What to Know Before Signing a Home Improvement Contract

It is important to be a very careful consumer when it comes to home improvement contractors. For instance, I had a case where my client, an elderly and blind woman, signed a contract and paid $30,000.00 to a home improvement company that disappeared with all of her money! Unfortunately, the company was a scam operation, my client lost her life’s savings and it will take some time in court before my client may ever see her money again however, her mistake will be a lesson to all of you because this article explains how to protect yourself from home improvement fraud.

Before signing any contract with a home improvement company, first ask that company for its license number and check it out with your State or County Consumer Affairs’ Business License Division. Find the License Division on the web or call information and get their number. You want to find out (1) the name and address of the company associated with the license number given to you, (2) if the company is currently licensed and the license expiration date and (3) whether any complaints have been made against that company. The answers to those questions will help you determine if you want to proceed with signing a contract. Make sure both the contractor and the company he works for are licensed to work in your State.

If your going to sign the contract then make sure certain things are included pursuant to your understanding and as required by your State’s Home Improvement Business Law. The contracting company’s name, address and phone number should be printed on the contract. Also, it is important that the contracting company’s home improvement license number is printed on the contract and that it is not different from the number you called and inquired about with Consumer Affairs. Lastly, make sure that all of the work to be performed is listed in the contract and that the approximate start and end dates of work are included. You should put a penalty clause in the contract regarding the contractor’s failure to timely complete the work because contractors are notorious for starting jobs and then leaving for a few days or weeks to do other jobs while you sit and wait in your dismantled kitchen for him to return. Once the contract terms are satisfactory then the contract should be signed by both you and the company’s representative.

An example of a consumer protection law is New York’s General Business Law §771 (“GBL”) requiring all home improvement contracts shall be in writing and contain certain terms of payment, fees for services and materials and start and completion dates, among other terms. GBL §771 is a consumer protection statute to prevent the misunderstandings between contractor had consumer and to protect the consumer from overreaching of the contractor, such as charging for work that was not agreed upon. GBL §771 limits the contractor who disregards its written contract requirements to satisfactorily proving to a court each and every item of work he did and the reasonable value of each item by detailed invoices, timesheets and proof of hourly rates, among other proofs. So, if the contractor who failed to put your home improvement work in writing attempts to collect $20,000.00 from you, he has to prove the value of his services in detail before scaring you into paying an amount you had no idea about. New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act and the Home Improvement Act protect the consumer even more by denying the contractor from recovering any monies if he violates any of the consumer laws AND he will pay three times the amount of damages (called treble damages) to the consumer for his failing to obtain proper permits or licenses or any other violation of those laws.

Lastly, protect yourself by not paying 100% upfront. Most contracting companies ask for a deposit upon your signing the contract. I suggest that you put down as little as possible and arrange a payment schedule with the company where you will pay a certain amount as certain work is completed. Of course, always get a receipt, signed by the company and stating the date and amount of any monies paid to the company if you pay anything in cash.

This article is certainly not all inclusive and is intended only as a brief explanation of the legal issue presented. Not all cases are alike and it is strongly recommended that you consult an attorney if you have any questions with respect to any legal matters.

Any questions and/or comments with respect to this topic or any other topic, contact:

Law Offices of Susan Chana Lask

853 Broadway, Suite 1516

New York, NY 10003

(212) 358-5762

Hire Licensed and Respected Home Improvement Companies

Finding the right home improvement company to update or renovate your home doesn’t have to be a stressful and disheartening process. Yet most homeowners have no idea where to start because they are bombarded with bad press about contractors who are dishonest, inexperienced and downright unreliable. Homeowners today are wary of who they can trust.

Home Improvement Complaints and Scams:

“With lower-rate mortgages tempting homeowners to trade up to a bigger house, or to refinance and expand or repair their existing home, we’re finding that construction and home improvement activity is way up, and with it is the number of complaints in those areas,” said Consumer Protection Commissioner Edwin R. Rodriguez. (Consumer Affairs, January 2006)

“Home improvement complaints rank as the top consumer complaint in Connecticut and elsewhere across the country,” Rodriguez said. “While home improvements themselves can be expensive, any problems that arise often cost consumers thousands more to fix. Unfortunately, there have been many cases where a homeowner is left with a huge problem and has no financial means of getting it repaired.” (Consumer Affairs, June 2006)

Basic scams usually do not occur with accredited companies, so make sure the company you use is licensed. “The law requires home improvement contractors to register and follow certain procedures for a reason, to protect homeowners,” Rodriguez said. “This includes complying with state laws that assure consumers a level of financial protection.” (Consumer Affairs, June 2006)

Be Wary of Certain Sales Tactics:

According to the National Consumer Law Center at consumerlaw.org, unscrupulous contractors mostly target senior citizens. Do not fall into the trap of the following sales tactics that take advantage of homeowners:

o “Bait and Switch” – offers low prices for installed items like windows and home siding, and then tells the homeowner the item is out of stock and can only be replaced with a high-priced substitute.

o Misrepresent the urgency of a needed repair.

o Claim the item is more expensive than advertised because it has to be “custom made” to fit the home.

o Misrepresent that the consumer is receiving a discount because the home is selected to model the repair when, in reality, the consumer is paying market price or more.

o Misrepresent the energy savings, health benefits and value added to the home.

o Misrepresent the terms on which financing is likely to be arranged.

Practices to Follow for Finding the Right Contractor:

If you hire a contractor with a license and a good reputation (such as the Home Remodelers Group®), you are guaranteed to avoid unfinished work, financial wrongdoing and fraud.
The National Consumer Law Center has a list of suggestions for homeowners looking for a home improvement company:

o Do not hire an unknown contractor that solicits business by knocking on your door. Deal with companies recommended by friends or reputable building supply stores.

o Before agreeing to hire any home improvement contractor, get a second estimate for the same work from another contractor.

o Get references for the contractor and speak to those references. Ask about satisfaction and any problems that arose.

o Look at other work performed by the same contractor.

o Many states require contractors to be licensed and/or bonded. Check with the state licensing body to see if the contractor you are considering is licensed.

o Get a written contract describing explicit specifications of the work, the price (including details of any financing or credit terms), the responsibility for cleaning up, and the hourly rate for any added work. Ask for guarantees and other promises to be made in writing.

o If the written documents are different from oral promises, do not sign them.

o A 3-day right-to-cancel applies to door-to-door sales and home improvement loans even after the papers have been signed.

o Do not allow a contractor to begin work until financial arrangements to pay for the work are complete.

o Do not agree to pay the final payment until the project is finished.

o Do not consolidate other debts with a home improvement loan.

o If problems with a contractor or home improvement lender arise, get help from a lawyer or housing counselor immediately.

Take Care of Your Home:

The Home Remodelers Group® has been in business since 1964 and there is a simple reason for our longevity. We take great pride in helping our customers beautify their homes, we enjoy our work and we want our customers to be happy with their homes. The Home Remodelers Goup® is licensed and insured so you can feel secure when working with us. Before you sign any contract, we provide a written estimate and detailed information on the scope of the project. You’ll know exactly what you are getting before we do anything. We do this to provide our customers with peace of mind. We have survived in this business because we focus on customer satisfaction, attention to customer service and offer quality products at a fair price.

Think of your home like a child that needs a doctor. You would take your child to a licensed and professional doctor, not someone that comes to your door. So make sure your home receives the care it deserves by hiring experienced and well-accredited home improvement professionals.