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Consuming Interests

October 19, 2008|By DAN THANH DANG | DAN THANH DANG,dan.thanh.dang@baltsun.com

It has been more than a year since the surface underneath Kent Edel's carport was ripped up and repaved and then ripped up again. Unfortunately for the 59-year-old flooring contractor, a subsequent dispute with the paving company he hired spiraled out of control and left the job unfinished.

Edel blames Guy's Paving Co.

Guy's Paving of Joppatowne blames Edel.

Each has a different version of what went wrong. Edel says the company botched the first job, started the second and then canceled several appointments for a variety of excuses, including inclement weather and family illness. Guy's Paving says it agreed to fix the first job only to make Edel happy and had every intention of finishing the second job, but Edel demanded to be present and then couldn't agree on a date.

Unable to come to terms or trust each other's word anymore, Edel filed a complaint with the Maryland Home Improvement Commission last winter. He wanted his $2,500 back. Moving to protect its reputation, Guy's Paving responded to the claim by pledging to defend itself.

But as both sides wait for the case to wind its way through the process, Edel's unfinished carport sits at his Middle River home, aggravating him every time he looks at it. And for Guy's, the unfinished legal matter just hangs over its head.

"I've been fighting for over a year now with no end in sight to resolve my issue first with the paver, then with the state of Maryland, who maintains a guaranty fund for just this purpose," Edel said.

I sympathize with both sides.

The problem is that, so far as filing complaints go, both have done everything right. The bigger problem is that they're dealing with a swamped state agency.

"What this case exposes is that it can be a time-consuming process," says Steven Smitson, executive director of the commission. "Homeowners can wait two years or more before they receive a guaranty check. Part of it is a function of our backlog, and part of it is that the time allows both sides due-process protections."

Anyone who is starting a home renovation project and who plans on hiring a company to do that work should know that the MHIC licenses and regulates home improvement contractors, subcontractors and salespeople. The MHIC also oversees a guaranty fund that compensates homeowners for losses due to poor workmanship or failure to perform a home improvement contract by licensed contractors.

Under the law, homeowners who entered into contracts with licensed contractors can recover up to $15,000 for their losses. Each licensed contractor is covered by the fund for up to $100,000 for all claims by homeowners. Homeowners cannot collect from the fund for losses due to work done by unlicensed contractors.

To collect from the fund, homeowners should realize that the burden of proof lies with them.

"The homeowner has to provide evidence, photographs, documents," Smitson says. "We need to see documented evidence that the work was not completed according to the contract. We review each case for legal and factual merit. Many homeowners say, 'This is a simple, open-and-shut case.' But more often than not, it's complicated.

"Everyone is entitled to a hearing, but not all claims are viable," Smitson says. "If it's not a home improvement, if it's new home construction, if the property is an investment and not your actual home, if your contractor is unlicensed, then your claim won't qualify for a hearing. Homeowners also need to understand that we don't interpret contracts here. If you paid too much for a cheap product, there's little we can do to help fix that. We only look to see if there's a violation of the home improvement law."

Research and comparison-shopping beforehand will help you avoid requiring MHIC services.

But should you need that help and MHIC deems your claim viable, your case is sent to an administrative law judge, who then holds a hearing and issues a judgment.

If you take this route, though, better get a firm grip on your patience.

You might be better served by requesting free mediation, a new service that the MHIC is rolling out next month. It's available to homeowners who file a claim and to contractors under limited conditions and by request (What? You think companies are the only ones ever in the wrong?). Smitson says the hope is that mediation will help decrease the workload for MHIC investigators, who often find themselves trying to negotiate settlements.

Since Edel's claim is less than $5,000, the MHIC can just issue an order in his case. If either side disagrees with the ruling, it could request a hearing. That is where things stood when Edel called the newspaper asking for help.

Usually, I also ask for proof from both sides. But after talking to Edel and then Guy's Paving, it seemed to me this donnybrook had dragged on long enough. I chose to ignore who did what, who broke which promises and who slighted whom.

Why?

Because Edel said he simply wanted the paving job done right.

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