By Angela M. Ward, Attorney
Home improvement fraud is a serious offense in Pennsylvania. The Commonwealth has well-established legal requirements for home improvement contracts and payments. The PA Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act or HICPA provides a range of protections and allows a homeowner to seek recovery of all costs, applicable interests, and even attorney’s fees. In some cases, the plaintiff can receive up to three times the actual damages. Under HICPA, home improvement fraud is defined as the intent to defraud or injure someone in several ways.
Providing False or Misleading Information
The law protects PA homeowners from contractors using a false or misleading statement to convince them to enter into an agreement for home improvement services or materials or pay a higher price than previously agreed.
One example of these kinds of violations is a contractor going door to door, telling homeowners the contractor’s last driveway repaving job was recently canceled, soliciting immediate work for allegedly unused or leftover materials.
In another example, a homeowner may agree upon a price of $5,000 for a remodeling job. When the work is almost finished, the contractor demands another $2,000 for undisclosed overages.
Failing to Return Down Payment for Unfinished Work
Unfortunately, one of the most common illegal practices is simply not showing up. A contractor takes a down payment and then postpones the work indefinitely. Sometimes they stop returning calls or disappear.
In other cases, contractors begin projects but don’t return to finish the work. HICPA clearly states that it is illegal to keep down payments without completing the job as specified. The law also prohibits contractors from requiring more than 30 percent down for any job.
Misrepresentation, Using False Identities, or False Advertising
Contractors sometimes work under false names or identities when estimating or completing work. They may use another contractor’s name or address to cover up past infractions. Other times a scammer may pose as a government or public utility employee to manipulate a homeowner into paying for an unneeded home repair.
It is also illegal for a contractor to advertise or promote themselves dishonestly. For example, they cannot use false testimonies, titles, awards, or other accolades on their website or materials. Similarly, it is illegal for contractors to use incorrect titles or certifications or represent themselves as more experienced or accomplished.
Unscrupulous contractors may damage a homeowner’s property in an attempt to create more work. For example, when a contractor is remodeling a kitchen, they may break pipes to create a need for more expensive plumbing work. Homeowners who have been victimized by this practice can seek damages that can include legal fees.
Misrepresenting Materials or Pricing
Some contractors will charge homeowners for a premium-priced item but use a cheaper option and pocket the difference. Other times, they may deceptively charge a higher price for special order items that were already in stock to increase their profits. Both of these practices are specifically prohibited in HICPA.
Changing a Contract
The homeowner must approve any changes in a contract or estimate prior to starting work. It is illegal for a contractor to change any part of an agreement without the client’s consent.
Prosecuting Home Improvement Fraud Penalties in PA
In Pennsylvania, the consequences for home improvement fraud depend on the size of the project. For example, when a contract or payment is less than $2,000, the violation is charged as a misdemeanor. However, when the amount exceeds $2,000, the offense will be prosecuted as a felony. The severity of the charge will also depend on the nature of the fraud, the prior record of the accused contractor, and whether the homeowner is 60 years of age or older.
Pennsylvania law allows a homeowner to seek the recovery of all costs, applicable interests, and attorney’s fees. In some cases, a consumer can recoup up to three times the actual damages.
Enlist the Help of a Lancaster County Attorney
Even cautious homeowners may fall victim to an unscrupulous contractor. If you suspect that your contractor is not acting ethically or legally, contact the Law Offices of Going and Plank in downtown Lancaster. We will review cases of potential consumer fraud and work with you to secure the compensation you deserve.