By Angela M. Ward, Attorney
Hiring a contractor can be an excellent way to improve your home and add value to a property. However, it is usually better to hire a professional when it comes to plumbing, electrical work, or large-scale home improvement projects that require serious know-how and planning.
Unfortunately, some contractors are unreliable or dishonest. That’s why consumers are protected under the Pennsylvania Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law and the Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act. These laws are designed to help Pennsylvanians hold disreputable contractors accountable and provide recourse and compensation for fraud and unscrupulous contractors’ activities that cause damage to consumers. These two laws provide consumers with legal leverage to address deceptive business practices in various industries, including building contractor services. In addition, these Pennsylvania laws protect homeowners against illegal contractor practices, including the following.
Surprise Charges for Unapproved Add-Ons
Some homeowners find that the final bills are above the original quote, include unexpected fees, or charge for unapproved materials. However, if the work or supplies were not included in the approved estimates and no change orders were submitted, the homeowner may be able to contest charges.
It’s always a good idea to get the scope of work in writing before beginning a project. This kind of recordkeeping helps the homeowner ensure that contractors do work as discussed and estimated. It is also a good idea to insist that any changes to the work are documented with a description of the change and the cost.
Home improvement estimates and contracts should include a breakdown of all the materials and services used. Sometimes builders will promise to use one material and then substitute a cheaper material to save money and increase their profit.
However, it’s illegal to specify one product or material and deliver another. Therefore, any substitutions should be recorded in writing and receive homeowner approval before starting work. Depending on the type of project, when contractors make inferior substitutions, they are responsible for either refunding the difference, redoing the job using the proper materials, or paying the total homeowner damages as specified by PA law.
Unlicensed or Uninsured
If the builder damages property or one of their employees is injured during construction, the property owner can end up being financially responsible if the builder isn’t licensed and insured. An unlicensed contractor will also be harder to track down since they are not registered with the state attorney general.
Some contractors regularly change their name and address to avoid unsatisfied customers. Unlicensed contractors will also be unable to obtain permits.
There are three critical documents any reliable builder should be able to produce on request. Those are:
- A current license, including an identification/registration number and other relevant information that can be looked up or otherwise confirmed with the appropriate authorities;
- Proof of insurance, with information that can be looked up or verified with the insurance company;
- Proof of surety bonds, which is coverage that indicates that a company or contractor is legally bound to comply with certain government regulations.
When asked for these documents, builders should get a verifiable copy to customers before the start of work. It is common practice for many home improvement professionals to keep copies of this information on them when they go to a job site. Although there are legitimate reasons for not having a physical copy of all the documents on hand, reputable contractors should be able to produce these important documents within a few business days.
To confirm that a contractor is licensed, ask for a state registration number. It’s easy to verify licenses by searching the PA Attorney General’s database or calling 1-888-520-6680. This is also an excellent way to research contractors and determine which builders have had their licenses revoked or suspended.
Not Getting the Permit
Permits are not the homeowner’s responsibility. However, some builders claim it is easier, faster, or even required for the customer to obtain building permits. In Pennsylvania, permits are only available to homeowners and licensed contractors. If a contractor has been hired to do the work, the permits are their responsibility.
Permits ensure work is done to meet codes, but it also confirms that a contractor is licensed and insured. Asking homeowners to get permits allows builders to stay under the radar, hire unlicensed or unqualified workers/subcontractors, avoid liability for injuries that happen during the project, or hide past issues that prevented them from being licensed or able to obtain a permit.
A licensed contractor should take care of all permits. It is a red flag indicating that there may be trouble with any contractor who wants their customers to take care of permits.
Not Delivering on Down Payments
Asking for big down payments is not only a warning sign; it may be a violation of the law. Most states – Pennsylvania included – cap the maximum upfront payment at one-third of the total contract price.
Need Help Prosecuting Home Improvement Scams?
Homeowners who suspect that home improvement contractors or other businesspersons haven’t been honest and fair should contact Going and Plank. We guide our clients through options, including recovering all damages, legal fees, interest, costs, and potential punitive fines of up to triple the actual damages.
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