What to Know Before Signing a Home Improvement Contract

It is important to be a very careful consumer when it comes to home improvement contractors. For instance, I had a case where my client, an elderly and blind woman, signed a contract and paid $30,000.00 to a home improvement company that disappeared with all of her money! Unfortunately, the company was a scam operation, my client lost her life’s savings and it will take some time in court before my client may ever see her money again however, her mistake will be a lesson to all of you because this article explains how to protect yourself from home improvement fraud.

Before signing any contract with a home improvement company, first ask that company for its license number and check it out with your State or County Consumer Affairs’ Business License Division. Find the License Division on the web or call information and get their number. You want to find out (1) the name and address of the company associated with the license number given to you, (2) if the company is currently licensed and the license expiration date and (3) whether any complaints have been made against that company. The answers to those questions will help you determine if you want to proceed with signing a contract. Make sure both the contractor and the company he works for are licensed to work in your State.

If your going to sign the contract then make sure certain things are included pursuant to your understanding and as required by your State’s Home Improvement Business Law. The contracting company’s name, address and phone number should be printed on the contract. Also, it is important that the contracting company’s home improvement license number is printed on the contract and that it is not different from the number you called and inquired about with Consumer Affairs. Lastly, make sure that all of the work to be performed is listed in the contract and that the approximate start and end dates of work are included. You should put a penalty clause in the contract regarding the contractor’s failure to timely complete the work because contractors are notorious for starting jobs and then leaving for a few days or weeks to do other jobs while you sit and wait in your dismantled kitchen for him to return. Once the contract terms are satisfactory then the contract should be signed by both you and the company’s representative.

An example of a consumer protection law is New York’s General Business Law §771 (“GBL”) requiring all home improvement contracts shall be in writing and contain certain terms of payment, fees for services and materials and start and completion dates, among other terms. GBL §771 is a consumer protection statute to prevent the misunderstandings between contractor had consumer and to protect the consumer from overreaching of the contractor, such as charging for work that was not agreed upon. GBL §771 limits the contractor who disregards its written contract requirements to satisfactorily proving to a court each and every item of work he did and the reasonable value of each item by detailed invoices, timesheets and proof of hourly rates, among other proofs. So, if the contractor who failed to put your home improvement work in writing attempts to collect $20,000.00 from you, he has to prove the value of his services in detail before scaring you into paying an amount you had no idea about. New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act and the Home Improvement Act protect the consumer even more by denying the contractor from recovering any monies if he violates any of the consumer laws AND he will pay three times the amount of damages (called treble damages) to the consumer for his failing to obtain proper permits or licenses or any other violation of those laws.

Lastly, protect yourself by not paying 100% upfront. Most contracting companies ask for a deposit upon your signing the contract. I suggest that you put down as little as possible and arrange a payment schedule with the company where you will pay a certain amount as certain work is completed. Of course, always get a receipt, signed by the company and stating the date and amount of any monies paid to the company if you pay anything in cash.