.
- The Better Business Bureau (if the contractor is a member), 508-652-4800
- The Office of the Attorney General, 617-727-8400
- The Office of Consumer Affairs (to check judgment history), 888-283-3757
- Never agree to unsolicited offers and be wary of pricing that seems too good to be true.
- Before you sign a contract:
- Get a detailed, written estimate that includes price quotes for all special materials, installations and labor.
- Ask for proof that your contractor carries insurance to cover your home improvement.
- Make sure the contractor understands that he must apply for and obtain a building permit if one is required.
- Review the contract carefully! It should include the contractor's registration number, a street address (not a P.O. Box), dates work is to begin and be substantially completed, the total amount agreed to be paid and a payment schedule, a list of specifications and materials to be used, provisions for changes or "extras".
- State law requires contracts over $1,000 to be in writing, but the Office of Consumer Affairs recommends a written contract for any amount. If a contractor will not agree to a written contract, consumers should re-consider hiring the contractor.
- State law prohibits contractors from collecting more than 1/3 of the total cost upfront, unless special materials must be ordered.
- State law also allows consumers three business days to cancel a contract they enter into at a location other than the contractor's normal place of business.
- Disputes or Problems? Consumers' Options & Rights:
- Arbitration: Consumer Affairs administers an arbitration program that is a cost-effective way to resolve disputes between homeowners and registered contractors. A professional, neutral arbitrator will hear the case and issue a legally binding decision, which may allow consumers to recoup some or all of their money from a contractor. An arbitration application must be filed within two years of the contract date/
- Guaranty Fund: If a consumer wins a case in arbitration or in court and the contractor files for bankruptcy or fails to pay, the consumer can apply for relief from the Guaranty Fund for up to $10,000 of the actual losses. To access the fund, a consumer must prove that a reasonable legal effort has been made to collect the award or court judgment payment. A Guaranty Fund application must be filed within six months of the court or arbitration judgment. To qualify for arbitration and the Guaranty Fund, a homeowner must have a written contract with a registered contractor for home improvements to a pre-existing, owner-occupied, primary residence with no more than four units.
Consumers are encouraged to understand their rights and options under the Home Improvement Contractor Law (M.G.L. c. 142A) by consulting the information provided on the Office of Consumer Affairs website at www.mass.gov/homeimprovement or calling our Hotline staff at (888) 283-3757.