What is Home Improvement?
Why You Should Only Do Business with a Licensed Contractor
Types of Contractors
Three Basic Steps to Home Improvements
Permits and Inspections
Generally, home improvement is the repair, maintenance, restoration, or improvement of residential real property. Think of real property as anything in your home or yard which you would normally leave behind if you sold your house. Some of the most common types of home improvements are installing a new roof, repaving a driveway, remodeling a kitchen or bathroom and installing a fence.
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Why You Should Only Do Business with a Licensed Contractor
In Maryland, all home improvement contractors are required to be licensed by the Maryland Home Improvement Commission. To get a license, a contractor must:
Contractors are also screened for serious criminal convictions.
Doing business with a licensed contractor provides you with protection from the Maryland Home Improvement Commission's Guaranty Fund for losses of up to $20,000 per claimant that result from poor workmanship and other violations of the Home Improvement Law. You are NOT protected by the Guaranty Fund if you do business with an unlicensed contractor.
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Contractors large and small differ in their methods of operation, but generally fall into one of four major categories:
Remember, if you feel intimidated or frightened by the presence of any salesperson or contractor who comes to your home, call the police at 911.
Whether you are remodeling, making repairs, or trying to maintain your home in good condition, you will be able to avoid many problems if you take these three basic steps before beginning any home improvement work:
It will be easier for you to compare prices if all contractors from whom you'll get estimates will be basing these estimates on the same criteria. You'll want to develop a plan that describes the work you want done and, if possible, specifies the types of materials you want to be used.
Unless you are already familiar with the methods and materials which could be used for your home improvement project, you'll have to do some research. Get information from unbiased sources who are not trying to sell you anything. For example, if you suspect your house may have a leaky roof that needs replacement, before you call a roofing company you might do some research on replacement roofs at your local library. You could also visit a roofing supply company or write to the association representing manufacturers of roofing products to get information on the best material to replace your roof.
After you have researched your project, you'll be able to both discuss it with your contractor more confidently and describe it accurately in writing.
Unless you already know a contractor who will provide good quality workmanship at a fair price, or have a strong recommendation from someone you trust, you'll need to make a list of several contractors from whom to get estimates.
Because the chances are that you will eventually sign a contract with one of the firms on your list, it's important to be as careful and selective when you choose contractors to give you estimates as when you make the final choice of a firm to do your work. Whether your list of contractors comes from friends, the Yellow Pages, or the clerk at your local hardware store, check them out carefully before you inquire about estimates. Don't be afraid to ask questions.
You may receive a wide range of estimates from contractors bidding on the identical home improvement. Never rely on price alone in making your final choice. Remember that contractors also vary in the quality of the work they do and their ability to complete a job on time - or sometimes to complete a job at all. When making your decision, compare all factors, including price, type of firm, experience, reputation, and length of time in business.
Maryland's Home Improvement Law requires that all contracts for home improvement work be in writing and signed by both the consumer and the business before work begins or any money is paid. Avoid any contractor whose contract does not have their name, address, and MHIC license number preprinted on the contract.
A contractor cannot accept more than 1/3 of the contract price (price for the work to be done). Remember, you can negotiate a lower down payment. You can also work out a plan to make additional payments at intervals as the work moves ahead, with the amount of each payment to be based on how much progress has been made on your job. You shouldn't make the final payment until the work is completed and you've checked it carefully to be sure you're satisfied.
Maryland law requires that the contract include the following: (adapted from the Maryland Home Improvement Contracts webpage)
MHIC also requires the following notices in every contract:
"This contract creates a mortgage or lien against your property to secure payment and may cause a loss of your property if you fail to pay the amount agreed upon. You have the right to consult an attorney. You have the right to rescind this contract within 3 business days after the date you sign it by notifying the contractor in writing that you are rescinding the contract."
When you sign a home improvement contract in your home and in the presence of the seller, you usually have three working days in which to change your mind and cancel the contract. The seller must tell you about your cancellation rights orally and in writing and provide the forms to use in cancelling. However, sometimes you do not have this right to cancel. To protect yourself, check with a competent source about your rights under this law. Call your local Office of Consumer Protection (240.777.3636 in Montgomery County), the Office of the Attorney General (410.528.8662), or a private attorney. The Office of Consumer Protection advises consumers to not sign a contract unless you are ready to make a commitment. Relying on a right of cancellation when you are unsure is not a wise move.
A permit is a document issued by a government agency which allows you to make certain changes to your home. Home improvement permits are generally required for changes that could affect the soundness of the structure of a home or the health and safety of its occupants. They are also required for certain projects - fences, for example - which might go onto a neighbor's property or violate a "setback" restriction. (A setback restriction requires a structure to be a certain distance within the property line.)
When a government agency issues a permit for home improvement work, it will inspect the work when it has reached a certain stage and/or when it is completed to make sure it complies with various codes and regulations.
The Maryland Home Improvement Commission Law says your contractor must either get the permit himself or see to it that someone else gets it. The law also says that a local jurisdiction may not issue a permit to an unlicensed contractor. Be wary if the contractor asks you to get the permit. It could very well mean that he is not licensed. It could also have other legal implications.
Most home improvement permits are issued for building, electrical, and plumbing work. Unless you live in Rockville or Gaithersburg, you will in most cases get your building and electrical permits from the Montgomery County Department of Permitting Services and plumbing permits from the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC).
Rockville residents obtain electrical, building and most plumbing permits from their city government. Gaithersburg residents obtain building and electrical permits from their city government and plumbing permits from WSSC.
If you are in doubt about whether a permit is required, or have any other question about permits or inspections, call the appropriate agency for your jurisdiction:
Montgomery County Government,
Department of Permitting Services
Gaithersburg City Government
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Sometimes you need to have repairs made as soon as possible. You may not have time to do research about the problem or get a lot of information about different repair firms. When you have any type of problem that needs immediate attention, follow these guidelines:
If time allows, before you call any contractors check on their complaint records with the Office of Consumer Protection and the Better Business
When you call the firm, describe the problem as completely and accurately as you can. This will help them diagnose the problem. Then let them decide what's wrong and how to fix it.
Ask what service charges, minimum charges, or other types of charges the firm makes, and what these charges cover. There is usually a minimum time just to come to your house, and this charge will cover a specific period of time. If the repairman stays beyond that minimum charge you must pay more. For example, the charge might be $60 just to come to your house, with this amount to cover the first half-hour of labor. After that you might be charges $15 for each additional quarter-hour of labor. Find out whether the labor charge includes travel time.
Before any repairs are begun, get a written estimate of how much they will cost. Afterwards get a detailed invoice that lists all charges for parts and service. Tell the firm you wish to approve any charges that will raise the estimated bill. Under Montgomery County law, the final bill can't exceed the written estimate by more than 25% unless you approved the increase.
Pay by credit card. Under federal and state law, in most cases you have the right to assert any claims or defenses you have against the seller of the goods or services against the credit card company. This generally means that if the goods or services are defective, you can refuse to pay the credit card company until the problem is corrected.
Get back any parts that are replaced. If you later think that the repairs were unnecessary or not done properly, the parts can be helpful in proving your case.
Please note that all emergencies are not "true emergencies." For example, if the plumbing line fails, stopping the leak itself may be an emergency but other work such as dry-walling or caulking may not be an emergency and can wait until you choose a contractor.
In conclusion, some words of caution are necessary. This booklet refers to certain laws and regulations which apply to home improvements. Bear in mind that what is the law today may change by tomorrow. The same can be said about building technology. New products and techniques are constantly entering the marketplace. What may be the best method of doing something as this booklet is being written may be obsolete in the not too distant future.
Government offices mentioned in this booklet are good sources for information about any laws or regulations. Also remember that you may have legal rights and remedies beyond those referred to in this booklet. When dealing with contracts involving substantial sums of money, or when legal problems arise, an attorney is the best source of advice on those rights and remedies.
Finally, this is not an exhaustive study of home improvements but an attempt to give you a summary of the kind of information homeowners most often request. Other sources of information include your local library, manufacturing firms, and trade associations. If you need further references or information, call the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection, 240-777-3636.You can also check out the FTC brochure Home Sweet Home ... Improvement.
When selecting a contractor, get at least three estimates and find out which category the contractor is in. Then use this checklist to compare them.
1. DOES THE CONTRACTOR HAVE:
Remember, don't be fooled by a merchant who only has a "business license."
2. DOES THE COMPANY:
3. DID YOU FIND OUT THE FOLLOWING?