It happens more often than we would like to believe, and right here in Lancaster County. A contractor offers to pave a homeowner’s driveway at a good price with asphalt that he has left from another job, the homeowner wants to take advantage of this deal and pays him upfront without checking for licensing or references and never sees the contractor again. Or a contractor offers to do a roof repair job for $1,000.00 and the homeowner then gets a bill for $4,000.00.
Most home improvement contractors are reputable, but those who are not can leave homeowners with shoddy or incomplete work. Pennsylvania has several laws protecting consumers from unscrupulous contractors, including the consumer protection laws and particularly, the Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act (HICPA) which cracks down on unscrupulous contractors by mandating that contractors be licensed and follow specified guidelines in their work, which, if ignored, subjects the contractor to liability for the consumer’s damages, attorneys fees, costs and up to three times the customer’s actual damages.
How Contractors May Try to Cheat Lancaster County Homeowners
Incomplete or Dishonest Estimates:
A contractor may offer a low price that sounds great, but the job cannot be done within the estimate quote and contractor has failed to get the customer’s approval on changes.
A contractor requests more than one-third of the total project cost upfront. It is not unusual for contractors to request some payment upfront, but HICPA limits any upfront payment to no more than one-third of the total costs (minus material costs).
A discount isn’t worth much if it ends up costing big in the long run. If a contractor doesn’t have a license, there’s a reason – and it’s probably not a good one. Unlicensed contractors may lack the skills to secure a license. A license is also proof that a contractor is carrying liability insurance and is bonded.
Lying About Insurance or Bonding:
A contractor’s insurance and bonding both offer protections to the homeowner. Liability insurance protects the homeowner from accidental damage, such as a broken sewer line, during a home improvement job. Workers’ compensation insurance covers injuries any workers sustain on the job. Bonding offers a homeowner compensation should a contractor not complete the contracted work. Hiring a contractor who lacks insurance or bonding can have disastrous consequences. HICPA requires that contractors disclose the amount of insurance that they are carrying to customers. Without insurance, you could be responsible for paying an injured worker’s medical bills or covering repair costs for a contractor’s mistakes.
Requires Homeowner to get Building Permits:
Most home improvement or construction projects require a permit. When contractors ask homeowners to get the permits, they are shielding themselves from legal responsibility. That’s because, in the eyes of the law, the person who requests the permit will be the contractor supervising the job, and they will carry liability for any problems.
Additionally, homeowners do not have to carry a license or be bonded to get a permit. Contractors do. If your contractor asks you to get the permit, they may be lying about their licensing status.
Switching Building Materials:
A contractor fails to use the appropriate or specified materials or he substitutes less expensive materials without your permission and fails to reduce the cost to you.
How the Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act Protects PA Homeowners
The Pennsylvania Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act covers repairs, replacements, remodeling, demolition, removals, renovations, installations, alterations, conversions, modernizations, improvements, rehabilitation and sandblasting. In doing so, it offers several protections:
Construction Contract Requirements:
The law requires a written contract, signed by both parties, for any home improvement project over $500. The act also lists more than a dozen elements that a contract must include – everything from the approximate start and completion dates of the job to the toll-free phone number of the Bureau of Consumer Protection in the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office. A homeowner can void any contract that does not contain all required elements.
Prohibits Unfair or Fraudulent Activity:
The act protects homeowners from contractors who deliver shoddy, subpar, or unsafe work. It also protects them from failure to complete ongoing home improvements within a reasonable time frame, and failure to refund a deposit when the contractor cancels a job or the consumer dismisses them for performance reasons. The law makes it illegal to receive advance payment and fail to complete the work. If the victim is over 60, the offense carries stiffer penalties.
Under the law, a contractor cannot include clauses in a contract that limit a homeowner’s legal right to sue, such as a “hold harmless” clause, a clause waiving the right to a jury trial, a clause waiving building code requirements, a clause waiving a contractor’s liability, or a provision awarding attorney’s fees and costs to a contractor.
How Lancaster County Homeowners Can Protect Themselves From Contractor Scams
While the Pennsylvania Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act offers many protections for homeowners, the best protection against unscrupulous scammers starts with the consumer. Before starting any home improvement projects, take these precautions:
All Pennsylvania home improvement contractors who do more than $5,000 a year in business must register with the state. Before hiring a contractor, verify their registration with the state attorney general’s office.
Check Past Work:
Registration with the state under the HICPA law is not an endorsement of a contractor’s competency or skill. Always check a contractor’s references and check for complaints filed against them with the Better Business Bureau.
Get Other Bids:
Consult other contractors for bids on the same project using the same criteria. Remember: The lowest bid isn’t always the best, especially if it is significantly lower than the others. It could be the sign that the contractor plans to use sub-par materials or doesn’t understand the scope of the project.
Get a Written Contract:
Never agree to work without a detailed written contract that includes all of the elements required in Section 517.17 of the Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act. Among those requirements are a start date and completion date for the job, warranty information, a detailed description of the project, materials, and costs, and a payment schedule.
Take Your Time:
Never give in to a contractor who pressures you to act quickly due to a limited-time offer. Do your research and, if necessary, discuss plans with a trusted family member, friend, financial advisor, or attorney.
Know Your Rights in Pennsylvania
If you are a Lancaster County homeowner and you believe you are the victim of home improvement contractor fraud, you have rights. Pennsylvania law specifically provides for the recovery of actual damages, meaning a homeowner can recoup all costs, applicable interest, and the cost of retaining a lawyer. In cases of extremely bad conduct, the reward could be up to three times the actual damages.
Even with a written contract, you may have a case under HICPA. If you suspect that you have been wronged, legal representation will ensure that you collect the full measure of damages available. Contact the Law Offices of Going and Plank in downtown Lancaster to review your case and discuss your options.
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