Pennsylvania enacts law to make contracts more clear
by Kristen Rojowski
After spending more than $23,000 to remodel his Philadelphia home's basement last summer, Angie's List member Steven Pfanstiel says he was shocked to hear his contractor's response about selecting paint colors.
"He just told me, 'I don't paint,'" Pfanstiel says.
Pfanstiel, who wrongly assumed painting would be included in his remodel, spent the next several weekends painting his own basement - an unexpected task he could have avoided if his contract had clearly spelled out the project.
"I had a contract, but it was just a paragraph jumbled together," Pfanstiel says. "More clarity to the scope of work would have been helpful."
Nils Fredericksen, spokesman for the Pennsylvania attorney general's office, says turning the gray areas of a home improvement project to black and white is one of the main goals of the Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act (HICPA).
For projects more than $500, the new law requires home improvement contractors to clearly define price, start and finish dates, and the exact scope of the work in writing. Also, contractors can't ask for more than a 25 percent deposit and they must provide cancellation terms.
"Most of the complaints we receive boil down to confusion," Fredericksen says. "Consumers and contractors disagree about what was supposed to be done or how long a project was supposed to take - if everything is in writing, it eliminates that confusion."
Pfanstiel says he takes full responsibility for assuming his contractor would paint his basement. He says the job was done before the new law went into effect.
The law also requires contractors, who perform $5,000 worth of home improvement projects each year, to register with the AG's office and provide contact information, proof of insurance and any previous business ownership or business-related legal action such as bankruptcy.
Home improvement contractors were required to register by July 1, 2009. Nearly 65,000 contractors have complied, according to Fredericksen, but he says the office continues to receive 25 to 100 new registrations each day.
Although Fredericksen declined to speculate how many contractors still need to comply with the new registration law, he believes the number who've registered so far is substantial.
Marcy Zammer, co-owner of highly rated Castelli Roofing & General Construction Inc., says she was unaware of the new law until Angie's List requested her registration information as part of a new policy. She promptly registered online and paid $50 for her two-year registration.
Fredricksen says the AG's main goal is to get contractors into compliance. The law makes it easier to prosecute contractors who receive money and then don't deliver, he says. Proving the contractor intended to steal was a sticking point, previously, he says.
The office has received tips from consumers and competitors about unregistered contractors and have issued more than 1,000 notices since August. The companies that received the recent notices were not fined, Fredericksen says, but in the future contractors who don't register could face fines and jail time, depending on the severity of the offense.