Home repair by seniors hits regulatory block State law requires license for service

December 30, 1990|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Anne Arundel Bureau of The Sun

EDGEWATER -- After three major surgical operations and some poor investments gave 69-year-old retiree Richard E. Ellis a strong incentive to earn extra money, he and a few friends hit upon a seemingly brilliant idea.

Why not, the former real estate broker pondered, create an employment service that matches people age 55 or older who possess trade skills with homeowners in need of routine repairs?

Within a matter of weeks, Senior Services of Anne Arundel County was enkindled and immediately "took off like a bonfire," the Edgewater resident recalled.

Calls flooded into the Ellis household, and a crew of four expanded to a crowd of 35 workers.

Ten months later, the red-hot idea has turned to dying embers. The phone no longer rings off the hook, and Mr. Ellis has difficulty finding seniors to take his few jobs.

The Maryland Home Improvement Commission, the Baltimore-based watchdog agency that weeds out fly-by-night contractors, decided that much of what Mr. Ellis and Senior Services' workers were doing violated state law and has warned them to stick to yard work and housecleaning.

"In essence, we were told that we can clean out people's gutters but we can't put a nail in one to repair it," said Mr. Ellis, a Takoma Park native.

"I think they [the Home Improvement Commission] have gone out well beyond reason."

The conflict between Mr. Ellis and the 28-year-old state commission provides a classic example, the company's supporters say, of the thin line between vigilant consumer protection and government regulatory overkill.

When Mr. Ellis formed his company last February, the idea was to fill a void in the marketplace.

Homeowners with broken window panes, cracked plaster or leaky faucets often had difficulty finding dependable people to do the work at reasonable prices.

On the other hand, seniors such as Mr. Ellis possessed the skills to do the chores and needed some part-time work. Senior Services would link the two parties together.

"We ended up getting calls from customers who were elderly or indigent themselves," said Mr. Ellis. "They think older people won't rip them off, and they like calling an organization that will screen the people they send out to do the job."

Working from a desk with a ledger, a telephone and an answering machine in a corner of his living room, Mr. Ellis did not employ his workers -- he simply matched them with the customers. Typically, the jobs would last two hours and cost about $50 with the company earning 20 percent of that as a referral fee, he said.

"Anyone who has ever tried to hire a contractor for a medium-size job knows that you can't even find people to come out and look at it," said Richard Tubman, 71, a retired Annapolis contractor who worked with Senior Services.

"This has been the story for 20 years at least."

But soon after the company began to prosper -- Mr. Ellis had to hire a part-time employee to help answer the phone and placed want ads to find more workers to meet the burgeoning demand for services -- the Home Improvement Commission received an anonymous letter.

The letter pointed out that Senior Services was not licensed to do home improvement work.

Under the law, jobs such as nailing down a floorboard, patching a roof or painting a room are home improvements and require a contractor's license.

The commission investigated and then notified Mr. Ellis that he was breaking the law. Unless licensed by the commission and hiring only licensed subcontractors, "you may not engage in providing home improvement services for compensation," a commission official wrote in a letter July 9.

In order to qualify for a license, an applicant must pass a written test based on a fairly thick set of state regulations and general knowledge of business practices. He must also demonstrate financial solvency (pass a credit check and possess enough assets to finance a credible business) and pay a $275 fee.

Such an arduous process -- one licensee said obtaining one cost him at least $1,000 -- proved too great a burden for all but a handful of the workers.

As a result, Senior Services stuck to such chores as leaf and trash removal, lawn mowing and grocery shopping. Interest in both hiring and working for the company plummeted.

"I've been in construction all my life and held a home improvement license," said Oliver M. VanTassel, 61, a Pasadena resident who stopped working with Senior Services as a result of the decision.

"What Mr. Ellis was trying to do is a helluva good service, and the home improvement laws are too restrictive."

Vernon L. Simms, acting executive director of the Home Improvement Commission, defended the ruling as appropriate. The commission's mission, he said, is to protect the consumer from getting cheated and to make sure contractors are treated fairly.

A company like Senior Services gives "no protection for homeowners," Mr. Simms said.

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