A Fort Washington, Maryland, woman told the News4 I-Team she felt cheated by the contractors she hired to help rebuild her home after a fire.
"He said, 'Well I know you don't want your neighbors to see your house looking like this, so as soon as I get that contract, I'll get it repaired,'" said Ora Patterson of the man she said came to her door in 2010. A blaze had just consumed her kitchen and destroyed the first floor of the house.
"Basically everything was just burnt and hanging or melted," Patterson said, while walking through her now-renovated kitchen. She said the first contractor she hired in 2010 promised to start construction on her home within 10 days, but he never showed up after she signed the contract. She soon found herself in a legal fight.
"He didn't begin the work. I canceled the contract," Patterson said. "And then he in turn sued me. I think I got ripped off, yes, definitely."
That lawsuit, according to Patterson, was a result of her failing to decline the contractor's services within the three-day period specified on the contract. She's now countersuing and said a second contractor she ended up hiring hasn't completed the job, either.
"Never pay them all of their money before the work is finished," said Patterson.
Dave Finneran, executive director of the Maryland Home Improvement Commission (MHIC), agrees.
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"We don't want the money to get ahead of the work," he told the I-Team. He said his office gets about 2,000 complaints about contractors a year, and hiring a licensed contractor is the first thing anyone should do when seeking someone to work on their house.
In Maryland, licensed contractors must have experience and have to pay a fee, Finneran said. That fee goes into a guaranty fund that customers can access if something goes wrong with a project.
"[It's] there to financially compensate the homeowner in case a contractor is taking advantage of them," Finneran said.
Homeowners who file a claim can get up to $20,000 if MHIC finds wrongdoing by a licensed contractor, but that protection won't be there if you hired an unlicensed business.
MHIC also encourages homeowners to do the following:
- Ask a contractor for their "pocket card"
- Contact MHIC to check on the contractor's complaint history
- Obtain estimates and references from several licensed contractors
- Check references
- Always get a written contract, and pay nor money before the contract is signed
- Once a contract is signed, pay no more than one-third of the contract price as a deposit
- If a building permit is required, make sure the contractor shows you the permit before work is started
- Be sure to get a copy of the contractor's current liability insurance certificate
Ora Patterson did file a complaint with MHIC and is waiting to hear what will happen.
"I just want my house back," she said. "I just want it fixed."