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Regional Spotlight: How to Avoid Contractor Blues in PA

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By David Bruce

A large, homemade sign stood outside Andy Warzynak’s Harborcreek Township house for more than a year.

The sign called out a local contractor whom Warzynak claimed owes him about $15,000 for an unfinished project.

“I paid him about $28,000 to add a bedroom, a bathroom and a living room to my house,” Warzynak says. “I figure he did about $13,000 worth of work before he disappeared.”

It’s a homeowner’s worst nightmare. You pay someone thousands of dollars—maybe tens of thousands—to fix your home, and the work isn’t done right.

Or perhaps not done at all.

“Everybody’s biggest concern is being ripped off,” says Melissa Etshied, a spokeswoman with the Pennsylvania Builders Association. “We have all heard about people who have given down payments and the guy never comes back to do the job.”

There are steps you can take to improve the likelihood your addition or renovation is done, and done well.

The first step, once you have decided to go ahead with a home-improvement project, is to visit the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s website, www.attorneygeneral.gov.

Pennsylvania’s Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act took effect in July 2009. The state law requires contractors to register with the Attorney General’s Office, carry a minimum amount of insurance, and provide their registration number on advertisements and contracts.

“You can visit the website and learn what your rights are as a homeowner,” says Nils Frederiksen, deputy press secretary for the Attorney General’s Office. “You can also check the list of registered contractors. If the one you’re dealing with is not on the list, our advice is to walk away.”

Once you have checked at least three contractors through the Attorney General’s Office, get estimates from each of them.

The lowest bid might not be the best one, Etshied said. It could be low because the contractor uses substandard materials or doesn’t actually do the work.

“We also have heard of contractors charging for an estimate, or stating in fine print that they will charge you if you choose a different builder,” Etshied said. “That is illegal.”

Once you have the estimates, ask each contractor for references.

Then call those references.

“It can be awkward to make those calls, but it’s worth the time and effort,” Frederiksen says.

“Ask if there were problems with their project. If you’re doing a bigger project, ask for older references to see how the addition or deck has withstood the test of time.”

Warzynak says he wishes he would have checked references before hiring his contractor.

He has since discovered the guy has a long list of unhappy customers.

“I went to the Erie County Courthouse and found out there are at least 15 judgments against him,” Warzynak says.

Efforts to contact the contractor were not successful. The phone number he lists with the Attorney General’s Office is not a working number.

Two years after hiring the contractor, Warzynak is trying to finish his addition on his own.

“All he did was dig the foundation and laid block for the basement,” Warzynak says. “I did the insulation mostly by myself doing the rest a little at a time. The project was supposed to be finished in 2009, but I won’t be done until next year.”

The sign Warzynak made warning people about his contractor is expected to be back up this week.

“I’m updating the amount he owes,” Warzynak says.

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