July 13, 2008

Licensing Contractors Would Help Consumers Avoid Pitfalls

By Dan Higgins, Albany Times Union, N.Y.

Jul. 13--Patrolling the streets of Westchester County, inspectors from the Consumer Protection Division stop at a house where a contractor's truck is parked outside. It's familiar to them so they knock on the door.

It's the same man they cited three weeks earlier for working without a license. He still had not acquired one but he was back on the job anyway.

So they took his truck. They drove off with it, his tools inside.

Quickly, this man "came to Jesus."

"He was in our office that day filling out paperwork to get his license," said Tom Kramer, who coordinates the inspectors for Westchester County government. The man had to pay $6,000 in fines to get his truck and tools back.

Westchester County and every other downstate county government -- Rockland and Putnam Counties, New York City and Long Island -- require building contractors to be licensed.

Depending on the county, having a license means that someone has done a criminal background check on the contractor, he has passed a test that shows he understands some contract law relevant to the business, and he has no history of scamming customers.

It's an important protection for consumers against unscrupulous folks who may otherwise come into their homes, take thousands of dollars, and leave before finishing the job.

But here in upstate New York, no such safety net exists.

There is no state law that mandates licenses for home improvement contractors. If I wanted to, I could throw a toolbox in the back of my Jeep (contents: a pair of needle-nosed pliers, three tape measures and a hammer with a dog-chewed handle) and call myself a contractor. If you hired me, you'd have only yourself to blame (I once installed a sump pump valve backward, so it was actually pumping water into my basement with great force).

I've heard many stories in the last few months that make me wonder why this is so. Remember Superior Paving, the driveway company whose customers complained that after months had gone by the company abandoned thousands of dollars of paid work?

Or Walter Hardy, who took $8,200 up-front from Selkirk woman Heather Agan, and then allegedly threatened her when she complained about shoddy work. (Coeymans Police Chief Tom Darlington said Friday Hardy was arrested and charged with aggravated harassment on Thursday in that case. He was released and will answer the charge in court in several weeks.)

Then there was Frances Wilson-Nollez, who hired a Troy contractor to renovate her Columbia County vacation home, only to have the roof collapse into her bathroom after the contractor failed to secure a tarp over the open roof in the middle of winter. Wilson-Nollez contacted the attorney general's office, but so far her complaint hasn't been resolved.

Licenses for all these contractors -- or a lack thereof -- may have provided consumers with a first red flag that would have prevented them from hiring these men in the first place.

Throughout the rest of the summer, I will ask elected and appointed officials their take on this issue.

This week I spoke to Mindy A. Bockstein, chairwoman and executive director of the state Consumer Protection Board.

She said licenses for contractors give consumers leverage, "But they are not a panacea."

"Licenses do not guarantee competency or business integrity," she said.

She said upstate consumers have recourse when they run into problems with home improvement contractors. The most important point is to seek a contract with favorable terms, preferably one vetted by an attorney, she said. A model contract can be found on the CPB's Web site at www.nysconsumer.gov. Th CPB and attorney general's office also mediate disputes between contractors and unhappy clients, she said. Bockstein said if you're contemplating spending tens of thousands of dollars on a home improvement project, it's worth educating yourself as much as possible.

"Even with a license, you can run into problems," she said.

I believe being able to check whether a contractor is licensed would be a good first line of defense for consumers overwhelmed by the cost, risk and uncertainties of home improvement. In follow-up columns I'm going to speak with the heads of the committees in the state Legislature that oversee consumer protection issues, and get them on the record about the idea of statewide legislation that strengthens consumers' rights when it comes to matters of home improvement. Watch for daily updates online at http://timesunion.com/advocate.


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