Home Improvement Contractors – What Homeowners Should Know

With home improvement fraud and scams on the rise in the United States, homeowners must take the necessary precautions to avoid becoming victims of “fly by night contractors.” For those who still own their properties after seeing the rise in foreclosures across this Nation, it is incumbent on you the homeowner to do the following before you go in search of a Home Improvement Contractor.

Home Improvement Contractors (HIC) in most jurisdictions in the United States is regulated by City, State or County Agencies. For example, in New York City, Nassau and Suffolk County in New York, the Department Of Consumer Affairs regulates the operations of Home Improvement Contractors and Home Improvement Salesmen (HIS). These are representatives or sales people who negotiate contracts on behalf of Home Improvement Contractors (HIC).

There are basically three (3) stages of the home improvement process, namely: The Negotiation Stage; The Contract Stage and The Work In Progress and Completion Stage. In the Negotiation Stage, a homeowner should perform a “due diligence” on prospective Home Improvement Contractors and Home Improvement Salesmen, hereinafter referred to as HIC and HIS respectively. This is where you research and check to see if the HIC is a bona fide and legitimate operator. You start by calling the Agency that regulates HIC and HIS in your area. Ask HIC and HIS for proof of licenses, workmen compensation, general liability insurance, performance bonds, and references.

You should also check with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) with respect to the reputation of such businesses. Check to see any history of complaints and how they were expedited. Make sure that the HIC/HIS has a physical business address, business telephone, fax, email address, website, etc. Beware of “fly by night contractors” that operate out of their trucks, vans, SUV. It is very important also for you the homeowners to get at least 3-5 free written estimates from HIC and HIS. Some HIC/HIS may charge a reasonable fee depending on the size of the job estimate. For example, those estimates that involves blue prints specifications, plans, zoning, etc. However, you should try and negotiate a free written estimate that expressly state in black and white prices, brand names, colors, designs, start date, completion date, etc. Keep in mind that “word of mouth” is the best recommendation. Get references from HIC/HIS and invest the time to check the jobs and speak to the homeowners directly. Ask questions!

In the Contract Stage, before you sign or execute a contract, make sure that you obtain copies of HIC/HIS licenses, workmen compensation, general liability insurance, performance bond (applicable for large projects), and inquire whether the HIC participates in a Home Improvement Trust Fund. This is a trust fund that the Agency requires HIC to pay into so as to protect homeowners from HIC who takes off before a job is completed. You are required also to make sure that all brand names, styles, colors, any oral promises (some high powered HIC/HIS will promise you the moon to get your signature), along with manufacturer’s and labor warranties to be expressly written in your contract. Most importantly, make sure that the HIC/HIS expressly put in writing a start date and completion date, along with giving you your right to cancel (recession rights).

Most contract laws allow you three (3) business days from the date of a contract to withdraw or cancel the contract without any penalty or obligations. So if you gave a deposit to the HIC/HIS, you are entitled to a full refund within a reasonable period of time not to exceed 10 days. Check with your jurisdiction to make sure of this right. With respect to deposits, some HIC/HIS may require a deposit upon the execution of a contract. Be very careful of HIC and HIS who ask for large deposits up front. Beware of HIC and HIS who wants cash or have checks written out to his or her name. Make checks payable to the Business name only. It is advisable to pay using a credit card. If the HIC is a legitimate operator, it is very likely that they accept credit card as a Merchant. However, the Rule is: Do not give a deposit more than what you can afford to lose. In other words, give a very, very small deposit. A bona fide, reputable and legitimate HIC will not ask for a deposit up front. Such HIC has credit accounts with Home Depot, Lowe’s, and other suppliers who will not rely on your money/deposit to buy materials.

If you are not financing the work through the HIC or a third party lender, it is recommended that you pay progress payments to the HIC. Progress payments are incremental payments. In other words, you pay as the work progresses. For example, if you are getting a roof job done, you may want to give a percentage down (one third of contract price) only on delivery of materials and start of work. Then you give another one third payment when the roof is completed and the final one third when the construction debris is removed from your property. It is advisable to hold back at least 10 per cent of the total contract price for at least 90 days to ensure that the work was done properly. For those homeowners who wish to finance their projects through the HIC or a third party lender, make sure that you do not sign any blank bank papers. You should also ask the HIC/HIS whether the amount you finance will cause a lien or second mortgage to be placed on your property. Make sure that the bank does a visual inspection of the work before you sign a completion certificate allowing the bank to pay the HIC.

Finally, the Work in Progress and Completion Stage; this is the most crucial stage of the work. The HIC is ready to walk away from your project, but you want to make sure that the work was done in accordance with municipal building codes and all of your manufacturer’s warranties, warranty on labor, etc., are given to you in writing. This is where you will be asked by the HIC or HIS to release final payment. If you finance the work, the HIC/HIS will ask you to sign a completion certificate which they will take to the bank to get a release of the funds at your permission. Some banks will do a visual inspection to make sure that the work was done. However, it is very crucial that you make sure that the Municipal Building Inspectors give a green light for your project. In other words, they must sign off on the job stating that all work was done professionally and in accordance with municipal building codes. Some jobs may require a certificate of occupancy (CO).

Make sure that you have this CO in your hands before you release final paymen

The Need for National Guidelines and Testing in the Home Improvement Industry

It is time for Washington to step up and put legislation in place that will force states to better regulate the home improvement industry. Up to now Washington has left the regulation of the home improvement industry up to state regulators, and for whatever reason(s) many states have fallen considerably short.

There are still some states that do not even have contractor licensing in place for home improvements. For some of the states that do have licensing, the license requirements do not include that the applicant demonstrate the ability to do any type of home improvement work. (That is like saying I will issue you a license to cut hair but you don’t have to demonstrate that you know how to cut hair……… ouch!) Then why do states bother issuing licenses if there are no requirements to demonstrate competence? Revenue? Or could it be that they need more consumer complaints for Consumer Affairs and BBB to handle? The unfortunate consequences of this problem are that homeowners are the ones who are paying the price by receiving poor workmanship and a cascade of home improvement problems.

Let’s be honest, the home improvement industry does not seem to attract the most reliable, honest and competent individuals. The lure of a quick buck and the relative ease to “qualify” to do home improvement work, brings many a “character” to your door. When I was a contractor I needed to hire people for a variety of field positions. Most of the people, who I interviewed and sometimes hired, seemed to have the same type of problems with past employers. These problems consisted of substance abuse issues, honesty issues, and reliability issues. The labor pool never seemed to have an over abundance of talent and employability to pick from.

I remember always reading article after article that dealt with the significant manpower shortage in the home improvement industry. The bottom line of each article would always be the same, “If you can find an honest, reliable and competent person to work for you, pull out all the stops to keep them!!!! Do whatever you need to do to keep that person happy because you’ll never know if you will be lucky enough to find someone to take their place.” As an owner, it was a very constant and stressful problem to deal with. You were almost afraid to try and increase project production because you knew you would have to try and find someone to do the additional work. Finding employees was always an adventure, an adventure that I never looked forward to.

For the last 10-15 years the number one problem in the home improvement industry is the lack of manpower. Many contractors are training and hiring minorities to try and solve this major problem.

If you were to talk to your state authorities about what is being done to improve regulations and screening in the home improvement industry, they will probably tell you something is in the works or there is no money for more regulations (testing). I have been hearing this for 30 years. The county in which I live (Suffolk County, New York) still does not require any demonstration of home improvement ability to obtain a home improvement license. The fee has consistently gone up but the requirements have pretty much stayed the same. We are one of the highest taxed counties in the country, so I refuse to believe there is no money to develop and implement a better policing and screening process in the home improvement industry.

The National Association of The Remodeling Industry (NARI) http://www.nari.org is the only national organization that offers certification of home improvement individuals. They have a number of different certifications that one could obtain. To obtain these certifications the applicant needs to demonstrate a variety of knowledge, ranging from good business practices to project knowledge. NARI’s main certification is called – Certified Remodeler (CR). This certification requires the applicant to prepare an extensive matrix or resume of their experience and knowledge as well as obtaining a certain score on an 8-hour exam. There are only approximately 1000 CR’s, out of the hundreds of thousands of home improvement contractors in this country. I earned this certification in 1994 and still proudly hold this certification today. I will admit that obtaining this certification is a time consuming process and does take considerable effort, but it was well worth it. What I also like about this certification is that it has to be renewed every year by demonstrating continued involvement and knowledge in the home improvement industry.

Why then couldn’t Washington mandate some type of screening, nationwide, that all people interested in doing home improvements must be able to “pass” to obtain a license? This license could be used nationwide. Use a screening process that emulates what NARI does for its certifications. You could make the screening as simple as a comprehensive test with multiple choice questions. A test that could be machine scored.

I think an ideal situation for licensing would be to divide up home improvement licensing into sub-licenses. For example, if you were a bathroom contractor you would obtain a license for bathroom home improvements only. This would refine what licensees are qualified to do, rather then issuing one license that could wrongly give the impression that the licensee is capable of doing any type of project.

The reason I think Washington needs to get involved with this problem is because the American public doesn’t have the time to wait for each of the 50 states to come up with a similar solution, individually.