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Dealing with Home Improvement Contractors

October 12, 2010

The beauty of running a general law practice is that I can handle a broad spectrum of legal issues.  However, I won’t take just any case.  If I think someone’s legal issue is one where I can’t be of any help, I’ll refer them to the best possible attorneys for whatever the specific problems may be.  To be a successful lawyer is to know what cases you are good at handling or, at the very least, you can become competent in handling.  Fortunately for a civil litigation attorney, the general procedure for handling a lawsuit is similar across all courts no matter what the actual issue is.  This allows me to take on clients with issues in many different fields of law.  Aside from Oreste Law’s primary focuses (family law, civil litigation, real estate and estate planning), I get to learn a little about a lot as a result of my civil litigation practice.

One issue that has come up often the past few months is about home improvement contractors and the law.  I was recently retained by a client who hired a home improvement contractor – let’s call him Bob the Builder -whom he found online to do a bathroom renovation.  My client’s hiring criteria was based solely on price and Bob the Builder was the lowest. You probably know where I’m going with this – Bob the Builder did not fix the bathroom.  In fact, he did more damage and broke more terms of the agreement between my client and him that he ultimately abandoned the job.  When my client demanded a refund two months after the renovation was supposed to be completed and several weeks of not showing up to work as scheduled, Bob the Builder refused and tried to blame my client for breaking the contract.  My client has spent three times the amount of money that the renovation should have cost – thousands of dollars more to repair the mistakes and complete the work in his bathroom.

I’m sure this is an all too familiar scenario for many homeowners and one that many just chalk up to lost money because they don’t want the hassle or added expense of fighting with Bob the Builder in court.  What most homeowners don’t know is that they may not have to go to court.  Massachusetts has a Home Improvement Contractors Guaranty Fund to which all licensed contractors pay into.  The money for this fund is used for the types of cases as described above: where the work is done in an un-workmanlike and unprofessional manner. 

The Guaranty Fund will pay actual damages to the homeowner if the contractor doesn’t.  Better yet, there is a written arbitration procedure to decide these cases.  Generally, the homeowner (or homeowner’s attorney) will file for arbitration that includes a statement of the damages along with any photos, receipts, and any other evidence that should be considered.  The contractor is allowed to respond in writing within a certain number of days.  An arbitrator reads both parties’ papers, reviews the evidence and then sends out his decision to both parties.  If the decision is in the homeowner’s favor and the contractor does not pay, the homeowner now has a binding arbitration award that a court will likely enforce and allow money to be paid to the homeowner from the Guaranty Fund.

While arbitration and the guaranty fund can be a good option and safety net for the would-be homeowner who runs into a bad contractor, the real moral of the story is do your research if you’re going to pay someone thousands of dollars to renovate your home.  First and foremost, make sure the person doing the work is licensed to do so by checking with the Secretary of State. Also, check out the list of prohibited acts by a contractor or subcontractor here if you think the contractor you hired is acting wrongly or unfairly.

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