Registry helps homeowners avoid bad contractors
By Josh O’Gorman
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | August 31,2014
Whether it’s remodeling the bathroom or making repairs after a storm, choosing a contractor can be difficult, especially for someone who is new to the area.
While the state has made efforts to address home improvement fraud and trade organizations are looking at how to police their own, property owners must do their own digging to ensure they find the right person for the job.
Since 2003, particularly unscrupulous contractors have been subject to the home improvement fraud statute of Vermont state law, which, for a repeat offender at the felony level carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, recalls introducing the original bill at the behest of one of his constituents.
“It came from some constituent complaints, as these things do,” Sears said. “There was a woman down in Pownal who had some window work done. She had given some money up front and the work was shoddy.”
The criminal statute addresses instances when a contractor accepts money up front for materials and does not perform the work; when a contractor misrepresents the state of a property (saying an entire roof needs to be replaced when all it needs is a few rows of shingles); and when a contractor engages in profiteering during a declared state of emergency, such as in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene.
In addition to criminal penalties, anyone convicted of felony-level home improvement fraud — or “fraudulent acts related to home improvement fraud” under the updated 2008 statute — has his name placed on the Home Improvement Fraud Registry, which can be found online at ago.vermont.gov/assets/files/Consumer/HomeImprovementFraudRegistry.pdf.
“The idea is, as a homeowner, if you want to have a plumber come and do work, you can check the registry and say, ‘We don’t want to hire this guy,’” said Assistant Attorney General Evan Meenan.
Once contractors go on the registry, they are on it for life unless they receive a pardon from the governor or if they received a deferred sentence — which, like any deferred sentence, can be expunged from the offender’s record.
The registry listed 46 contractors as of July 30. Two had received deferred sentences not yet expunged.
Once convicted of home improvement fraud, a contractor cannot operate his own business unless he files a $50,000 bond with the Vermont attorney general’s office. He can go to work for someone else, but is required to notify both the attorney general’s office and his employer of the conviction.
Continuing to work without meeting these conditions is a violation of the registry’s terms and can bring a maximum penalty of a year in prison and a $1,000 fine.
“As a result of some recent arrests, we’ve had some people calling to get into compliance,” Meenan said.
Criminal prosecution is the final step the attorney general’s office will take. But before taking a case to court, the office will try to help the homeowner and the contractor reach a peaceful resolution.
In partnership with the University of Vermont, the attorney general’s office operates the Consumer Assistance Program, where property owners can go to complain about work what was done shoddily or not at all.
“We receive a number of complaints during the building season,” said CAP director Janet Murnane. “We try to contact the business and engage in what we call ‘letter mediation.’”
The program tries to have contractor and customer communicate and resolve their dispute through letters, a practice that Murnane said results in customers receiving back $300,000 to $400,000 annually.
And a prospective customer can contact CAP and learn how many letters of complaint were received about a contractor, and how many were resolved successfully.
The letter mediation program is crucial because proving home improvement fraud can be difficult. Meenan, who until recently prosecuted such cases, said the majority of criminal cases involved a contractor taking money and not performing the work.
“We go criminal only if it’s really crossed the line into a theft,” Murnane said. “If it’s a matter of shoddy work, the customer can take it to civil court, but usually it’s pretty much impossible to collect damages.”
One way to protect customers is to do what many other states do, which is licensing contractors. In Vermont, only plumbers and electricians are licensed; through the Division of Fire Safety because these trades are involved in fire sprinkler installation and repair.
For the rest of the trades, from carpet layers to roofers, the field is not regulated by the secretary of state’s Office of Professional Regulation, which licenses a host of other trades, from hair dressers to auctioneers.
“It’s a legislative decision,” said Christopher Winters, director of the Office Professional Regulation, which studies the impact of licensing a profession, at the behest of the Legislature, and is currently looking at licensing foresters, art therapists and behavior analysts.
However, Winters said, there has been no request from the Legislature to look at licensing home contractors.
Sears recalled discussing the idea of licensing contractors during debates over the home improvement fraud bill.
“During that time, there was some discussion about that licensing and I remember talking with larger general contractors in the Bennington area who supported the idea, but I didn’t see a lot of support in the Legislature,” Sears said. “I think it has to do with the underground economy in Vermont.”
The state senator added, “I personally would support some sort of licensing. I can’t get my hair cut without going to a licensed professional, but I can have thousands of dollars worth of work done on my house by someone without a license.”
Mary Cregan Connolly, executive officer with the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Northern Vermont, said her association has not taken a formal stand on whether its members should be licensed, but has heard remarks from members on both sides of the issue.
“I hear people complaining there is no licensing, but I also hear people say they don’t need to be told to do the right thing,” Connolly said.
This past year, the association began asking new members to sign a code of ethics, and hopes to have all of its roughly 275 members sign the code by the association’s annual meeting in January. The association is also looking at creating a mechanism to remove members who violate the code of ethics.
“We feel there is a concern among our members who are ethical and build to code that they are at a disadvantage in the bidding process when they are going up against someone who is not building to code or is acting fraudulently,” Connolly said.
Homeowners who facing a conflict with their contractors, or would like to learn if a contractor is the subject of complaints to the attorney general’s office, can visit www.uvm.edu/consumer.