There has been a rash of cases against Pennsylvania home improvement contractors in recent years due in part to the Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act (“HICPA”).
Also (and while there is no science behind this observation) home improvements and remodeling have become more popular due to a surge in dedicated television shows and channels. This especially is true in Western Pennsylvania where many homes are older, the population is getting younger, and the need to renovate is increasing.
The combination of a very powerful consumer protection statute and a trend of potentially inexperienced homeowners entering into large construction contracts has created a real friction point — especially if the contractor is equally inexperienced.
This article will focus on the issues homeowners should consider before beginning a Pennsylvania home improvement contract and what they should do if the project starts experiencing problems. Hopefully, home improvement contractors will read this and learn how to head off problems. I will write a separate article that will be helpful to home improvement contractors.
Have reasonable expectations
Home improvement contractors are small business owners. They have other customers. They are under constant pressures from inspectors, vendors, employees, etc. However, they have made the choice to do this kind of work and should be under contract with you (more on that later). That means they need to perform and you need to be able to pay them.
When you see shows like “Love it or List It,” or the like, the contractors do amazing things in short amounts of time. There is no expense spared. The contractors and the hosts comb antique shops for the perfect accessories and create artistic themes that capture the essence of their client’s lives. Or something like that. Reality TV simply is not realistic and it’s incredibly unfair to impose those expectations on your contractor — unless you fully disclose those requirements and are willing to pay for it.
However, it is reasonable to expect that your contractor will paint your house with the right color and clean up after himself/herself. It is reasonable to expect that they will be on time and will not damage your home in the process of “improving it.” It is reasonable to expect that you will pay according to the agreed-upon schedule and not be ambushed by a demand for an advance payment.
Research and keep emotional distance from your contractor
All home improvement contractors in Pennsylvania must be registered with the Attorney General under the HICPA. There is a website available to verify whether a contractor has been registered at http://hicsearch.attorneygeneral.gov/. Do not do business with a contractor who lacks this registration. Don’t accept any excuses, either. Also do a general google search on their business and personal names.
You must keep emotional distance from the contractor. It is very common for owners and contractors to be very “buddy buddy” at the beginning of a relationship, which in turn leads to emotionally-charged breakups. Either the work is right or it isn’t. Either it is paid for or it isn’t. The idea of “betrayal” or similar emotions have no place in a construction project. You don’t need to hang out. You don’t need to be friends. You need to hold up your end of the bargain and so do they. Trust me, leave it at that.
Home improvement construction is an emotional thing. Work is being done to a home, and both good work and bad work cannot be avoided by the owner. They see it every single day. They have to walk past it every single day. Bad work creates a sore spot, like a bad tooth that screams out in pain every time you eat — it cannot be ignored. Don’t contribute to that already emotional existence by developing a personal relationship with a contractor.
Have a contract and document everything — before, during and after the project
You must have a written contract. Not only that, you must have a written contract that is in compliance with the HICPA. You must not pay more than one-third of the overall price as a “deposit.” All changes to the construction must be in writing. You must have assurance that all work will be “to code” and will have a reasonable warranty. Insist on these things and do nothing “on a handshake.” Just don’t do it.
Also, make sure that there are contingencies in the contract and disclose any potential issues. If you know that a certain part of the house leaks or that there may be issues with a floor or wall, make sure the contractor knows. If you say nothing and there are cost overruns later because the contractor runs into issues unrelated to their own work, then that is your fault.
Not to make this a sales pitch, but both the contractor and the owner need to have a lawyer review the contract. It shouldn’t take too much time or be that expensive.
All home improvment contractors in Pennsylvania have to registered with the Attorney General under the HICPA
Take videos and photos of the areas where the work will be done — before, during and after the work. There is no excuse for failing to do so. Sign up for Dropbox or Google Photos and set your phone for automatic uploads. Keep all the photos and videos in a separate folder. Do the same for emails and texts between you and the contractor.
Keep track of all payments
This sounds easier than it is. Keeping track of payments can be like death by a thousand paper cuts. If you as the owner are paying for all expenses directly, there will be lots of small checks and charges being paid. Consider this to be a side business project. Keep accurate and detailed notes. If things go south, you’ll be glad you did.
Also, beware if your contractor requires you to pay for everything in cash. This creates real issues if they fail to pay subcontractors and the subcontractors file suit or a mechanic’s lien. This is 2016. There is no need to insist on cash payments. If you must pay in cash, get a receipt and confirm the payment via email or text (and learn how to back up text messages).
Sometimes you have to make a tough decision. If the contractor is not performing or there are issues with the work, you need to fire them. Sometimes, you need to compromise on what you want because there are cost overruns or unanticipated expenses. Whatever it is, make a decision. Things that linger for weeks, if not months, on a construction job almost never resolve favorably.