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.

Backyard Survivor – open flames and tiki torches lend atmosphere

The trend towards extending the living space to the great outdoors continues. Themes for your backyard decor are increasingly popular – for everyday, not just parties or special occasions. One couple has gone as far as turning their back yard into a tropical paradise, complete with tiki huts, waterfalls, and fake volcanoes. But what really makes or breaks the effect? Open flame.

“You’ve got to have open flames,” Brady says. “It adds to the whole tropical feel of the place. It just wouldn’t be the same without some open flames, and the tiki torches provide that.”

Read Fanning the fire of backyard decor for the latest on torch and lantern decor, complete with safety and maintenance tips. Just don’t get voted off the porch ;) .

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?

Contractor Good Deeds give happy ending to bad contractor story

When home improvement contractors make the news, it’s usually about the bad, not the good. Great contractors aren’t news, bad contractors are – the rip-off artists and convicted scammers … which is what makes this story about a contractor volunteering to help out a family in need that much better.

I remember reading the original story published at the end of February and just shaking my head. Another bad contractor story. The Brown family had been able to raise $17000 in donations to make their home accessible for their wheelchair-bound son EJ. They paid contractor Frank Bontempo to do the renovations, he took the money, and gutted the home never to return. Mr. Bontempo has since been arrested and charged but he didn’t give the money back and the home was still in ruins. Where did that leave the family? In an absolute crisis.

Enter semi-retired home improvement contractor Dave Prowse. He read a news story about the family’s plight and was moved … moved enough to organize crews of of other volunteer contractors to help out with the rebuilding effort and to get local companies to donate the needed materials – wallboard, kitchen cabinets, baseboards, plumbing and other supplies.

Since then Prowse and his team have been working shifts around the clock to rebuild the home. From the New Haven Register:

Prowse’s crew of 10 or so contractors worked throughout the day, drywalling the five rooms and this week will return to do trim, tile the new handicap-accessible bathroom, paint, install a kitchen and install heat at no expense to the Browns.

Prowse estimates the family should be back home within the next couple of weeks. It just depends on when the materials they need arrive.

The Brown family is truly grateful and inspired by the effort. “It’s what I call a miracle” said Mrs. Brown.

Read more of Contractors come to the aid of bilked homeowners on Greenwich Time. And another story with more details Happy Ending on the New Haven Register. Found originally on Topix.net.

To Dave Prowse and your crew of volunteers (including drywall contractor Noel McNamara, Ned Woods of Image Paint and Restoration and Jeff Valenzano of Jeff Valenzano Builders Inc.), you are all “great contractors” and good men – we salute you!

Going Green at the Beach – Leading Edge Green Home

Can a “mortgage banker and green advocate” find happiness by giving up a life of luxury to go green? This news article says yes. Going Green at the Beach documents Dave & Anna Porter’s quest to build a cutting edge “Craftsman” green home in Snohomish County, Washington.

The Porters aim to meet the requirements of not one but all five existing residential green building certification programs:

thus making it a record setting and hopefully trend setting green home.

How is this home greener than the rest?

  • Original home deconstructed, saving 80% of original material from going to landfills
  • Doors, kitchen cabinets recycled from original home
  • Geothermal heat
  • Radiant floor heating system
  • Rainwater collection system
  • Tankless hot water with recirculation system

… among many other features. The full list is quite lengthy: they’ve obviously put a lot of thought and effort into the design.

One of the things that jumped out from the list is that it is a “modest-sized home on a small lot”. How is that special? Well for people who used to drive a “gas-gulping Jaguar” and have a “4,000-square-foot home”, this is progress. As noted in my previous post, buildings are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US – small(er) is beautiful.

The demonstration home is an expensive proposition but lucky for the Porters, they’re not “going it alone”. They are being assisted in their quest by a team of professionals, have sponsors and a marketing team.

When the beach house is finished in the fall, the Porters plan to report on how efficiently it performs, right down to the utility bills. They also will open their doors for tours.

The site seems new, much of the content is under construction but looks promising. My only disappointment with the site: they promised green tips from the family dog and I couldn’t find any. Skipper, the “recycled dog”, looks really cute in his hard hat and tool belt. Maybe that’s coming later …

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.

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

Aussies go with the flo – to ban incandescent bulbs

Australia has taken a ground-breaking step in reducing energy consumption and addressing the “climate change challenge”(global warming). The government has committed to phasing out traditional incandescent light bulbs by the year 2010.

“A normal light bulb is too hot to hold. That heat is wasted and globally represents millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide that needn’t have been emitted into the atmosphere if we had used more efficient forms of lighting … These more efficient lights, such as the compact fluorescent light bulb, use around 20 percent of the electricity to produce the same amount of light.”
– Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull

Interesting. I wonder if other nations will follow suit. Apparently, similar legislation was proposed in California last month.

Read more – Bright idea? Australia pulls plug on light bulbs.

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