Information About Home Repair and Home Improvement Contractors
Authored By: D.C. Bar Antitrust and Consumer Law Section in Cooperation with the Office of Attorney General of the District of Columbia
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How can I find a reliable contractor?
Home repair can be extremely expensive and you should find out as much as you can about a contractor before hiring him or her. The following is a list of the basic steps for choosing a contractor or home repair company:
- Get recommendations and references. Talk to friends, family, and other people for whom the contractor has done similar work.
- Get at least three written estimates from contractors. Be sure the estimates are based on the same work so that you can make meaningful comparisons.
- Make sure the contractor meets licensing and registration requirements by contacting the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs at 202-442-4400. You can check online to see if an electrician or plumber is licensed by clicking here.
- Check contractor complaint records with the Better Business Bureau. Call 202-393-8000 or go online to http://www.dc.bbb.org/qsearch.html.
- Get the names of suppliers and ask if the contractor makes timely payments.
- Contact your local building inspection department to check for permit and inspection requirements. Call 2020-442-4400, visit the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs at 941 N. Capitol St., NE, Room 2300, or go online to the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
- Be sure your contractor has the required personal liability, property damage, and worker's compensation insurance for his or her workers and subcontractors. Get copies of the contractor's proof of insurance. Also check with your insurance company to find out if you are covered for any injury or damage that may occur.
- Be wary of businesses that operate out of post office boxes, private mailboxes, and suites instead of local business addresses.
- Insist on a complete written contract. Know exactly what work will be done, the quality of the materials that will be used, warranties, timetables, the total price of the job, and the schedule of payments.
What do I need to be careful about when dealing with a contractor?
You should be extra cautious if the contractor:
- comes door-to-door or seeks you out;
- just happens to have material left over from a recent job;
- tells you your job will be a "demonstration";
- offers you discounts for finding other customers;
- quotes a price that is much higher or lower than other estimates;
- pressures you for an immediate decision;
- offers exceptionally long guarantees;
- can only be reached by leaving messages with an answering service;
- drives an unmarked van or has out-of-state plates on his/her vehicles; or
- asks you to pay for the entire job up front.
Why can't I just pick any contractor from the Yellow pages?
Just because a contractor advertises in the "Home Improvement" section of the Yellow Pages is not a guarantee that the contractor has a valid license or that the contractor is reputable.
What questions should I ask the contractor?
How long have you been in business?
- You should look for a well-established company and check with your local consumer protection officials to see if there have been any problems with that company. Call the District of Columbia Office of the Attorney General Consumer Protection Hotline at 202-442-9828, or check with the Better Business Bureau at 202-393-8000. You can also go online to http://www.dc.bbb.org/qsearch.html. Don't rely on a lack of complaints in making your decision. It may be that problems exist, but have not yet been reported, or that the contractor is doing business under several different names.
Are you licensed and registered with the District of Columbia?
- The District of Columbia has licensing laws. Ask to see the contractor's license. Make sure it's current. Under D.C. law, a contractor is supposed to carry his D.C.R.A. I.D. card with him or her.
How many projects like mine have you completed in the last year?
- Ask for a list. This will help you determine how familiar the contractor is with your type of project.
Will my project require a permit?
- Most localities require permits for building projects, even for simple jobs like decks. A competent contractor will get all the necessary permits before starting work on your project. Be suspicious if the contractor asks you to get the permit(s). It could mean that the contractor is not licensed or registered, as required by D.C. or your locality.
May I have a list of references?
- The contractor should be able to give you the names, addresses, and phone numbers of at least three clients who have projects similar to yours. Ask each how long ago the project was completed and if you can see it. Also, tell the contractor that you'd like to visit jobs in progress. Be wary if a contractor refuses to give you any references.
Will you be using subcontractors on this project?
- If yes, ask to meet them, and make sure they have current insurance coverage and licenses. Also ask them if they have been paid on time by this contractor.
What types of insurance do you carry?
- Contractors should have personal liability, worker's compensation, and property damage coverage. Ask for copies of insurance certificates, and make sure they are current. Avoid doing business with contractors who don't carry the appropriate insurance. Otherwise, you'll be held liable for any injuries and damages that occur during the project.
- How long have you been in business?
How should I check the references the contractor provides?
You should talk to some of the contractor's former customers. They can help you decide if that contractor is right for you. You may want to ask:
- Can I visit your home to see the completed job?
- Were you satisfied with the project? Was it completed on time?
- Did the contractor keep you informed about the status of the project, and any problems along the way?
- Were there unexpected costs? If so, what were they?
- Did workers show up on time? Did they clean up after finishing the job?
- Would you recommend the contractor?
- Would you use the contractor again?
How important is it that the the contractor have a license?
The District of Columbia requires licensing of contractors of home remodeling and repair services. D.C.'s Home Improvement Licensing Regulations state that unless a contractor has a license, he can't accept any payments before he's completed all of the work. This is true even if the contractor later obtains a license that is retroactive to the day he started work. A contractor doing home improvement work without a license is in violation of the Consumer Protection Procedures Act (CPPA). A contractor is not allowed to work under another contractor's license. Ask to see the contractor's license. Make sure it's current.
Does the contractor need to do anything before starting work?
District of Columbia law requires that even a licensed contractor obtain proper District of Columbia construction permits. The law requires that the contractor put up a money bond to guarantee his performance.
Should I have a written contract with the contractor?
Yes. You should not allow a contractor to begin work on your home until you have a written, signed contract. Although it may be tempting to have an oral agreement and simply "shake on it," it is very hard to enforce the terms of an oral contract in court if there is a dispute.
What should be included in the written contract?
The agreement should be clear, concise and complete. Before you sign a contract, make sure it contains:
- The contractor's name, address, phone, and license number.
- The payment schedule for the contractor, subcontractors and suppliers. Although most contractors require a partial payment before the work starts for supplies, DO NOT PAY FOR THE ENTIRE JOB UP-FRONT. It is better to have payments due when the contractor has finished an agreed upon amount of the work. It is common for consumers to pay contractors in thirds (one third up-front, one third upon completion of half of the work, and the final third upon completion of the entire job.)
- An estimated start and completion date.
- The contractor's obligation to obtain all necessary permits.
- How change orders will be handled. A change order -common on most remodeling jobs - is a written authorization to the contractor to make a change or addition to the work described in the original contract. It could affect the project's cost and schedule. Contractors often require payment for change orders before work begins.
- A detailed list of all materials, including color, model, size, brand name, and product.
- Warranties covering materials and workmanship. The names and addresses of the parties honoring the warranties - contractor, distributor or manufacturer - must be identified. The length of the warranty period and any limitations also should be spelled out.
- What the contractor will and will not do. For example, is site clean-up and trash hauling included in the price? Ask for a "broom clause." It makes the contractor responsible for all clean-up work, including spills and stains.
Can I change my mind after I have signed a contract?
Federal and D.C. laws give you three (3) business days to cancel a contract if the sale (here, it's the sale of services) is made at your home or another location other than the seller's place of business. This is known as the "cooling-off" period. The contractor cannot take this right away from you by starting work immediately, by selling your contract to a lender, or in any other way. You could, however, owe the contractor money for benefits you received before you cancelled.
At the time of the contract, the contractor/seller must give you:
- Two dated copies of a cancellation form (one to keep and one to send); and
- A copy of your contract or receipt showing the salesperson's name and address and explaining your right to cancel. The contract or receipt must be in the same language that's used in the sales presentation.
Can I cancel the contract?
You can cancel the contract if the "cooling-off" rule applies and you are still within the three day period allowed under that rule. If the rule applies, you can cancel a purchase by signing and dating one of the cancellation notices and sending it by certified mail postmarked before midnight of the third business day following the sale. Saturday is considered a business day, but Sunday and legally-recognized holidays are not. Keep the other notice of cancellation for your records.
What if I want to get additional work done after I have signed the contract?
You should avoid asking for additional work after the contract is signed. If you want a change, the best way to avoid misunderstanding is with a specific written change order. The change order document is signed by both parties and added to the original contract. It specifies the additional work to be done, the materials, and any change in the schedule. Remember that a change order can cause a significant increase in price.
What should I watch out for when the job begins?
Pay attention to the progress of the work and the contractor's schedule of what will be done and in what order. If anything seems to be missing or out-of-the-ordinary, you should ask the contractor about it. That will avoid problems later.
What is a contractor not allowed to do under the law?
Most of the D.C. Consumer Protection Procedures Act (CPPA) list of unlawful trade practices involve trickery and lying (fraud and misrepresentation). Following are some examples of unlawful conduct that may apply to home remodeling or repair by a contractor. A contractor may not:
- Misrepresent any material (i.e., important) fact with a tendency to mislead;
- Represent that goods or services have qualities that they do not have;
- Represent that the merchant has an affiliation or connection that the merchant does not have;
- Represent that goods are original or new when in fact they are not;
- Represent that goods or services are of particular standard, quality, or style if in fact they are not;
- Advertise or offer goods or services without the intent to sell them as advertised or offered (i.e., "bait and switch");
- Make false or misleading representations of fact concerning the reason for, existence of, or amounts of price reductions, or the price in comparison to competitors' price or one's own price at a past or future time;
- Falsely state that services, replacements, or repairs are needed;
- Replace parts of an item for repair when those parts are not defective;
- Falsely state that repairs, alterations, or modifications have been made to an item when in fact they have not been made.
How can I protect myself during the project?
You should keep all paperwork related to your home repair project in one place. This includes copies of the contract, change orders (approving a substitution of materials or services), and correspondence with your contractors and suppliers. Keep a log of all phone calls, conversations, and activities associated with the project. You also might want to take photographs recording the work's progress. These records will prove important if problems arise with your project, during or after construction.
What should I look for when the job is complete?
Before you sign off and make the final payment, use this checklist to make sure the job is complete. Check that:
- All work meets the standards spelled out in the contract.
- You have written warranties for materials and workmanship
- You have written proof that all subcontractors and suppliers have been paid. (See "What is a 'mechanic's lien?'" below)
- The job site has been cleaned up and cleared of excess materials, tools and equipment.
- You have inspected and approved the completed work.
What is a 'mechanic's lien'?
A "mechanic's lien" could be placed on your home if your contractor fails to pay the subcontractors and suppliers on your project, even if you have fully paid the contractor for the job. That means the subcontractors and suppliers could go to court to force you to sell your home to satisfy their unpaid bills from your project. Before you make your final payment to the contractor, you should protect yourself by getting written proof that the subcontractors and suppliers have been paid. In addition, you may wish to ask for a lien release or lien waiver from the contractor and from each subcontractor or supplier. A lien release or lien waiver is a document showing that the contractor, subcontractor, or supplier has agreed not to place a lien on your home.
What can I do if the contractor violates the contract?
If you believe the contractor has violated the contract, first bring the matter to the attention of the contractor with a telephone call or conversation. For example, if you came home from work one day and found that the new picture window was in the wrong place, call the contractor immediately. To protect yourself, make a note of the conversation, summarizing your concerns and any agreements, and send it to him. Keep a copy yourself. It is a good idea to ask your lawyer to write a letter stating your concerns and asking for the correction. If that doesn't work, check to see if your contract specifies alternative dispute resolution (ADR) - that is, mediation or arbitration. That means you and the contractor have agreed to call in a mutually acceptable third party to resolve the dispute without going to court. If your contract does not specify ADR, your initial letter and the lawyer's letter will help you with further action, possibly in small claims court. Either way, your options are to push for "specific performance" of the contract, which means forcing the contractor to do the work as agreed, or to pay any extra costs you incur by having someone else do it.
Where can I report a contractor for an alleged violation?
If you live in D.C., you may report a problem you have with a contractor to the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia and to the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA). The Office of the Attorney General has a Consumer Hotline for you to call, at 202-442-9828. You may reach the DCRA at 202-442-4400. While the D.C. Attorney General will not sue for just one person, if it suspects or believes that a company has a regular practice that violates the law, it may investigate or bring a lawsuit.
Are there particular problems that arise after a flood or other disaster, and what should I do about them?
Be even more cautious than usual about contractors soliciting door to door. Deal with established businesses and try to get more than one bid. Don't skip over other important usual precautions because there is an emergency. Do not pay cash. Require home repair contractors to obtain all necessary government licenses and permits to do the particular job, and have proper occupational licenses.
Will federal government people help me arrange for home repairs after a disaster? How can I tell if I am dealing with a real government person or an imposter? What other precautions should I take?
Ask for a photo ID whenever anyone represents themselves as a federal employee, such as an inspector. Don't rely on a uniform. Do not give personal information such as social security and bank account numbers to individuals claiming to be affiliated with the federal government. FEMA inspectors never require this information. A social security or bank account number is requested during the first phone call to the agency's teleregistration line. On any follow-up calls a FEMA representative may ask for the last four digits of your social security number. Remember that FEMA or SBA representatives are never allowed to accept money. Also, FEMA inspectors only assess damage, they do not hire or endorse specific contractors to fix homes or recommend repairs.