Consumer Ed Cafe... Food for Thought Transcript (Tuesday, July 24, 2012)
Eric S. Friedman: Good afternoon, I am Eric Friedman, the director of the Office of Consumer Protection (OCP). I have worked in Montgomery County's consumer protection office for 30 years. Our staff of 16 includes 5 attorneys, a certified automotive technician, a former home improvement contractor with almost 20 years of consumer protection experience, various consumer experts, and a staff of 16 volunteers. Our office handles thousands of individual consumer complaints each year. We are committed to ensuring integrity in our marketplace. I am looking forward to your questions. Let's get started with a question from our first consumer.
Avi from Up County
I canceled my contract within the cancellation time but the contractor refuses to give me back my deposit. What should I do?
Eric S. Friedman: Avi, we may be able to help you. If your contract is covered by the Door-to-Door Sales Act, a business is required to provide a refund within 10 days of receiving your cancellation notice. Please file a complaint with our office so that we may assist you. Our complaint form can be found on-line at www.montgomerycountymd.gov/consumer. Hang in there.
Scott Adler from Rockville
The by laws of my cmfominium hold members of the Board of Director's harmless from any action they take in good faith. Given that protection does the same extend to the Chairman of the Covenant's committee and his fellow committee members who are elected by the Board of Directors?
Eric S. Friedman: Scott, that is an excellent question for a future live discussion on the topic of common ownership communities. But, let me give you a little information. Our office has staff dedicated to issues involving common ownership communities. I encourage you to call our office and speak with Peter Drymalski, CCOC Staff Investigator, who will be able to assist you.
Jack from Bethesda-Chevy Chase
Hi Eric - does the county have a on-line database of problematic vendors or contractors that i can review before agreeing to hire them to do work around my house? if the county doesn't have such a database, where can i find this information?
Eric S. Friedman: Thank you for your question Jack. We keep a database of merchant complaints for a three year period. You may look up merchant complaints on OCP's website using the following link: http://www6.montgomerycountymd.gov/Apps/dhca/lookup/lookup.asp. It is always a good idea to check out a contractor's history before you sign a contract. Good luck to you.
Ginny from Up County
I recently had my front door replaced. The contractor told me that my current storm door would be able to go back on without any problems. After he installed my new door, he told me the storm door no longer fit and I would have it replaced. He will not pay for it. I would not have bought the new front door if I knew i would have to replace the storm door also. Is there anything I can do?
Eric S. Friedman: Ginny, I am sorry to hear about this situation. You may want to file a complaint with our office. We have investigators with years of home improvement experience as well as a trained mediator who may help resolve this situation. There is a question as to whether the contractor should have known that this would cause a problem. Please contact us by telephone, email or come into our office.
Grace from Silver Spring
Will my contractor's liability insurance cover poor or incomplete work during the project?
Eric S. Friedman: Grace, thank you for your question. Unfortunately, a contractor's liability insurance generally covers damages or injuries to other people on your property during the project. It does not cover poor or incomplete work by the contractor. You may be able to file a claim with the Maryland Guaranty Fund; please call them at 410.230.6309.
Shondelle from Eastern Montgomery
A door to door contractor came around and offered to deal with my fallen tree. Should I trust him?
Eric S. Friedman: It is okay to “Trust” as long as you first “Verify.” Shondelle, that means you should ask to see the person’s home improvement contractor license. Contractors must be licensed by the Maryland Home Improvement Commission. Door-to-Door vendors must also be licensed by the Dept. of Permitting Services. We have recently updated our A-Z Consumer Advice website to provide you with steps that you can take to select a contractor. Remember Shondelle, “Trust, Verify, and Contact Us.” Visit our webpage by going to www.montgomerycountymd.gov/consumer and view Home Improvement under the Home Ownership topic.
Rob from Mid County
My contractor went over the original cOntract amount - do we need another contract?
Eric S. Friedman: Rob, if you have a written contract for specific work at a certain price, the contractor should not be going over the contract amount. Sometimes, contracts have provisions for unforeseen problems. One of our investigators would be happy to review your contract with you.
Scott from Rockville
Can the Board of Directors bar a contractor from obtaining any work in the condominium if it is found he was operating without the required license and the liability insurance. If the answer is yes,then I ask would this disbarment extend to him even if he should subsequently obtain the required license and liability insurance??
Eric S. Friedman: Scott, I see that you have another question. We always recommend that consumers only use licensed contractors - that is the law. Generally, the powers granted to the board of directors are identified in the covenants and by-laws, if such power or authority is granted, then they would have the ability to do so. Again, please call Peter in our office for additional information.
Luke from Up County
Pepco kept my lights off for over 5 days. I don't want to go through that experience again and am thinking of getting a generator what size would I need for an 1800 sq ft house?
Eric S. Friedman: Luke, it was indeed a terrible storm; I too lost power for several days. I applaud you for being proactive. However, OCP staff cannot make a recommendation regarding the size or type of equipment you should purchase. We do, however, suggest you engage a licensed professional to install the generator. In Montgomery County, such work will require a permit and inspection by the county’s Dept. of Permitting Services (DPS). Please contact DPS (http://permittingservices.montgomerycountymd.gov) before you sign any agreement to understand the process and licensing requirements for an electrician. In addition, under some circumstances you may need a permit from WSSC (www.wsscwater.com), if gas or plumbing is involved. Good luck to you.
Eric S. Friedman: I hope you are finding my responses useful. These are excellent questions. Thank you for your participation; let's get to a few more.
Raymond from Bethesda-Chevy Chase
A tree in the circle of my cul de sac fell during the storm, and it hasn't been dealt with. Who is responsible for taking care of it?
Eric S. Friedman: Raymond, as a general matter, when a tree falls, it is the responsibility of the owner of the property on which the tree is lying to remove the tree. Liability does not depend on who owns the tree as there is no negligence. If your neighbor (or the HOA) does not remove the debris that is on his or her (or its) property, call MC311 to make a complaint to Housing Code Enforcement.
Tim from Bethesda-Chevy Chase
Are carpet companies required to be licensed?
Eric S. Friedman: Tim, installing carpet is not within the definition of "home improvement" so an MHIC license is not required. However, in order to install tile, wood, or other flooring, a home improvement contractor or subcontractor license is required. Another interesting category that is included within the definition of “home improvement” is painting. You should visit MHIC’s website at http://www.dllr.state.md.us/license/mhic/mhicfaqgenl.shtml to view their FAQs.
Anna from Up County
My builder said it was faster to get a permit if I get it myself. I thought that it was something he would do, is he right?
Eric S. Friedman: Anna our office frequently receives this question. You are correct; the contractor should obtain all permits necessary to perform the services/work identified in the written agreement. You should only work with licensed contractors and asking a homeowner to obtain a permit may be unlawful. Please visit our A-Z Consumer Advice webpage for advice on selecting a licensed home improvement contractor.
Nadine from Silver Spring
I had my carpets replaced. I also needed some painting done and the workers agreed to do it. I complained to the company about the bad paint job, and the owner said it wasn't his problem. He said that he runs a carpet company, not a painting company.
Eric S. Friedman: From your question, it is hard to tell if the carpet employees did this “on the side.” Was there a written contract including the paint job? We can certainly look into it for you. Please file a complaint with our office and provide a copy of the written contract, if any. As you can see from Tim’s question, painters do have to be licensed and a carpeting company’s contract may not be sufficient. We look forward to being of service to you.
Sara from Up County
I understand that the PSC has approved Pepcos rate increase. How is this possible with Pepco being so unreliable? I am getting tired of replacing my food everytime Pepco cant keep the power on. Why are we forced to give them more money??
Eric S. Friedman: Actually, Sara, the PSC denied the bulk of Pepco’s rate increase request. Montgomery County intervened in the rate case and successfully expressed our views. If you would like to see the County’s response, please visit our webpage at http://www6.montgomerycountymd.gov/ocptmpl.asp?url=/content/ocp/Energy/advocacy_Pepco_Rate_Increase.asp.
Fisher from Up County
I already paid for repairs to be made on my house after the storm, but the contractor I paid never did the work and I can’t find him. What should I do?
Eric S. Friedman: Unfortunately, we see this problem often. Visit our webpage (www.montgomerycountymd.gov/consumer) to download a complaint form and submit it with copies of your contract and receipts. It can be difficult to locate the merchant but we will do our best to help you.
Robert from Up County
My car overheated on Rt 355 and I turned into a repair shop in Gaithersburg that opened last August. All the car needed was a $20 thermostat, but the charges were over $450! I checked your online consumer complaints and there were no reports posted. What can I do in response to overcharging?
Eric S. Friedman: While a car question is slightly off of today’s topic, we frequently handle questions regarding all types of consumer transactions. Robert, if you believe the repair shop charged you for unnecessary repairs, you should certainly file a complaint with our office. We are fortunate to have a certified automotive technician on staff. Please make sure to include a copy of your repair invoice when filing your complaint.
Irene Jackson from Mid County
A contractor refuses to redo a repair that they did wrong. How can I get them to fix what they messed up?
Eric S. Friedman: Irene, thank you for your question, it is a good one. The answer depends on whether or not the contractor is licensed. An unlicensed contractor should not be permitted to perform any work; not even to return and correct a mistake. If the contractor is in fact licensed, you should try to work with them to resolve the problem. In either case, if you need our assistance, please contact us and we can send you a complaint form.
Karen from Silver Spring
Our gas dryer was not properly drying clothes. We tried to repair our gas dryer ourselves by purchasing a Gas Burner Ignitor. My husband is an electrician and perfectly capable of installing parts. This did not fix the dryer so we decided to call Sears. Sears came out to complete a repair on my gas dryer on a Thursday. The repairman installed the same exact part that we had installed the day prior that did not fix the dryer. My 79 year old mother signed the ticket ($179.00) and the repair man indicated that he fixed the dryer.
The next day Friday afternoon I went to use my dryer and it was not fixed. The same thing was wrong with the dryer. I called Sears and they said they could not come out to my house until the following Wednesday. They also indicated that they would charge me another $125.00 dollars. They were very rude to me and unaccomodating.
Not able to wait any longer. I called another company/repairman to fix the dryer. They arrived within two hours ($189.0
Eric S. Friedman: Karen, I understand your frustration. Luckily, in addition to home improvement problems, we also handle appliance repair complaints. In fact, we license appliance repair firms. If you are unable to resolve this complaint directly with Sears, you should file a complaint with our office. It would be helpful if you provided copies of both invoices (from Sears and the other repair shop) and one of our experienced investigators will assist you.
Patrick from Up County
I want to have work done on my house. How many estimates should I get?
Eric S. Friedman: Patrick, I am glad that you are contacting us before you start your project. On our website, you will find information on steps that you can take to protect yourself. The quick answer to your question is that you should obtain at least three written estimates. Be sure to provide the same project requirements to all of the prospective contractors so that you can actually make a comparison. I hope you have a successful project and enjoy your home improvements.
Peter from Eastern Montgomery
Regarding the venting of attic space and living in a home with only roof ridge venting, what is the best way to get the heat out when the ridge vents don't seem to be up to the task? I am thinking of installing a powered roof ventilation, the dome shaped types and need to know how to appropriate select the right size powered ventilation system.
Eric S. Friedman: Peter, I checked with our investigator who specializes in home improvements. In his opinion, a properly installed ridge vent on a roof can operate well if there is adequate soffit vents in the roof overhang area to provide make up air for the hot air exiting the ridge vent. A powered roof vent in conjunction with a ridge vent is generally not effective because air will be drawn back through the ridge vent nearest the power exhaust fan thus short circuiting the ventilation of the remainder of the attic. It is not recommended to have both systems. However, both ventilation systems must have adequate soffit vents for cooler air to enter at a lower level of the attic. We would suggest that you discuss your options with a licensed roofer or professional home inspector.
Rich from Silver Spring
Do I have a right to cancel after I have signed a contract?
Eric S. Friedman: Rich, that depends on whether or not you signed the contract in your home. The Door-to-Door Sales Act gives you three days to cancel a contract signed in your home. There are other laws that also provide you with a right of cancellation. Please call our office by dialling 240.777.3636 and speak with the investigator-on-duty to discuss your specific case. My investigators are available Monday through Friday from 8:30am to 5:00pm to answer your questions.
Matthew from Silver Spring
A friend of mine tried to file charges against a roofer that did not finish the job and walked away with his money. He was told that he did not file the charges in time. What is the time limit for filing charges and when does it start? Is it from the time the work is started or finished?
Eric S. Friedman: Matthew, a contractor who is unlicensed or who abandons a job is subject to criminal charges. Our investigators routinely assist in bringing such charges. While we cannot provide legal advice, generally speaking, there is a one year statute of limitation from the date the violation occurred. Your friend may want to speak to one of our dedicated investigators to discuss the details of his case. Thank you for trying to help your friend; we should all have friends like you.
James from Bethesda-Chevy Chase
Are verbal contracts sufficient for home improvement?
Eric S. Friedman: James, you should never rely on a “verbal” contract. First of all, home improvement contracts are required to be in writing and there are certain notices and contract provisions that must be included. A written contract will protect you if there is a dispute, it also provides you with the merchant’s contact information and it lets you know your legal rights and responsibilities. “Good paper makes good friends.” This applies to home improvement projects as well.
Rachel from Rockville
I need to have some minor repairs done to my roof, can you recommend a good roofer?
Eric S. Friedman: Rachel, it is a good idea to do some homework before you select a contractor. While we cannot recommend specific contractors, you can check online to check a merchant's complaint history. There are several other online resources to help you verify a contractor's credentials including Consumer's Checkbook a non-profit organization that rates local service providers. We provide links to these resources on our website at http://www6.montgomerycountymd.gov/ocptmpl.asp?url=/content/ocp/a_z/home_improvement_check.asp. All the best with your home improvement project.
Sheila from Silver Spring
Is it appropriate or even legal for a neighbor who has storm damage close to their fence-line to remove part of said fence and enter my yard to start demo on their damaged tree thereby dropping debris and causing damage to my property? There was no notification that this was going to happen (they did not approach us and ask permission or describe what was going on). The damage was discovered upon my arrival home after a short errand but there was an adult home the entire time. The work was done in the back of a large lot and was not visible from my house. The workers hired by the neighbor are not licensed, bonded or insured.
Eric S. Friedman: Neighbor-to-neighbor disputes are often difficult. In the case of a fallen tree, in general, it is the affected owner's responsibility to clean up damage to their own property. If, when the tree fell, damage was done to your property, it would be your responsibility to clean it up. A concern in this situation, however, is whether the workers hired by the neighbor should have been doing this work at all. All tree care professionals practicing in Maryland must obtain a license. Without a license, they may not practice or advertise tree care services in the state. We would encourage you to file a complaint with our office so we can look into whether these workers had the appropriate license to do this work.
Eric S. Friedman: Unfortunately, we have run out of time. We have had so many good questions and regretfully have not been able to answer them all. We will post as many responses as possible to our webpage or will respond to you directly. I have enjoyed this conversation with you and hope that the information provided is beneficial to our participants. Our goal is to help you become a wiser consumer. Until we have the opportunity for another live discussion, please visit our website (www.montgomerycountymd.gov/consumer) to file a complaint or get additional information about our services. For consumer questions or to speak to an investigator, please contact us at 240.777.3636 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. To subscribe to our electronic newsletters, please visit http://bit.ly/w7XFdM and select Consumer Protection and Common Ownership Communities.