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New law will protect homeowners from shoddy work

| Sunday, Jan. 11, 2009

For homeowners such as David Scabolt, a new law to license Pennsylvania home improvement contractors comes a little too late.

An unfinished deck repair and window replacement project prompted the North Side resident to join the ranks of thousands of other state residents who complain annually to public officials and consumer watchdog groups about shoddy or incomplete work performed at their homes.

"If the law had been in effect when I entered into the contract, I probably would not be experiencing the problems I'm going through now," said Scabolt, who welcomes the state's Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act, which becomes effective July 1.

Backers hope the new law cuts into the number of complaints against contractors, which by mid-December totaled 2,016, including 501 from Western Pennsylvania, according to the state Attorney General's office.

That comes on top of 2,086 complaints, including 472 from this region, filed in 2007.

The new law will require contractors to register annually with the state, said Nil Frederiksen, spokesman for Attorney General Tom Corbett.

Frederiksen expects in excess of 50,000 contractors will register by July 1, but he acknowledges that there is no accurate count available on the number of contractors doing business in Pennsylvania.

"The new law is good tool, but it is not a complete tool to protect the homeowner," Fredericksen said.

No law can guarantee quality of work, but the new law will stop Pennsylvania from being "a safe haven" for unscrupulous contractors who must register or take tests in neighboring states," Fredericksen said. Some contractors have come here because they haven't had to register or pass a test to determine the quality of their work.

Complaints involving home improvement or repair projects are among the top subjects of calls to the Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection, Corbett said.

Legal actions filed last year against "no show" contractors and others doing substandard work seek nearly $2 million in consumer refunds, fines and civil penalties, he said.

"This database gives homeowners the power to make informed choices and enables good contractors to proudly point to their record," said Rep. Keith McCall, D-Carbon County, who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Robert (Tommy) Tomlinson, R-Bucks County.

Consumers deserve the information and the reputable contractors deserve the protection, McCall said.

"The law will offer another layer of protection for consumers and allow them to research contractors and not select the contractor who looks like a nice man," said Scott Elliott, executive director of the Pennsylvania Builders Association.

But the requirements will add extra expense for contractors, said Attorney Chad Michaelson, with the law firm of Meyer, Unkovic and Scott.

He estimates the cost could exceed $2,000 in legal fees to amend contracts to include such things as a registration number, a list of subcontractors, and a specific description of the work to be accomplished including materials.

"We have been trying for 12 years to get the law passed and it is the first step towards making our industry more professional," said Regis McQuaide, owner of Master Remodelers Inc., Regis McQuaide Co. and a member of the Remodeler's Council of the Builders Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh.

"Too often, people select contractors based on price, not on experience. We are finalizing two projects that the former contractor left undone," he said.

The Better Business Bureau of Western Pennsylvania is among a number of organizations working with the Attorney General's Office to prepare a standard contract for use after July 1 that meets the requirements of the law, said Warren King, the bureau's president.

From June 2005 to June 2008, the bureau received more than 15,561 complaints against contractors in Pennsylvania, with about one-fourth of those classified as unresolved, King said.

Among those is that of Scabolt, who said he signed a contract with Senior Carpenters Co. in September and included a $600 deposit toward a $1,275 job. He still is waiting for the contractor to finish two of three projects at his home.

Senior Carpenters did not respond to several attempts to obtain comment by the Tribune-Review.

"I came home one day to find he had finally replaced a post to hold up the roof on a deck in the back, but the other jobs, of installing a liner on the roof to halt water from leaking and installation of storm windows on five stain glass windows, have still not been done," he said.

"There have been 38 complaints about this business in the last 36 months, with 32 of these closed in the last 12 months and with six -- including Scabolt's -- open complaints," King said.

Senior Carpenters has an unsatisfactory record with the Bureau because it failed to respond to two or more complaints that remain unresolved, he said. The bureau has been unable to confirm who is the head of Senior Carpenters, King said.

Additional Information:

Offering advice

The Pennsylvania Association of Builders offers, free of charge, a booklet that provides tips on home remodeling for consumers.

It is available by calling toll-free 800-692-7339 or by downloading it from the association's Web site . Additional Information:

What the law says

The new Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act goes into effect July 1. Among its provisions:

• Contractors who perform at least $5,000 in business annually must register with the state and include registration number on all advertisements, business cards, estimates and work proposals and on home improvement contracts.

• A contract won't be valid unless it is clearly written, contains detailed information about the proposed work and is signed by the contractor and homeowner.

• It creates a criminal offense called 'home improvement fraud,' enforceable by the state attorney general and county district attorneys.

• Contractors must show proof of at least $50,000 in insurance covering personal injury and property damage.

• Contracts signed by customers are automatically voided for contractors who fail to register.

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