Home Improvement: Resolving Disputes with Contractors
Home improvement is one of the areas in which consumers are often disappointed. If your project has gotten off track, here are some tips that will help.
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Contact the Contractor
You should always start by reporting the problem to the contractor, clearly and in writing. Give them a reasonable opportunity to correct the problem.
Prepare by looking at your contract. Find any paper records that are important. Write down notes in advance so you won’t forget to discuss something important. Listen carefully if the contractor explains something. Even though you are not an expert, you can offer suggestions. If something has made you angry, have this discussion after you have cooled off. Name-calling, tears or other expressions of emotion make others uncomfortable. If others are uncomfortable, positive results and solutions are less likely.
If the contractor does not respond to you or does not resolve the problems, mediation may be a good next step.
In a mediation a neutral, third person helps the contractor and homeowner:
- discuss the situation,
- find the facts
- makes sure the parties are really hearing each other,
- find alternatives to resolve the dispute.
In mediation, the parties decide how to resolve the dispute. A mediator can be any neutral person or a trained professional. A neutral person is anyone not connected to either of the parties. Another option is to try a community mediation center. These centers offer a neutral outsider to help resolve the dispute. If you do not reach an agreement in mediation, either side can still go to court.
The Maryland Home Improvement Commission, in partnership with Community Mediation Maryland and the University of Maryland School of Law's Mediation Clinic, has developed a program to help homeowners and contractors amicably resolve disputes for the benefit of both parties. The project offers an opportunity to reach a faster, easier, and cheaper resolution to conflicts. If successful, you will save time and money, and avoid the hassle of having to attend an administrative hearing. The best part is that mediation is free, voluntary and you decide whether or not to settle.
Please contact the MHIC at 410-230-6309 or by email at DLOPLMHIC-LABOR@maryland.gov for more information about the mediation program.
Community Mediation Maryland also offers low cost mediation services.
If you do not reach an agreement through mediation, you may consider filing a complaint Maryland Home Improvement Commission.
File a Complaint with the MHIC
You can obtain a complaint form on the Maryland Home Improvement Commission (MHIC) website or by calling 410-230-6309 and asking that a complaint form be mailed to you. The MHIC will investigate your complaint. Following the investigation, the MHIC might file criminal or regulatory charges against the contractor if it finds that the contractor violated the MHIC law. There is no monetary award for homeowners in the complaint process.
In order to try to receive compensation for any monetary losses you suffered, you must file a form, which is separate from the complaint form, with the MHIC Guaranty Fund. To obtain a Guaranty Fund claim form, contact the investigator assigned to your complaint and ask him or her to send you one. You must file your Guaranty Fund claim within three (3) years from the time you discovered any loss or damage made by the contractor. Remember, you can only file a Guaranty Fund claim if your contractor was licensed with the MHIC at the time he or she performed the work for you.
If your claim is for more than $7,500.00, a hearing is required. The hearing will be scheduled before the Office of Administrative Hearings for which you must appear and provide testimony and evidence about your claim. You will have the burden of proving your claim at the hearing. Information about filing a Guaranty Fund claim, the hearing process, and your responsibilities at the hearing can be found on the MHIC’s website.
The hearing process, including possible appeals, may take 2 or more years to complete. The maximum amount of money the MHIC Guaranty Fund may compensate you is $30,000.
Finish the work and sue
Instead of filing a complaint with the MHIC, You could have someone else finish the work and sue the first contractor for the cost of completing the work.
You should first write a detailed letter to the contractor about the problem and give the original contractor a reasonable chance to correct the work.
You should then get one or more detailed written estimates from other contractors detailing the cost of completing the work in the original contract.
If your claim is for $5,000 or less, you may be able to sue the home improvement contractor without a lawyer in the Small Claims Court, located at the District Court of Maryland. Your letter to the contractor, any reply he makes, and the estimates for completing the work are your evidence of the damage caused by his not completing the work properly. For more information, see the article on Small Claims.