A Home improvement project gone wrong can cost you a LOT in time, money, and peace of mind.
I have litigated several home improvement disputes over the years. Believe me, you want to avoid being in that position. It is stressful, and expensive.
You can do a lot to avoid being in that situation if you take just a little bit of time to do some research first. This post explains what you need to know before you take on a major home improvement job. And we provide a step by step guide to the research you need to do to make sure your home improvement goes smoothly.
Check Them Out
(1) Phone a Friend: You will probably start by asking friends and family for referrals. Social media can be helpful with this effort. Most people end their research right there. This is a mistake.
(2) Google them: Your contractor should not be a “ghost” on the internet. If so, be careful. In this day and age, not having an internet presence can be the sign of a problem. Find out how long they’ve been in business, and make sure they’ve got a solid reputation on line.
(3) Read reviews: Don’t just look at the stars. Read a few reviews. Don’t be freaked out if they have a bad review. Why was it a bad review? Do they have the same problem over and over? Are any complaints about leaving the job half finished? Leaving a job half finished is a common problem with the type of contractor you want to avoid.
If they don’t have reviews that sound like they were written by real people, then ask for a list of references. This should include names, addresses, and phone numbers of clients with similar projects to yours.
(4) Are they licensed? This is a big one. Every contractor in Maryland must be licensed by the MHIC (Maryland Home Improvement Commission). And they have to have their “MHIC number” on their business card and other material.
Check out the Department of Labor and Licensing’s website for a Home Improvement Public Query. Here you can search contractors by name, location, and license number.
If your contractor is not licensed – do NOT hire them. This is a major red flag. It means they are violating Maryland law by even selling their services. They will likely be cheap and ready to do the job very quickly. You will have trouble with this person. Don’t say we didn’t warn you!
(5) Do they get sued? One good place to check that you may not think of is the Maryland case search. If they got sued, it will be here. You can check to see how many lawsuits the contractor has been involved in. While it may not tell you much about the actual cases you can at least see if they sue or have been sued a lot.
Don’t avoid someone just because they sue or have been sued. In the business world, that happens. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything if it happens once in a while. But if they get sued a lot – beware.
Those 5 steps above will probably save you a world of grief by weeding out the most obvious bad actors in the home improvement contractor world.
The Legal Preliminaries
Now that you are settled on your contractor, you have to make sure you take care of the other legal matters preliminary to entering into a good, smart contract.
(1) Do you need a permit? Many home improvement projects require a permit from the state, county, or city you live in. Your chosen home improvement contractor should know what does, and does not, need a permit. And if your project does need a permit, they should pull that permit for you.
If you aren’t sure, call the county or city you live in and ask them if you need a permit. Someone in the permits office will be happy to speak to you about it.
For more information on whether or not you need a permit for a home improvement in Southern Maryland, use these links to start your search
- Charles County – Office of Planning & Growth Management
- St. Mary’s County – Permit Services Division
- Calvert County – Planning & Zoning
- Prince George’s County – Dept of Permitting, Inspections, & Enforcement
(2) Is your contractor insured? This is also called “bonded.” That includes personal liability, worker’s compensation, and property damage coverage.
Get copies of up to date insurance certificates. Otherwise, YOU could be the one held liable for related injuries and damages that occur. This applies to any subcontractors that work on the project, so ask about that too.
(3) Get a written contract: Once you’ve made a decision, you’ll need to get a written contract. This is NOT optional!
The contract needs to be clear and concise and needs to include the who, what, where, when, and cost. Do not sign without making sure it includes the following:
- The contractor’s name, address, & phone number.
- Their MHIC license number.
- An estimated start and completion date.
- A detailed payment schedule for the contractor, subcontractors, and suppliers.
- The contractor’s obligation to get all necessary permits.
- An outlined process for making changes or additions to the work detailed in the original contract. Make sure they are done in writing.
- A detailed list of all materials including each product’s color, model, size, and brand.
- Description of all warranty coverage.
- Specify things the contractor is not responsible for, like site clean-up and trash hauling. (If you can, ask for a “broom clean clause” that makes the contractor responsible for all clean-up work, including spills and stains.)
- Any and all promises made during conversations or calls. If it isn’t in writing, it might not be enforceable.
You do have a right to cancel your contract in 3 days IF the sale was made in a door to door solicitation. Many people think all contracts have a 3 day right to cancel but that is not true. Only door to door contracts have this right.
After You Hire a Contractor
Sorry. You still have to play DIY lawyer after you signed off on the contract! But this part is a lot easier, and just makes common sense.
(1) Document everything! Make copies of the contract, and keep copies of any correspondence and payments (which you might need for tax reasons).
It’s a good idea to keep a log or journal of all phone calls, conversations, and activities. If you do everything by email or text, you have a built in paper trail right there!
You also might want to take photographs as the job progresses, which could come in handy if any problems arise.
(2) Don’t make the last payment until you are satisfied. Possession truly is 9/10 of the law. If you pay up, and want them to come back, you may find that difficult. If you hold the money until you are satisfied, then you may find out they will be more willing to come back and make you satisfied.
Not only do YOU need to be happy with the job, but you also need to make sure all the subcontractors and suppliers have been paid. Otherwise they could file a mechanic’s lien against your home to compensate themselves. Protect yourself by asking the contractor, every subcontractor, and every supplier for a lien release or waiver.
(3) Use a Sign-Off Checklist. Before you sign off and make the final payment, check that:
- all work meets the standards spelled out in the contract
- you have written warranties for materials and workmanship
- you have proof that all subcontractors and suppliers have been paid
- the job site has been cleaned up and cleared of excess materials, tools, and equipment
- you have inspected and approved the completed work
Signs of a Home Improvement Scam
How can you tell if a contractor might not be reputable? There are some commons signs. You may not want to do business with someone who:
- Knocks on your door for business.
- Offers you discounts for finding other customers
- Just happens to have materials left over from a previous job
- Pressures you for an immediate decision
- Only accepts cash, asks you to pay everything up-front, or suggests you borrow money from a lender the contractor knows
- Asks you to get the required building permits
- Tells you your job will be a “demonstration” or offers a lifetime warranty or long-term guarantee
Report a Problem
If you have a problem with a home improvement project, first try to resolve it with the contractor. Many disputes can be resolved at this level. Follow up with emails or texts to prove what you discussed so it isn’t just “he said, she said” about what happened on that phone call.
If that fails, consider getting outside help like through your State Attorney General’s Office of Consumer Protection. Or to file a complaint go to the Maryland Home Improvement Commission.
If you go through all this and still have a problem, it might be time to hire a lawyer. For help resolving a contract dispute, call our office at 301-645-4100 to schedule a consultation.
Want to know more? Discover what you need to know about Maryland law. Click here to see our Free Legal Consumer Guides and get answers to your questions today. Know your options. Be informed. Protect yourself.
Need an attorney? Please contact us for a consultation today if you need an experienced lawyer in Waldorf and Lexington Park for your legal case.
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