By Angela M. Ward, Attorney
Homeownership should be a happy experience. The freedom afforded by owning your own home is a dream for many, but scam contractors and real estate agents can quickly turn that dream into a nightmare.
In Lancaster County, homeowners have protections from contractor and real estate fraud under two important laws: The Pennsylvania Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (UTPCPL) and the Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act (HICPA). These laws provide Pennsylvania homeowners with strong legal protection from a variety of fraudsters and phonies. These laws account for fake real estate agents, contractors, builders, home sellers, plumbers, electricians, and more. These two acts also provide legal leverage that allows homeowners to seek damages incurred from different consumer transactions, including many types of home contractor services and most kinds of residential real estate sales.
Pennsylvania Homeowners Have Rights That Protect Them Against Contractor and Builder Fraud
The Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act was passed in 2008 to protect Pennsylvania homeowners from fraudulent home improvement contractors, workmen, builders and maintenance workers. HICPA covers most types of work on a homeowner’s property. In fact, the law specifically includes:
- Home repairs
What Constitutes Home Improvement Fraud in Pennsylvania?
The law is extensive, covering even more than the above-listed projects (even sandblasting is specified as a type of property work). A home improvement job only has to satisfy the condition that it is done in connection with land or a portion of the land adjacent to a private residence or a building or a portion of the building used or designed to be used as a private residence for which the total cash price of all work agreed upon between the contractor and owner is more than $500. As long as it fits that definition, it’s protected by HICPA.
Furthermore, according to HICPA, the term “home improvement” is broad and includes construction, replacement, installation, or improvement to houses or any of the following structures:
- Swimming pools
- Garage roofs
- Heating and cooling systems (HVAC)
- Solar energy systems
- Security systems
One of the few strict limitations of HICPA is that “home improvement” must refer to work done in connection with a private residence. Legally speaking, a private residence must be a dwelling, but it includes a wide range of different residences, including single-family dwellings, multiple-family dwellings, or any single unit located within a multiple-family dwelling (such as condominiums or co-op units).
Pennsylvania law provides specifically for the recovery of “actual damages” (i.e., the amount of direct financial damage) the consumer has sustained and all costs, applicable interest, and associated attorney fees. That means the award a defrauded homeowner receives covers the cost of retaining a lawyer.
And some further good news: in cases of extreme bad conduct, the plaintiff homeowner can even be awarded triple damages–up to three times the actual damages sustained.
How to Protect Against Common Contractor Fraud
In Lancaster, PA, two common home improvement violations are failure to fully disclose work costs and the failure to use specified or appropriate materials. The end result of these violations is the contractor quoting one price and charging much, much more. When a contractor fails to use proper materials, they substitute the correct material with less expensive materials without disclosure or permission from the homeowner and without reducing the costs appropriately.
Pennsylvania law protects homeowners from contractors that do shoddy, unsafe, or otherwise subpar work. It also protects against the failure to complete ongoing home improvements within a reasonable time frame and the failure to refund a deposit for when the contractor cancels the job or when the consumer dismisses them for bad performance.
Want to Learn if You Have a Case?
Not every bad experience with a contractor can be addressed with legal action, but for homeowners who qualify, legal action may help you get refunds or even additional awards. Contact us at Going and Plank to find out more about your situation.
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