with Home Improvement Contractor
With spring coming many homeowners are contemplating improvement projects such as a new roof, siding, windows or a deck. The most difficult part of any home improvement project requiring the use of a contractor is trying to determine the legitimacy of the person or company you might employ. Several years ago Pennsylvania enacted the Home Improvement Contract Actor in an attempt to set minimum standards for home improvement contractors and required that they be licensed and disclose insurance information.
Despite the new law and the registration website that lists whether a contractor is licensed and has committed any legal misdeeds, a number of contractors that ignore the law continue to operate with impunity. This is in part due to the limitations of the ability of the Attorney General’s office to enforce the law when an overwhelming number of contractors have elected to ignore it. Given the limits of the ability of the Home Improvement Contractor Act to protect consumers, the homeowner must take the initiative to screen contractors. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Get at least three written estimates which include the total cost for the job, expected start and completion dates and payment terms. You should never be expected, nor would I recommend, paying for the work in full up front. However, if you job requires custom materials to be ordered, think alabaster bath tub engraved with your initials, it is not uncommon that you will be asked to pay up front for such custom materials.
2. Ask for a certificate of insurance from the contractor that they can obtain from their insurance agent. The certificate should be addressed to you and will confirm the coverage and policy limits the contractor carries, as well as the effective date of the policy. I advise strongly against working with a contractor that refuses to provide a certificate of insurance for you.
3. Ask for references and actually call the references. When speaking with the references, be sure to ask what work was done for them, how long it took and if there were any problems. Contractor supplied references can be suspect, as they may be friends or relatives of the contractor posing as customers. Grill them with questions to make sure they are a legitimate reference. Pointed questions such as “What year and month did they do the work?” and “What other contractors did you consider before choosing this one?” will help you determine the credibility of the references.
4. Never sign a contract that carries a confidentiality clause or says you will incur a penalty or be sued if you contact a lawyer, the Better Business Bureau, Angie’s list or other such consumer protection services. Read the fine print, if you see language that seems to suggest you will suffer consequences for complaining about the contractor or divulging the terms of the agreement to anyone, pick another contractor.
5. Use an online background check website to verify whether your contractor is in court frequently for civil or criminal issues. You can search Pennsylvania Magistrate court dockets for free at the Unified Judicial System Portal. You may also want to look them up on the Better Business Bureau website.
6. Never pay by cash. Check or credit card only. Be sure that if you pay by credit card, your contractor is clear as to whether there are any additional charges for paying by credit card. Given the additional protections your credit card company may afford in the event of a dispute, such as that new siding falling off of your house a few weeks after it was installed, consider using your credit card if it is a cost effective option.
7. Ask for the contractor’s PA license number. Check them out online at the
Attorney General’s Website.
8. Never be afraid to consult an attorney before signing any home improvement contract. The contract should conform to the Home Improvement Contractor Act guidelines as well as state consumer protection statutes. The investment of working with an attorney is a small expense compared to having to pay an attorney to litigate against the contractor.
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