Whether dealing with summer storms or just have a case of the home improvement bug, you might be in the market to hire a contractor. While home improvement is a year-round endeavor, the warmer months will bring more traffic to your door. This traffic will also bring out what local law enforcement refers to as "Woodchucks." Woodchucks are contractors who typically come door-to-door and engage in a job to trim trees, pick up debris or do basic landscaping. They may also place flyers in your neighborhood and solicit landscaping work. While working on your trees, they will undoubtedly find wind damage to your roof, your siding or gutters. They may also talk you into discussing home improvement projects to occur inside your home.

Woodchucks are typically unlicensed home improvement contractors who provide false names and false/temporary contact information on the work orders. They will take the deposit, and if they return at all, they will do an incomplete or shoddy job on the project. Local consumer protection offices work with police from Maryland, Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia to stop these "woodchucks" and help prosecute those who steal deposits, perform unlicensed and unpermitted home improvement and/or do criminally shoddy or hazardous work.

Three Basic Steps To Home Improvements

Whether you are remodeling, making non-emergency repairs or trying to maintain your home in good condition, you will be able to avoid many problems if you take these three basic steps before beginning:

  • Research and plan the project.

  • Choose a contractor carefully.

  • Make sure the contract you sign fulfills your project requirements and protects your rights.

Research & Plan

It will be easier for you to compare prices if all contractors from whom you'll get estimates base them on the same criteria. You'll want to develop a plan that describes the work you want done and, if possible, specifies the types of materials you want to be used. Unless you are already familiar with the methods and materials which could be used for your home improvement project, you'll have to do some research. Get information from unbiased sources who are not trying to sell you anything.

Choosing the Contractor

Unless you already know a licensed contractor who will provide good quality workmanship at a fair price or have a strong recommendation from someone you trust, you'll need to make a list of at least 3 contractors from whom to get estimates. Make sure the candidates have the licenses needed by your jurisdiction, do not have a history of litigation by searching court dockets online and obtain independent evaluations from organizations like Checkbook Magazine. You can also contact your state or local consumer protection agencies and check their track record with complaints. The license is not a mere regulatory function. In Maryland, for example, contractors and salesmen are required to take a test before obtaining a license. And work performed by a licensed home improvement company is covered by the Guaranty Fund which will pay if consumers receive shoddy or incomplete work.

When interviewing prospective candidates, there are basic questions that reputable companies have no problem answering:

  • Do you do this type of work?

  • Do you charge for an estimate?

  • How long have you been in business?

  • Do you have a state home improvement license?

  • Can you supply references from previous customers?

Never rely on price alone in making your final choice. Remember that contractors also vary in the quality of the work they do and their ability to complete a job on time - or sometimes to complete a job at all. When making your decision, compare all factors, including price, type of firm, experience, reputation and length of time in business.

The Contract

The contract is crucial for many reasons. It not only spells out your rights, it also spells out the contractor's obligations. Please make sure that your contract lists the correct license and that the license is connected to the business soliciting the project. It is not uncommon for some businesses to list their home improvement license when soliciting plumbing work. In Maryland, the WSSC, however, has its own license and permitting scheme. Moreover, consumer agencies see examples of contractors "sharing" the credentials belonging to another (sometimes knowingly).

The contract should ideally have pre-printed name and contact information. That way you have some comfort that the information you are being given is the same as other clients. Your state may have minimum requirements for what a contract must contain. In Maryland, the home improvement contract must include:

  • The name, address and home improvement license number of the contractor and the name and license number of the salesperson (if different).

  • Approximate dates when the work will start and when it will be substantially completed.

  • A description of the work to be performed and the materials to be used.

  • The number and amount of monthly payments, including the finance charges, if applicable.

  • A description of any collateral to be used as security, if applicable.

  • A disclosure that all home improvement contractors and subcontractors must be licensed by the Maryland Home Improvement Commission.

The description of work should be detailed. All too often disputes arise over vague terms. If you want a specific faucet brand and model, the contract should not simply state "install kitchen faucet." The contract should also clearly state and contain the terms and conditions of any warranties for materials and workmanship. It may also contain details of any other matters upon which the parties may lawfully agree. For your protection, get all promises in writing. If adjustments to the contract or work are made after the project commences, always have those changes (also known as change orders) put into writing as well.

Look to your jurisdiction's law on door-to-door sales. In Maryland, for example, the Door-to-Door Sales Act was amended to extend the minimum time for a consumer to cancel a home improvement contract signed in your home. Now, instead of three (3) days, you have five (5) days to cancel the contract; seven (7) days if you are a senior.

Down payments are used by contractors to buy supplies and secure the contract; remember, you can always work with the contractor to negotiate the amount. Your jurisdiction may have a limit on how much a down payment can be. In Maryland, contractors cannot ask for more than 33 percent at the time you sign the contract. Make sure the contract has a clear payment schedule and that you keep the contractor to the plan. Don't pay more, or ahead, unless you have documented change orders.

Finally, ensure that the contract discusses permits required in your jurisdiction. Not all work requires a permit by your county or municipality. However, if the law requires one, make sure it is in place prior to beginning work. Inspectors will not come without a permit and may require walls and floors to be opened to obtain permits after the fact. You may also be obligated to disclose unpermitted work if you decide to sell the home in the future.

For more information about this or other consumer issues in your jurisdiction, contact:

District of Columbia

Maryland

Virginia


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Tracy D. Rezvani is with the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection.