Often, consumers contact our office after they are dissatisfied with work performed by contractors. They want to understand their rights, particularly if they have invested a lot of money in a home improvement project.
What can the consumer do before work begins?
Be prepared — Anytime you hire a contractor to do any improvements around the house, start by verifying that the contractor is licensed, bonded, and adequately insured. Be sure to get detailed written estimates. Once you decide on the contractor, be sure both parties sign a final contract that includes the scope of the work, the start and finish dates, guarantees, warranties, and specifics about the work. The contract may also include a provision that requires parties to attend and share the mediation costs if there is any disagreement.
Make payments strategically — Limit the deposit to less than 40% and only pay 100% of the payments when you are 100% satisfied with the work. Don’t let payments get ahead of the work and never pay in cash.
Even after being careful, problems can arise. If you took the steps upfront to verify that the contractor is licensed, bonded, and insured, many options are open to you.
How can the consumer address issues after work has started?
Submit a claim from the insurance agent issuing a surety bond — professional licensed contractors often purchase a surety bond policy. These bonds are purchased from an insurance agent to cover the contractor if clients are dissatisfied with their work. So long as you’ve obtained this information BEFORE you hire the contractor, you can pursue this claim to cover your losses.
File a complaint with the Contractor Licensing Board — Many contractors must be licensed, and until June 16, 2021, this board was housed in the West Virginia Division of Labor. However, after changes in the law in HB2006, some contractors no longer need to be licensed, including landscaping and painting. Other residential contractors need only be licensed for jobs over $2500. If your contractor is licensed, you can file a complaint with the Division of Labor until June 2023, when new rules take effect, and a new process will be implemented. The Division of Labor currently maintains a directory of licensed contractors and provides a way to file a complaint. The Division’s phone number is 304-558-7890.
File a civil action in Magistrate Court — Suppose your dispute is not resolved by the Division of Labor or a Surety Bond. With or without hiring a lawyer, you can still file a complaint with the Magistrate Court in your county. If the amount of the dispute is more than $10,000, you must file in Circuit Court. Many people pursue cases in Magistrate Court without an attorney. Most forms needed are available online, at no cost, from the West Virginia Supreme Court (see the online version of this article at WeAreTheObserver.com for links). Individuals may also go to the courthouse to obtain forms and file the paperwork in person. If you have insufficient resources to pay the cost of the filing fee, you may request an affidavit of indigency and file without paying the costs.
Propose Mediation — You can propose mediation before or after initiating any of the actions described above. In a mediation process, both parties will work with a neutral facilitator who will address any complaints and help the parties craft a resolution. Mediation is often faster than other processes and provides a broader range of options to remedy the problem, including completing work to the consumer’s satisfaction.
Benjamin Franklin advised “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This observation is just as applicable when negotiating with contractors as it is during the construction process itself. Protecting yourself by confirming upfront that your contractor is licensed by checking with the Division of Labor, obtaining a copy of their surety bond, and having a detailed written contract is part of that prevention. So enjoy improving your home, but don’t neglect time and effort securing the best contractor for the job.
About the Author: Brenda Waugh, MA JD, is a lawyer/mediator with Waugh Law & Mediation, serving clients in the Blue Ridge region of Virginia and Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. A graduate of the University of Virginia, West Virginia University, and Eastern Mennonite University, she has conducted workshops throughout the United States and in Canada and has published articles in periodicals and legal journals in the area of alternative dispute resolution. Web: BrendaWaugh.com; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; phone 304-728-3660 or 540-501-5501.By Brenda Waugh