The Online Resource for Massachusetts Poverty Law Advocates

Home Improvement Scams Alert

Date: 
03/01/2000
Author: 
NCLC

Discusses deceptive practices related to home repairs, your rights, and where to get help.

Many low-income elderly homeowners are targeted by scam artists who use high pressure tactics
to sell unneeded and overpriced contracts for "home improvements."
Often these scam artists charge more than their quoted prices or their
work does not live up to their promises. When the senior refuses to pay
for shoddy or incomplete work, the contractor or an affiliated lender
threatens foreclosure on the senior's home. In an effort to fight such
scams, the National Consumer Law Center focuses this issue of Consumer
Concerns for Older Americans on the practices of unscrupulous home
improvement contractors.

A Case Example

Mrs. T is an 80 year-old homeowner living on a fixed income. Although money is tight,
she takes great pride in her home and garden. Until his death five years
ago, Mrs. T's husband handled the majority of the home maintenance.

Last fall, Mrs. T was approached by a friendly contractor who told her that some of
her roof shingles looked water-soaked. Since Mrs. T had noticed a small
leak in her bedroom, she asked for an estimate. The contractor went
up to the roof, pulled off some roof shingles, and put up a tarpaulin.
He told Mrs. T that he had found a major leak and that he needed to
replace some roof beams as well as the entire roof. When Mrs. T expressed
concern about the cost, the contractor told her that he would give her
a senior citizen discount price of $8,000 and arrange for "market
rate financing."

The contractor began work the next day and pulled off much of the roof. A few days
later, he brought Mrs. T a loan contract from "We Care Finance
Company." Mrs. T discovered that the loan was for $27,500 at 16%
interest. When she reminded the contractor that the price was supposed
to be $8,000 financed at a market rate, he told her that the work was
more extensive than he had originally thought and that the finance company
had imposed some "points and fees" that raised the price of
the loan. He claimed that since the work was "half done,"
she had to sign the loan contract to pay for the work. He threatened
to "abandon the project and put a mechanic's lien on the house."
Since winter was coming, Mrs. T panicked and signed the papers presented.

Six months later, the new roof is leaking more than the old one ever did. Mrs. T's floors
and walls are damaged. She stopped making loan payments because the
work was so bad. "We Care Mortgage" has sent foreclosure papers
to the home. An employee of "We Care" told her, "You
hired the contractor and we are not responsible. The loan you signed
with us is a separate matter. You have to pay us and then sue the contractor
for your money."

Deceptive Sales Tactics

Home improvement contractors use several methods of targeting seniors: high pressure phone
calls, flyers, advertisements, and door-to-door sales. Unscrupulous contractors
often employ one or more of the following sales tactics:

"bait and switch" - offering low prices for installed items like windows
and home siding, and then telling the senior the item is out of stock
and can only be replaced with a high-priced substitute;

  • misrepresenting the urgency of a needed repair
  • claiming the item is more expensive than advertised because it has to be "custom made" to fit the senior's home;
  • misrepresenting that the consumer is receiving a discount because the home is selected to model the repair when, in reality, the consumer is paying market price or more;
  • misrepresenting the energy savings, health benefits, and value added to the home;
  • misrepresenting the terms on which financing is likely to be arranged.

Deceptive Financing Schemes

Unscrupulous contractors often use deceptive tactics to hide the true cost of paying for the work.
These tactics may include:

  • using more than one contract for a single repair in an attempt to confuse the homeowner;
  • claiming that there is a "cash" contract that doesn't contain financing terms although the deal is intended to be financed;
  • adding extra hidden charges above the negotiated price;
  • providing expensive (high rate) financing or arranging with a third party to finance the work;
  • obtaining hidden kickbacks from lenders or loan brokers for referrals.

Problems with Contracted Work

In the end, consumers are often left with:

  • shoddy work or unfinished work even though the homeowner has fully paid.

ISSUES TO CONSIDER WHEN PROBLEMS OCCUR

Mortgages and Liens:

When a Senior's Home May Be at Stake

Home improvement sales often result in the contractor or a related lender obtaining a mortgage
on the consumer's home as part of the credit sale. Even where the contract
doesn't provide for a mortgage, the law generally gives the contractor
a right to put a lien against the property. The most common of these liens
is called a "mechanic's" lien. In either situation, if the senior
refuses to pay because of a dispute, the contractor or lender will probably
rely on the lien to try to force the senior to pay and may even try to
foreclose. If a lien or a foreclosure is involved, state law regarding
liens and foreclosures must be carefully examined.1
Remedies may be limited if a foreclosure sale occurs.

The Senior's Ability to Cancel a Contract by Giving Written Notice

Canceling a home improvement contract may be the consumer's preferred remedy, particularly
where the consumer realizes that the contract is a bad deal, where the
seller is slow or never performs, where the work is very shoddy or worthless,
or where the seller takes a security interest in the consumer's home.
The consumer has a number of alternative bases to cancel the contract.

The federal government, through the FTC Cooling-Off Rule2, and all states
have passed laws designed to protect consumers from unscrupulous door-to-door
salespeople. These laws may allow a senior to cancel a contract within
a certain amount of time (usually 3 business days) after a sale in the
senior's home by giving written notice to the contractor or lender. These
laws usually require that a written notice of these rights and a cancellation
form be given to the consumer at the time of sale. If the notice is not
given or not given properly, the time to cancel may continue until 3 days
after a proper notice has been given. Thus, the senior's opportunity to
cancel may remain open. It is, therefore, important to determine at the
earliest possible time whether the senior still has a right to cancel
the contract.

Another source of consumer cancellation rights is the rescission notice required by the
federal Truth in Lending Act3 (TILA) in most
transactions where a creditor takes a security interest in the debtor's
home.4 When applicable, TILA requires a very
accurate disclosure of credit terms and requires the contractor to provide
a notice of the senior's right to cancel the contract within 3 business
days. This right remains open beyond the three days (but only up to three
years) if the notice is not given or is defective. If the contractor violated
TILA, the senior may be able to void the lien and reduce any amount owed.
The senior may even be entitled to recover money from the contractor or
lender as damages.

In 1994, Congress amended TILA by passing the Home Ownership and Equity Protection Act5
(HOEPA) which covers certain high cost loans.6
For loans that qualify as high cost, HOEPA requires that additional disclosures
be given to the consumers. HOEPA also prohibits certain abusive practices.
Violations of HOEPA's disclosure provisions may create rescission rights
under TILA. HOEPA violations may also trigger TILA monetary damages and
enhanced damages for some violations.

A UCC Article 2 rejection or revocation of acceptance is available where the goods in the transaction
are defective and the court applies the UCC to that component, even where
the transaction is predominantly a service. The consumer can then return
the goods and eliminate liability for at least part of the purchase price.
Another ground for
canceling a contract is fraud or misrepresentation. If the consumer was
misled as to the nature of an agreement, that agreement is not enforceable
under basic common law principles.

Warranties

The terms of the contract specifying the work to be done should be closely examined to
see whether they contain any provisions that promise a standard of performance,
materials or products, specifications, or a guarantee. Any of the above
may give the senior a claim for the contractor's breach of warranty.

Even when a contractor does not make any oral or written guarantees regarding work quality, implied
warranties apply. Generally, there is an implied warranty that the contractor
will complete all work according to the standards of the trade or in a
"workmanlike" manner. Part of this standard generally includes
the requirement that all work must comply with applicable building codes.
Failure to meet these standards could be grounds for the senior to refuse
to pay the entire amount. However, if the contractor and lender have no
business relationship, the borrower may in some circumstance remain obligated
on the loan contract.

Unfair Practices

Every state and the District of Columbia have enacted at least one statute broadly applicable
to most consumer transactions aimed at preventing consumer deception and
abuse in the marketplace. UDAP statutes may be used to challenge unfair,
deceptive or fraudulent practices. A contractor may have violated the
state's UDAP statute by lying about the true nature, benefits or cost
of a proposed job during the sales pitch; tricking a senior into signing
a completion certificate or signing over the loan check before completion;
or lying about cancellation rights. If any of the above occurred, the
senior may have a claim against the contractor or a defense if the contractor
is suing the senior.7

Third Party Lenders 

Most home improvement contracts are financed. Often the contractor arranges for the senior to
get a loan through a finance company or a bank. A common home improvement
situation is a creditor attempting to collect payments for shoddy or incomplete
work. Most home improvement loans state in the note that the holder is
subject to all claims and defenses the consumer can raise against the
seller. This notice is required by the FTC Holder Rule8
where the home improvement contractor is the originating lender or refers
the consumer to the lender. Any holder of the note with this notice included
is subject to the consumer's claims against the home improvement contractor.

If the notice is
not included in the home improvement contract and was not required, the
connections between the contractor and the lender must be examined in
order to hold the lender liable for the contractor's deceptive practices.
Things to look for include: (1) whether there has been an ongoing relationship
between the contractor and the lender; (2) the frequency with which this
lender finances this contractor's work; (3) documents by one party containing
the other party's name preprinted into them; (4) knowledge by the lender
of previous problems with this contractor's work for other customers;
(5) commissions or kickbacks from one party to the other; (6) ownership
of one party by the other.9

Home Improvement Contractor Litigation Tips10

  • Analyze a complete set of the documents and conduct a thorough client interview.11
  • Hire an expert (architect, engineer, local building inspector, reputable contractor, or other private building inspection expert) to look at the work for quality and compliance with specifications. The expert can also provide an estimate regarding the fairness of the price for work completed, the extent of physical damage, and its cost to repair.
  • Obtain detailed pictures of the work or damage left by the contractor.
  • Try to find former employees of the contractor/lender willing to testify as to its practices.
  • Try to find other customers of the contractor who suffered similar problems or who encountered similar sales tactics.

Preventative Counseling for Senior Homeowners

Seniors should take the following basic steps to prevent problems:

  • Never deal with any door to door contractors. Deal with local trades people recommended by friends or reputable building supply stores.
  • Before agreeing to hire any home improvement contractor, get at least a second estimate for the same work from another contractor.
  • Get references for the contractor and speak to those references. Ask about satisfaction and any problems that arose.
  • Take a look at other work performed by the same contractor.
  • Get a written contract describing explicit specifications of the work, the price (including details of any financing or credit terms), the responsibility for cleaning up, and the hourly rate for any added work. Ask for guarantees and other promises to be made in writing. Do not agree to final payment until the project is finished.
  • If the written documents are different from oral promises, do not sign them.
  • Remember the 3 day right to cancel that applies to door-to-door sales and home improvement loans even after the papers have been signed.
  • Do not allow a contractor to begin work until financial arrangements to pay for the work are complete
  • Never endorse the check over to the contractor before all work is satisfactorily completed. (Note: when a creditor finances a home improvement contract, the payment must be made either to the consumer or in a jointly payable instrument.
  • Do not consolidate other debts with a home improvement loan.
  • If problems with a contractor or home improvement lender arise, get help from a lawyer or housing counselor without delay.

Model Home Improvement Contractor Statute

State regulation of home improvement contractors varies widely. Not surprisingly, most
states have significant gaps in their regulatory framework. In order to
address the significant and widespread abuses committed against consumers
by dishonest home improvement contractors, NCLC, in collaboration with
AARP, drafted a model statute regarding home improvement contractors and
summarized the state statutes. To order a copy of AARP's Home Improvement
Contractors: A Model State Statute, contact AARP at (202) 434-3912. You
can also access it on the web.

References for Consumers

  • National Consumer Law Center, Surviving Debt: A Guide for Consumers (3rd ed. 1999) References for Lawyers
  • National Consumer Law Center, Consumer Warranty Law (1997 and Supp.)
  • National Consumer Law Center, Repossessions and Foreclosures (4th ed. 1999)
  • National Consumer Law Center, Unfair and Deceptive Acts and Practices (4th ed. 1997 and Supp.)
  • National Consumer Law Center, The Cost of Credit (1995 and Supp.)
  • National Consumer Law Center, Truth in Lending (4th ed. 1999)

About NCLC

Since 1992, NCLC has received funding from the Administration on Aging to conduct the National
Legal Resource Initiative for Financially Distressed Older Americans,
intended to improve access to and the quality of consumer representation
for older Americans. Founded in 1969, NCLC provides legal advocates with
technical and expert assistance, training and publications that cover
all major topics in consumer law. NCLC has established itself as the nation's
consumer law specialist, making its legal expertise available to the attorneys
for low-income clients. These services are now available to advocates
representing older Americans.

Making Use of Consumer Law

Consumer law is a powerful shield but is very complex. In any given transaction, several
defenses may exist against creditor or seller claims, but detailed research
and calculations are required in order to spot defenses. With financially
burdened clients, it is important to recognize that the emotional stress
caused by indebtedness can impair decision-making or lead to other difficulties
beyond the debt crisis. That recognition can help head off other legal
problems which could quickly develop.

NCLC is available to consult with legal advocates for the elderly on a wide range of consumer
issues, providing leading and local case law, analyzing contract documents
for federal and state law compliance, defining factual and legal issues,
identifying experts and legal resources to strengthen cases, and training
attorneys in consumer law.
_________________________
1 See generally National Consumer Law Center,
Repossessions and Foreclosures Ch. 14 and 20 (4th ed. 1999).

2
FTC Rule Concerning Cooling-Off Period for Sales Made at Homes or at Certain
Other Locations, 16 C.F.R. § 429.

3
15 U.S.C. § 1601 et seq. The FTC Cooling-Off Rule explicitly states
that it does not apply in situations where the TILA rescission notice
is required. In contrast, state cooling-off statutes do apply, unless
they are inconsistent with the TILA requirements.

4
The right to rescind under TILA does not apply to purchase money transactions.
This means that TILA rescission rights do not apply where a mortgage was
created to purchase a home.

5
Subtitle B of Title I of the Riegle Community Development and Regulatory
Improvement Act of 1994 (H.R. 3474), Pub. L. No. 103-325, 108 Stat. 2160
(Sept. 23, 1994) primarily codified at 15 U.S.C §1639.

6
See National Consumer Law Center, Truth in Lending Ch. 10 (4th ed. 1999).

7
For a list of state UDAP statutes, see National Consumer Law Center, Unfair
and Deceptive Actsand
Practices App. A (4th ed. 1997).

8
FTC's Rule Concerning the Preservation of Consumers' Claims and Defenses,
16 C.F.R § 433.

9
See National Consumer Law Center, Unfair and Deceptive Acts and Practices
§ 6.6 (4th ed. 1997 and Supp.).

10
For more tips, see National Consumer Law Center, Consumer Warranty Law
§ 16.7.8 (1997).

11
For a sample client interview sheet, see National Consumer Law Center,
Consumer Warranty Law Appendix H.2 (1997).

NOTE: This Consumer
Concerns reflects the current law and is subject to change. Advocates
should be careful to keep track of any changes after the date of publication.

March
2000

A publication of NCLC's National Legal Resource Initiative for Financially Distressed
Older Americans National Consumer Law Center - 77 Summer Street, 10th Floor - Boston,
MA 02110 - 617/542-8010