- Undersecretary John Chapman
Media Contact for Home Improvement Contracting: Nail Everything Down Before You Start!
Jacqueline Horigan, Public Outreach
Boston — Consumers spend millions each year on home improvement projects. A study released in April by the Remodeling Futures Program at the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University found that approximately $340 billion will be spent on home improvements this year.
These projects can be a boost to the overall economy, and particularly to professionals in construction, painting, plumbing, and other related trades. In many cases home improvement projects also increase the resale value of a home. Unfortunately, sometimes homeowners are misled by home improvement contractors, who leave them with unfinished or poorly done work and seemingly no recourse.
The state’s Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation registers home improvement contractors as part of the Home Improvement Contractor Law (HIC). The law was created in 1992 to protect consumers and regulate the practices of home improvement contractors. It established a contractor registration requirement, a complaint and enforcement program, an arbitration program for resolving disputes between homeowners and registered contractors and a fund of last resort – the Guaranty Fund – to compensate eligible consumers up to $10,000 for unpaid judgments against home improvement contractors. Before you hire a contractor to work on your home, make sure that the contractor is registered with our Office. If you do not, and you then encounter problems with an unregistered contractor, the law precludes your access to our Arbitration Program and the Guaranty Fund.
The law also requires written contracts for work estimated at more than $1,000. However, our Office recommends that consumers have a written contract for any job, regardless of the cost. The law applies only to pre-existing, owner-occupied residences containing no more than four units, or to existing structures adjacent to the residence, such as garages, gazebos, and/or decks. It does not apply to new construction, rental income property, or vacation homes.
Before hiring a contractor, consumers should get references and check the complaint history with our Office. Get a detailed, written contract with a total cost and don’t allow any work to begin before the contract is signed and dated by both parties and you have a copy of the signed contract. All change orders should be in writing. Confirm that the contractor is registered in the same name as the one on the written contract and make sure the contractor has a Construction Supervisor License (CSL) if necessary for the job.
It is important to understand that HIC registration is different from a Construction Supervisor License, which is issued by the state’s Office of Public Safety and Inspections. You should also check to determine if the work requires a building permit through your city or town. It is the responsibility of the contractor, not the homeowner, to obtain the permit. If the contractor asks you to obtain the permit, beware! You may not be eligible to access the Guaranty Fund if you obtain the permit on your own. Finally, never pay more than one-third down, unless there are special-order or custom-made materials, and it is reflected in the contract. A contractor cannot require the final payment until the job is completed to the satisfaction of both parties.
Most home improvement contractors are registered and licensed professionals who take pride in their work. But it is important that consumers know the HIC law and the steps they should follow to avoid having the home of their dreams become a financial nightmare. For more tips and advice on hiring a contractor, information about the HIC law, or to check a HIC registration, visit our website (www.mass.gov/ocabr) or contact our Office at (617) 973-8787 or (888) 283-3757, toll free, in MA only.
John Chapman is the Undersecretary of the Baker-Polito Administration’s Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation.