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?

Homeowners get sued for bad reviews on Angie’s List

Interesting column by John Kelly on the Washington Post about 2 different homeowners being sued by the same home improvement contractor for defamation. Monica Hammock is being sued by Stephen C. Sieber, owner of the SCS Contracting Group operating out of Maryland for $6 million “charging that she made false and defamatory statements on Angie’s List with the intent of damaging his reputation.” Another reviewer, John Poole, is also being sued.

Interestingly, Angie’s List is not being sued.

Sieber said that he’d like to sue Angie’s List but that his attorney tells him it’s protected. So he’s going after Hammock and Poole instead.

This surprised me … because when I consulted with a lawyer recently about related issues, reviews and defamation came up for discussion. My lawyer said to be wary, that a review site could possibly be held responsible for “promulgating” the defamation of a bad review.

Maybe Angie’s List is protected by their standard User Agreement which states:

“I acknowledge and understand that I am solely responsible for all reporting information submitted by me to Angie’s List in connection with my membership, and that Angie’s List bears no responsibility whatsoever for statements made by me or anyone acting on my behalf. I agree to defend and indemnify Angie’s List if it is finally determined that the reporting information I provided to Angie’s List was false and inaccurate.”
– Angie’s List standard User Agreement

If Angie’s List was a news site, then it would be protected under “freedom of the press” where to prove defamation, you must also prove malicious intent. Angie’s List didn’t write the reviews any more than any other published reviews so no malicious intent. But is Angie’s List the press? Probably not …

I emailed the writer John Kelly for more information. Why is Angie’s List protected from being sued? Mr. Kelly wrote back “… his lawyer told him that the FCC’s Communications Decency Act protects web sites …”. I did some digging and there seems to be something in this – the courts have upheld that the CDA of 1997 “creates a federal immunity to any cause of action that would make service providers liable for information originating with a third-party user of the service”. Well ya learn something new every day. Thanks John for the prompt reply.

With “social media” and the rise of the “review culture”, it’s easy to forget you are responsible for what you write on the web – reviews are commonplace now. But did you realize that every time you write a review online, the fine print says you are legally responsible, not the site hosting your review? They may “own” your content as soon as you press the submit button, but if someone complains, they will say you are responsible.

If what you have to say in the review is true, then it’s not defamation. But it’s still a stressful – and expensive – situation to be in. The article mentions that Angie’s List “might help with Hammock and Poole’s legal bills”.

Let’s just say I’ve spent some time in the home improvement review business in my former life. From direct experience (stats!), the majority of homeowner reviews are positive. Writing bad reviews is not something homeowners take lightly. It wasn’t unknown for a homeowner to have a bad contractor experience, write a review about it, then have second thoughts before publishing. Other times homeowners have changed their minds after being contacted by the contractor or a lawyer. If the contractor handled the situation as a “customer service” matter, homeowners often upgraded the review of their own accord because of the efforts made to resolve the matter. So based on first-hand experience, bad reviews are more likely to be underreported, not the other way around.

Yet Mr. Sieber had bad reviews from unconnected Angie’s List reviewers. That’s a red flag for me. Furthermore:

In 1990, Sieber was the subject of a segment on ABC’s “Primetime Live” in which Diane Sawyer wondered whether he should be dubbed “the Contractor From Hell.” In 1992, after complaints from homeowners, he signed a settlement with the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Affairs, agreeing to cease home improvement work for three years.

Sieber told me that he’d rather not comment on his Montgomery problems. “That goes back to a company long, long ago that has nothing to do with [the current case],” he said.

Big red flag. He says that stuff is way in the past. And Ms. Hammock’s problems occurred in 2003.

Well what about this Better Business Bureau Reliability Report that says Mr. Sieber has had 5 complaints lodged in the last 36 months?? To be fair, most of these have been resolved and no complaints in the last 12 months. But overall, there seems to be a trend here.

The irony? Mr. Sieber was interviewed by another writer from the Washington Post about homeowner-contractor relationships just a few months ago, not as an offender but as a contractor commentator. Uh, doesn’t the Washington Post check references? Kidding!

Anyway, here’s what he had to say about the homeowner-contractor relationship:

“It’s sort of like a marriage,” said Stephen Sieber, owner of SCS Contracting Group in Burtonsville. “There’s a lot of different people and a lot of different variables. It’s a challenging situation.”

Sounds like Mr. Sieber is in need of a little “marriage counseling”, and then some.

Contractors speak: why good help is hard to find

A while back I read an article on SFGate.com answering a question from a homeowner who was having a hard time finding a home improvement contractor. She was trying to get three bids with references, without success.

“While it sounds prudent, I live in Vallejo and I can’t get a single pro to come out to my house, let alone three of them. I have been stood up many times and have been disappointed with the few that have come out.”
Burnett Brothers Q & A, San Francisco Chronicle

The writers advised her to work her network (friends, family, coworkers, etc.). Then try local real estate agents, who usually have a stable of professionals to call on when getting homes ready for sale. Finally, they suggested checking out Angie’s List, an online home improvement review site that has been getting good publicity.

Their observations on the root of the problem:

In our minds, the cause of the dearth in tradespeople is twofold: the real estate boom and the lack of skilled workers — especially those willing to take on home-improvement projects. It’s simple supply and demand. Too many jobs are chasing too few workers. The good contractors can afford to cherry-pick, and you don’t want the bad ones.

Since then, they’ve published a follow up article with more suggestions from readers such as trying other websites, homeowner associations, the BBB (Better Business Bureau), and even the NARI (National Association for the Remodeling Industry).

The most interesting thing about this follow up, though, was the responses from contractors.

You know you’re supposed to vet contractors before you hire but did you know they also vet you?

Trust. If the contractor doesn’t think the homeowner trusts him, it will be an uphill battle to get the job done. So some will turn it down. Do you blame them?

How did they find me? Contractors trust referrals from people they know more than from the internet … just like you do.

I decided to do a bit more digging and found this thread on ContractorTalk.com. The question for discussion: Should homeowners have to provide references for contractors? “To find out if the Homeowner was a good customer, or a PITA or Deadbeat”. An interesting and insightful read, if you dare.

Multiple bid situations are not a desirable situation for a contractor. It takes a lot of time and effort to put together a bid … to not have a realistic chance of getting it. As one anonymous contractor said “why compete when the market doesn’t require me to?”.

Operating costs. Doing small jobs doesn’t make financial sense. And estimates aren’t really free. “The cost of visiting the job and performing the estimate has to be worked into the cost of the work”.

“Next, there is a cost to everyone from selecting the too-low price. The last thing you want on your job is a contractor who is not making any money. When people realize what they are doing isn’t profitable, they take all kinds of shortcuts to make up the loss.

“If you sound like you know what you want, and it’s a clear, straight-up process, a contractor will be much more likely to spend the time bidding and communicating with you because they know it is more likely to be a successful job.”

The last word from the Burnett Brothers:

The bottom line is to define and communicate the scope of the work. Change orders are expensive. And expect to pay a fair price. If you do this, you’re more likely to get a contractor to show up when promised, actually do the work you want and charge the estimated price.

Read more: Contractors weigh in on why good help is so hard to find on SFGate.com

Remodeling for Reason – Bungalow Insanity

Exploring houseblogs.net for interesting (and relevant) reading. Came across Bungalow Insanity, not mentioned in the recent articles about housebloggers in the media. This blog has become a fast favorite for me.

Bungalow Insanity chronicles the adventures of Julio, Stephanie and their daughter Chloe in renovating a 1911 Craftsman bungalow, chosen because it still had enough of it’s original “stained woodwork” intact to be worth doing for these “old home” lovers.

Most of the other houses we looked at had already been “redone,” usually by a flipper (which meant a lot of cut corners) or by a homeowner (which meant lots of problems).

The blog has been live only been live a few months but posts have been backdated for the last couple of years to keep continuity and “best tell” their story, of transforming a neglected ex-rental unit into a beautiful home.

Why do I like this blog? In a word – engaging.

The writing takes one forward. Can a blog about home restoration and renovation actually be “gripping”? Probably not – yet I find the posts highly readable and entertaining, especially the longer more detailed ones. Their story and their challenges are well told. The voice is conversational and matter of fact. The accompanying photos are always good and used well to illustrate points.

The focus. No lengthy ruminations about the weather, navel gazing, or vacation snaps here (in fact Julio spent his “vacation” working on the house). No doubt about it – this is a blog about remodeling and renovating. I don’t know if it has to do with the fact they have to get going because they have a baby on the way in July … but I like that posts are about the renovations.

The gory details. What they did, how they did it, and why – with lots of insights and a bit of self-observation sprinkled in. This is more where they’ve done the work themselves. That’s the thing about reading houseblogs – you can learn from them. Julio & Stephanie seem to be early adopters, interested in “going green” and energy efficiency. You know early adopters … they’re the people that get the bad tankless water heaters so the rest of us can get better ones, later on. Lots of experience shared, lessons learned, and even happy endings.

I find myself admiring their enthusiasm in the face of what has obviously been a long slog (Bungalow Infinity?). They’re making great progress though. They also answer questions when comments are posted and are friendly, polite and tactful. Recommended reading if you enjoy houseblogs. A good place to start if you’ve never had the pleasure.

Top 10 Greenest Cities in the USA

Burlington, Vermont is the most eco-friendly city in the USA according to a new survey from Country Home magazine. The survey rates cities based on “air and watershed quality, mass transit use, power use and number of organic producers and farmers’ markets.”

The Top Ten List:

  1. Burlington, Vermont
  2. Ithaca, New York
  3. Corvallis, Oregon
  4. Springfield, Massachusetts
  5. Wenatchee, Washington
  6. Charlottesville, Virginia
  7. Boulder, Colorado
  8. Madison, Wisconsin
  9. Binghamton, New York
  10. Champaign-Urbana, Illinois

Read more from the Associated Press.

Home Depot Exposed – Gouging Customers for Remodeling Projects

For some people, the Home Depot brand is synonymous with Home Improvement. But in the last few months, at least in California, the once trusted brand has become associated with far less desirable words – “nightmare”, “horror story”, and now “fraud”.

Home Depot is being investigated by KNBC in Los Angeles for ripping off customers.

KNBC (NBC4 TV) reports that these allegations are backed up by statements from Home Depot insiders (former salespeople and subcontractors).

NBC4 has heard from customers in 22 states and from insiders from across the country, who have given NBC4 a paper trail of internal documents, suggesting the company overcharges customers on window and siding installations, kitchen remodels and on roofing jobs.
Joel Grover and Matt Goldberg, NBC4 TV

In October 2006 when the investigation started, KNBC’s focus was on service issues in California. Now, it’s gone all the way to outright fraud, with complaints from across the nation.

Home Depot’s response to this latest charge has been to apologize for the situation and promise to investigate. “We have no practice overcharging customers in any way, shape or form”.

It’s a fascinating, if unsettling, read. The video should be up later this morning.

Home Depot Investigation – Part 3 – Article and Video on NBC4 TV

Home Depot Investigation – Part 2

Home Depot Investigation – Part 1

Deconstructing Green – Recycle your entire Home

Interesting news story profiling the ReStore Home Improvement Center in Springfield MA. Instead of demolishing your old home and having the content dragged off to landfills, you can “donate” it to this non-profit company. ReStore will send workers to “deconstruct” your old home, taking it apart piece by piece. The material taken from the home – windows, doors, flooring, bathroom fixtures, whatever can be reused – will be sold by ReStore at its retail location. Very cool.

Read Recycling Whole Homes at the Patriot Ledger.

Ohio Remodelers are real ladies’ men

Professional Remodelers of Ohio is out to charm the ladies. This year, the RemodelOhio Show has undergone a bit of makeover, changing it’s name and shifting focus from DIY products and services to connecting homeowners with professional remodelers. In particular female homeowners, who are taking a more active role in deciding who to hire. In the words of PRO executive director Brenda Callaghan, “… women are becoming a stronger voice in remodeling. They want their homes to be nice, and they want to work with a professional.”

To that end, this year’s show caters to the ladies by having:

  • a female spokesperson (local broadcaster Robin Swoboda)
  • a soap star (Aiden Turner of “All My Children” fame), and
  • hair and makeup makeovers on the “Remodel Yourself” stage

in addition to more conventional seminars on kitchens, decorating, custom decks, and adapting your home as you age.

Did I mention the hot tub full of firefighters raising money for charity? No?

Well you have to give credit where credit is due. Ohio Remodelers have big cojones. It’s a bold move, I just hope it doesn’t alienate all the guys out there.

RemodelOhio runs Thursday Jan 25 through Sunday Jan. 28 at the International Exposition Center. Remember ladies, what happens in Cleveland stays in Cleveland. ;)

Read the source article New focus at remodeling show by Melissa Herbert on cleveland.com.

Win your very own Hardware Store, a million dollar value

Yep.  You can win an entire hardware store, thanks to the good folks at Ace Hardware.  And not for just shopping in either.  If you win, you’ll actually have to work there and be nice to people.  The joys of ownership.

I joke but this is a serious contest, which will give one aspiring entrepreneur who has the right combination of skills & savvy the opportunity to own and run his or her own hardware business.

“Successful contestants will demonstrate a combination of business and sales expertise, entrepreneurial spirit and home improvement knowledge, as well as a true commitment to helpfulness.”

Judging for the competition will take place in New York and Chicago but the actual store location will be in Houston, Texas or an “alternate location at Ace’s discretion”.

You can enter the contest any time in January (2007) by going to http://www.dreamacehardware.com/.  Read the full press release on marketwire.com.

Go Green for 2007 – Resolutions from AFreshSqueeze.com

You can be good to the environment and be good to yourself at the same time according to the folks at AFreshSqueeze.com. Concrete tips for saving energy, detoxing your home, and recycling are among the “resolutions” you will find in their annual list.

Read Green Resolutions: Live Green in 2007.

The team at AFreshSqueeze.com puts out a free e-newsletter with tips for living green with useful information on green foods, restaurants, home and garden products, day trips, and healthy and sustainable living, currently with a focus on the Chicago area.

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