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Disputes with Home Improvement Contractors

I won't bore you with the gruesome details (incomplete and late work, cost overruns, poor materials, deviation from plans, etc.), but what are my options under Massachusetts law to sort out a messy dispute with a contractor and to try to get some of my money back?
-- (Posted by Jon on the Forum Chat Room).

The Massachusetts Attorney General’s website has an excellent guide for homeowners who are considering a project. That guide, summarized below, is available at:

Unfortunately, once you reach the ‘dispute stage’ a lot of this information is not terribly helpful. In any case, homeowners should start by getting multiple, detailed estimates from at least three contractors who are registered with the state. With the exception of specialist (e.g., landscapers or painters) and licensed professionals (e.g., plumbing or electrical contractors), Massachusetts law requires most contractors and subcontractors to register. Call the Board of Building Regulations at 617-727-7532 to check a contractor’s registration status.

Once you have a low bid, do your homework. Check the contractor’s references, former projects, and look for a history of problems. (Check with the AG’s office, local consumer groups, and any lawsuits filed against the contractor at the state’s trial courts.)

After you choose a contractor, get a written contract. Under Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 142A, all home improvement contracts for services costing over $1000 must be in writing and must contain certain crucial information, including the total price, payment schedule, start and completion dates, and a notice of your right (under Massachusetts law) to cancel the contract within three days if you signed it any place other than the contractor’s office or place of business.

When you are ready to start, never give the contractor more than one third of the contract price up front. Massachusetts law prohibits the contractor from collecting more, unless special order materials are needed. And make sure the contractor, not you, obtains the building permit. (If you obtain your own permit, you may have difficulty recovering any future losses from the State Arbitration Program discussed below).

If things go wrong, the importance of the above steps will become clear, and your written contract will be crucial to any attempts to prove a case against the contractor. The AG’s Office can provide the names of experienced mediators who can help resolve disputes if both parties agree to the process. And, IF you hired a registered contractor, had a written contract, and required the contractor to pull the permit, you can submit your dispute to the State Arbitration Program. Through that program, you may be able to recover some of your losses. Contact the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation at 617-973-8700.

So, Jon, depending on your situation, you may avail yourself of the Arbitration Program. If not, you can try mediation or a law suit to enforce your rights under your contract. You would file in Small Claims Court if the amount in dispute is under $2,000 or in District Court for a larger sum. If you don’t have a contract, you are in significantly deeper ‘you-know-what,’ because you face the additional burden of proving the elements of your oral contract. (“He said he would do X.” “I did not, your Honor.”)

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