Build relations with home contractors
By Noreen Seebacher for The Journal News (Westchester Edition), Real Estate Home section, Sept. 28-29, 2002.

Just about every homeowner has a home-improvement horror story. There are countless accounts of projects gone awry, filled with reports of shoddy workmanship, dishonest contractors, unexpected delays and excessive cost overruns. But some home improvement contractors have equally hair-raising talks to tell- including stories about homeowners who successfully evade paying for work even when it is satisfactorily completed.

Westchester, Putnam and Rockland counties, and New York City, all have mandatory home improvement contractor licensing requirements.

The license doesn’t guarantee the quality of the contractor’s wok. But it does provide assurance that the contractor has a permanent address, valid insurance, and enough commitment to the job to obtain the proper paperwork.

It costs $250 for a two-year license.  Some contractors claim they work without them because they can’t afford the fee. But if they do, their risks increases significantly.

They can be fined as much as $1,000 in Westchester or $2,000 in Putnam for working without a license. The violation can also be classed a misdemeanor, which elevates its seriousness from a civil to criminal matter.

But the biggest risk comes from the fact that unlicensed contractors are unable to sue the homeowner for payment. “Even if the contractor did a great job, and even if the homeowner was aware that he was operating without a license, the contractor is out of luck,” Elaine price, director of the Westchester County Department of Consumer Affairs, said.

Citing that license requirements were designed to safeguard and protect consumers against fraudulent practices and inferior workmanship, New York State courts have aggressively defended them. Contractors who flout licensing requirements are penalized with the loss of their right to take the homeowner to Small Claims Court.

They put themselves at the mercy of homeowners who withhold payment without risking rips to court. It doesn’t matter whether the work performed was satisfactory, whether the failure to obtain the license was willful or, even, whether the homeowner knew of the lack of the license and planned to take advantage of its absence, the courts maintain.

But unlicensed contractors can be just as troublesome for homeowners. Neither government regulators nor consumer agencies like the Better Business Bureau generally have as much success negotiating disputes involving unlicensed contractors. Many unlicensed contractors don’t even have a permanent place of business, so they can be hard to track down- and harder still to persuade to satisfy the homeowner.

“It’s just safer to stick with licensed contractors,” Price said. S successful home improvement project starts and ends with the competency of the contractor. “You have to do your homework. You have to know what you want and whether the contractor you plan to use can give it to you,” Price added.

Sylvain Côté, president of Absolute Remodeling Corp. in Yorktown Heights, frequently compares the relationship between a contractor and homeowner to the first few months of marriage. The remodeling project makes you instant housemates. As Côté said, you lose privacy and freedom of movement in your own home and gain “dust, noise and strangers.”

Whenever possible, try to at least like the people sharing your home. Meet with the contractor before the project to work out the details of life under one roof. Côté said you should use the meeting to get on the same wavelength with the contractor and establish house rules. Think ahead: Do you want workers smoking your house or on the front porch? Can they use any of the bathrooms at any time? How early can they start work, and how late can they stay?  

Joseph LaBarbers, director of the Putnam County Department of Consumer Affairs, said the most satisfied homeowners find contractors who understand their need and goals. He said it’s important to get actively involved in the project, stay on top of it as work progresses and understand each phase of construction.

That starts with reading and rereading the contract. The National Association of the Remodeling Industry urges homeowners and contractors to put everything about the projects on paper. The more you have in writing, the fewer surprises you’re likely to have as work progresses. -



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