Broadsheet: Goldilocks and the Three Contractors

If you’ve ever spent time chasing landscape contractors for quotes, you will find the following post amusing.

… today I hit upon the perfect solution for getting the lowest bid for projects outside your home where you don’t need to be present for the estimate.

For her smart homeowner tip, read Goldilocks and the Three Contractors @ Broadsheet.

160 Home Improvement Contractors nabbed in Connecticut Spring Sting

News earlier this week from Connecticut’s Department of Consumer Protection. The DCP’s 7th sting operation netted 150 unregistered contractors. 10 other contractors were cited for illegal contracts or contract language violations.

The unregistered contractors will be notified by mail of their violations, pay $500 in fines, and have to register with the state according to the Connecticut Post. The Post article also raises some valid concerns:

That so many were caught is a sign consumers need to be wary when hiring contractors, according to consumer protection officials and business leaders. But, they added, the very regulations being violated might also be driving up the costs for legitimate businesses and opening up the opportunity for a sort of black market of home improvement services.

But the last word should go to DCP Commissioner Jerry Farrell Jr.:

“These operations also serve as a reminder to consumers that while the Department administers the Home Improvement Guaranty Fund which provides up to $15,000 to victimized consumers, the money is only available to homeowners who have used a registered contractor. That is why it is so important to verify your contractor’s registration before signing any contract or giving them any money.”

Props: The Connecticut Post.

Read the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection press release.

Pennsylvania – stronger protection from home improvement fraud is on the way

Pennsylvania has new legislation in process to establish better consumer protection for homeowners.

Bill highlights:

  • a state-wide home improvement contractor database
  • written contracts required for all jobs over $500
  • the scope and cost of work be set out in the contract and clearly understood by the customer
  • makes home-improvement fraud a criminal offense
  • with stiffer penalties for scammers who target seniors

Although receiving senate passage is promising, the bill won’t become law until approved by the House of Representatives and Governor Ed Rendell.

Pennsylvanians should also note the gotchas:

For a contract to be enforceable against a customer, it would have to be signed by the customer and dated, and disclose the approximate time frame of the work and materials to be used, as well as the specifications and description of the work. It would also have to include the total sales price.

In addition, a contract would be voided if it has a clause that releases the contractor from building code requirements or liability, or that strips the customer of legal rights.

Source: phillyburbs.com.

New York’s Consumer Protection Board investigates Home Improvement Industry

I love New York. The New York State Consumer Protection Board’s Home Improvement Initiative is on. The CPB hopes to better protect consumers while encouraging opportunities for contractors through a multi-step process.

Phase one involves online surveys for both homeowners and home improvement contractors plus making a comprehensive hire-a contractor tips complete with model contract package available online. Phase two, the public hearings, are now in progress.

Watch the video report or read the source story on News 10 Now. Plus another news report on Channel 9.

Read about New York’s Home Improvement Initiative on the New York State Consumer Protection Board website or call the Board directly at 1-800-697-1220. You can still have your say – take the CPB Homeowner Survey online. If you are a home improvement contractor, you may want to take the Contractor Survey.

I do admire the CPB for the effort. But if I was a contractor, I might not be enamored with the Contractor Survey questions which are all about qualifications / credentials; the survey reads like a reference check more than a way for contractors to join in a constructive discussion on how to improve the situation. What contractor in his right mind is going to put down he’s an unlicensed contractor then his name and address in case they want to contact him??

But it’s the thought that counts right?

Interior Designers vs. General Contractors

In response to a recent post Interior Designers vs. Decorators vs. Political Commentators, Stephanie from Bungalow Insanity commented:

… interior design professionals need to do a better job of helping the public understand what it is that they “do” and how it is that they add value to a building/renovation project.

She makes a great point – I hope someone out there (like the American Society of Interior Designers) is listening.

Meanwhile the public confusion continues, as this news story about prominent Visalia, CA interior designer David E. Gonzales in hot water with the California Licensing Board illustrates. Gonzales was doing project management for the implementation of one of his designs and maintains he was only helping find subcontractors to “make things convenient for the couple”. But

… the Tulare District Attorney’s Office maintains that whatever title Gonzales went by during the Ortegas’ project, he essentially was working as a contractor, taking the couple’s money and paying subcontractors for their work and materials as well accepting a fee for doing it … Unlicensed contractors in California can face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, according to Tulare County Superior Court records.

Gonzales claims he didn’t know he was breaking the law and I believe him, for all the reasons above. Think about it. An interior designer is knowledgeable about “construction, local zoning and codes, experience working with architects and contractors, knowledge of construction materials”. An interior designer usually knows lots of good contractors. It seems a natural jump to coordinating the design implementation and helping clients choose and manage subcontractors. He’s been doing it for years.

Except that he’s been doing the work of a general contractor and that’s against the law without a license. It’s only because this project had quality of work issues that he came to the attention of the California Licensing Board and ended up with a misdemeanor charge for contracting without a license.

Gonzales’ story is a cautionary tale, of how easy it is to end up on the wrong side of the law … when you don’t know enough about what an Interior Designer, as well as related professions, can and cannot do.

Read the full story Designer required to be licensed.

Pump up your Home Remodel with a Renovation Coach

Browsing the news, a phrase caught my eye – “Renovation Coach“. What a marvelous idea! Personal coaching & training has been all the rage. So now you can get a coach for your home improvement projects?

I imagined a “Renovation Coach” as someone who calls you early on Saturday morning to get you back on the renovation horse when you’ve fallen off or have an unpleasant maintenance job to do. Or gets you up at 6am to go to Home Depot for those needed materials. Or trains you with that nifty new nail gun before you hurt yourself.

Well … not really. A Renovation Coach is the same as a “Renovation Consultant”, which although less catchy is every bit as useful. In 2007, the Renovation Coach or Consultant is an idea whose time has come.

Previously, I wrote posts about the rising number of DIYers needing to be bailed out by professionals. And interviewed online “Electrical Coach” Wayne Gilchrist. But it’s not only the DIYer using and needing this type service. People who are going to hire someone to do the job are also discovering the benefits of a little “renovation coaching”. This Old House goes so far as to call them “a new breed of therapist “.

“The thing about home renovation is that very few people have been able to practice for it,” says Irving, who honed his skills working on 33 whole-house projects in his 17 years with the show. “They get wound up and ner­vous, facing this potential money pit, and it doesn’t have to be that way.”

I second that emotion. An experienced Renovation Coach can help with …

  • setting goals or developing a vision for your large home renovation
  • determining the return on your renovation investment – Cost vs. Value or Move vs. Remodel – to help you decide
  • identifying the professionals you will need (like an Interior Designer) for a quality renovation
  • giving you a ballpark figure against which you use in evaluating quotes from contractors
  • navigating the building permit maze
  • a wealth of experience about products & approaches, pros and cons
  • negotiating or communicating with contractors during the process
  • planning and project management
  • Quality Assurance to ensure a job well done and up to code
  • mediation in disputes with contractors

And yes, he or she can even go shopping with you for building materials and supplies if need be.

Although they work on an hourly rate, and they usually don’t come cheap, the benefits of using a Renovation Coach or Consultant are numerous. They bring planning, project management and experience to both flesh out and ground your renovation ideas. The result? More understanding for you the homeowner. More control over the process and your budget. A successful project. An empowering DIY experience. And of course, a beautiful renovation. All you need to be “home improvement happy”. And put in that context, well … maybe they are therapists after all.

The case of the “Wrong House” Roofers

Ever wonder what happens when contractors show up at the wrong house and start ripping stuff up?

Read Typo in address leads to home-improvement nightmare by the Old House Handyman.

Mike Holmes, Marketplace & Max Pies – How not to get nailed by bad contractors

While researching hiring home improvement contractors, I stumbled on this insightful online video featuring Mike Holmes of Holmes on Homes on CBC Marketplace, a Canadian consumer affairs / investigative journalism show.

How not to get nailed … No one sees more renovation ripoffs than Mike Holmes. Marketplace uses hidden cameras to expose a contractor responsible for the latest disaster he’s fixing.

Marketplace sets the Sting

“The real deal on Home Contractors … Home Improvement Horrors … Hidden Camera Job Quotes … Who to trust … One very questionable character.” Oh boy, I can’t wait.

The show seemed to have 2 goals. First to set up a “test” to illustrate to viewers how to weed out the good from the bad contractors, what to look for. And second, to “bait a trap” for one particularly bad contractor (Leo Dos Reis of Max Pies Home Improvements), who crops up time and time again in complaint email to Mike Holmes from disillusioned homeowners.

The contractors job quote and interview segment is instructive and revealing but not terribly surprising. None of them quite measured up to Mike Holmes’ wish list … but then his standards are pretty high.

The Max Pies expose and sting operation, however, is brutal. Mike Holmes investigates the job and points out how the home is now unsafe, how the room built for the family baby could endanger her health, and how the house doesn’t meet building code.

Wendy Mesley of Marketplace interviews unhappy homeowners. And investigates the misleading Max Pies web site which is revealed to use photos of work by other contractors without their permission. How one contractor has tried repeatedly to have his photos removed even to the point of engaging a lawyer, without success.

A Very Questionable Character Caught in the Act

Leo Dos Reis, the owner of Max Pies Home Improvements, is the “very questionable character” mentioned in the teaser. FYI, Max Pies Home Improvements in Canada is not affiliated with the similarly named US flooring company.

Leo Dos Reis - Are you licensed?

The piece de resistance is the video sting of Dos Reis in action – the sales pitch, the misleading actions and statements about his license and qualifications, the customers he claims to have worked for who’ve never heard of him, the protestations about his reputation, the over-priced estimate, and the high pressure sales tactics.

Turns out Mr. Dos Reis has been charged with 14 counts of fraud. Marketplace tried to meet with him but he beat a hasty retreat when he saw the cameras. Apparently, he was supposed to be in court again last week. I checked out the local home improvement rating & reviews site and he has a solid 3 Star Rating in spite of the above. Interesting. Very interesting indeed.

Summary Judgment

Five Star piece of reporting by Marketplace, irrespective of the city you live in; highly recommended viewing if you are considering hiring a home improvement contractor.

The episode originally aired in January but you can see all the videos on the Marketplace site – including a March update on the story. Apparently Dos Reis is now running Platinum Home Renovations – with the same photos and content. He is still also going to court. All of which makes him Canada’s poster boy for bad home improvement contractors. You can find out more about the charges by searching the Consumer Beware database for “Max Pies” then clicking on DOS REIS, LEONARDO. Searching for “leo dos reis” won’t bring anything up, due to the way the search is designed.

DOS REIS, LEONARDO
CRIMINAL CODE – CCC – FRAUD, 13 CHARGES ON 2006/05/03
CRIMINAL CODE – CCC – ATTEMPT FRAUD, 1 CHARGE ON 2006/05/03
CRIMINAL CODE – CCC – FRAUD, 1 CHARGE ON 2007/04/04

For more info about crusading contractor Mike Holmes check out the Mike Holmes -Wikipedia entry and the Holmes on Homes website. Holmes on Homes airs on the Discovery Home channel in the US and HGTV in Canada.

Renovations can kill your relationships

Interesting story from MarketWatch, Blood, sweat and tears: Use caution when tapping friends, family for home-improvement projects, about the pitfalls of having friends or family do your major renovations. A botched job can mean the end of a friendship and then some …

More Home Improvement Scams in the News

Spring is scam time. Many state consumer protection agencies are issuing warnings to the public.

The Oklahoma Attorney General’s office is advising seniors to be careful of door-to-door home improvement contractors and loan schemes that require up-front fees.
Mallery Nagle, Edmond Sun

In Tennessee, the sheriff’s office has warned about traveling con artists being back in the area. They tend to drive plain, unmarked white utility vans. “They usually get out when the weather breaks, when they can get out and do the work outside …”, according to the sheriff.

“It’s not good work in that it won’t last,” Burns said. “They’ll mix materials together that the rain will wash away. They’ve always used diesel fuel to mix with silver paint to paint a barn roof. You can drive around and spot a barn roof, you’ve got silver and black streaks where the rain has washed it down.”

Burns says the same hold true for driveway sealer. “That’s what they do to make the material go further,” Burns said. “The diesel fuel will mix with the driveway sealer, and it looks good. It’s shiny and pretty, and you know, when it rains it’s gone.”

The Ohio Consumer Protection department expects to receive 25,000 home improvement scam complaints in 2007. Warning signs to look out for:

  • scare tactics – always get a second opinion
  • the bait and switch – beware the price that suddenly goes up
  • the “model home” discount
  • the “referral sale” discount – this is illegal in Ohio & other states

Read more at The Advocate, Newark Ohio.

Here is a great example of the bait and switch. You receive a coupon in the mail for a low price for duct cleaning but the actual bill is $1000 plus, usually for unnecessary repairs, such as claiming you have asbestos when it’s actually just fiberglass.

Another home improvement scam example? In this story, the scam artist posed as sales representative for a real renovation company; collecting money on behalf of the contractor without his knowledge.

For more info, see my previous post The Current State of Home Improvement Scams.

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