Consumer Alert: How To Avoid Home Improvement Scams and Disputes
Looking to upgrade, remodel, or improve your home? Finding a reliable and trustworthy home improvement contractor can be difficult. We frequently receive complaints from consumers about disputes with contractors, and suggest consumers follow these steps to choose a contractor with confidence, protect their investment, and avoid being scammed.
Red Flags for Home Improvement Scams
A good rule of thumb is always rely on common sense: if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. Some frequent home improvement scams include:
- Contractors who show up at your door unannounced saying they just happened to be in the neighborhood;
- Contractors who say they can offer a lower price by using surplus materials;
- Contractors who pressure you to hire them immediately in order to receive a discount; and
- Contractors who demand payment upfront or payment in cash, or who offer to arrange financing for you.
These are all signs of potentially deceptive and unethical business practices.
If consumers feel that they have been contacted or scammed by a contractor who is using deceptive, fraudulent, or unethical business practices, or who is misrepresenting their services, they can report this activity by submitting a Consumer Complaint with the DC Office of the Attorney General, Office of Consumer Protection or by calling the OAG Consumer Protection Hotline at 202-442-9828.
Before Hiring a Contractor – Verify Licensing in the District
Before hiring a contractor, first ensure the contractor is licensed with the Department of Licensing and Consumer Protection (DLCP). Consumers can verify business licenses as well as specific occupational and professional licenses through the DLCP website or by calling DLCP at 202-671-4500.
- It is important to choose a contractor who is licensed, as home improvement businesses operating in the District are required to be bonded and insured as a condition of obtaining a license, which can help protect consumers in the event of a dispute.
- Additionally, licensed home improvement contractors are required to provide consumers a contract in writing, and only licensed home improvement contractors can accept payment before completion of the contracted home improvement project.
Different types of work require different licenses.
- If consumers are hiring a contractor for an alteration, conversion, improvement, modernization, remodeling, repair, or replacement to a home or adjacent structure, the contractor should also have a business license as a Home Improvement Contractor or General Contractor.
- Electricians, plumbers, gasfitters, or refrigeration and air conditioning mechanics should have licenses specific to their trade.
If the contractor does not have the proper DC license, they are not allowed to conduct business in the District. Consumers can contact DLCP to report unlicensed business activity.
Before Hiring a Contractor – Look at Reviews and Recommendations
When searching for a contractor, it is often helpful to seek recommendations from and read reviews of other consumers in the area. Finding helpful information can include:
- Asking potential contractors for community and neighborhood references; and
- Using online resources such as Google, Yelp, the Better Business Bureau, and Angi (formerly Angie’s List) to find credible reviews.
The DC Department of Buildings (DOB) also offers consumer resources on its website, including contractor resources. While references, recommendations, and reviews can help consumers find a contractor with a verifiable record of success and customer satisfaction, and help avoid contractors with a history of problems, they can also be misleading, so it is always best to get them from multiple sources and cross-check the information you obtain before finalizing a contract.
Before the Work Begins – Verify Permits
Most home improvement work in the District requires a District-issued permit.
If homeowners or contractors fail to get the necessary permits:
- The homeowner could be fined;
- There could be problems selling the home; and
- The work could be unsafe.
If a contractor is obtaining the permits for you, it is important to verify those permits have been issued by DOB before work begins.
DOB’s Public Dashboard allows customers to track DOB’s review of applications and issuance of permits. Additionally, using Scout, a free online consolidated database shared by DOB and DLCP, customers can view available data about permitting and inspections information, Certificates of Occupancy, licensing, and enforcement action for District properties.
Customers can even subscribe to permit activity notifications for a chosen address or addresses. Additionally, keep in mind that the DC Building Code requires that copies of permits be visibly displayed at the work location until completion of the work for which the permit is issued.
After Securing Permits – Select a Suitable Construction Inspections Professional
If you are undertaking a building project that requires permits, you also need to schedule an inspection. DOB offers an optional online resource, Tertius, that aims to connect residential and commercial property owners and managers with certified and approved inspectors.
Tertius allows customers to schedule on-demand inspections with third-party agencies, or use a DOB inspector. For more information on DOB's inspections program, check out DOB's Public Dashboard, or the Inspection Resources section on DOB’s website.
Before Making Payments – Review and Sign a Contract
Always remember that District regulations require that prior to accepting payment, all general contractors and home improvement contractors must have a written contract signed by the consumer and the contractor.
Contracts must contain:
- The contractor’s name, address, telephone, and DC license number;
- A description of the terms of payment, the approximate date on which the work required by the contract is to start, and the approximate date on which the work will be completed; and
- A set of specifications of the work to be done and the materials to be used (either by inclusion or incorporation).
Contractors are not allowed to have consumers sign a contract if any spaces are left blank. Consumers also have the right to a reasonable opportunity to review a completed contract before signing, as well as the right to a copy of the contract at the time it is signed.
Consumers should always review the contract to make sure they understand its terms before signing it. If you do not understand the contract or its terms, make sure to review it with a trusted family member, friend, or a lawyer.
After Hiring – Problems with a Contractor
Hiring a licensed contractor is not a guarantee that the contractor will perform satisfactory work. If consumers have a complaint regarding a home improvement contractor or other licensed professional, they can submit a complaint to DLCP. Consumers can also report illegal construction to DOB.
Consumer Resources – Get Free Help!
If you think you have been the victim of a scam, or want to inform authorities about a scam you have encountered:
- Call OAG’s Consumer Protection Hotline at (202) 442-9828.
- You also can submit a complaint by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or online at https://oag.dc.gov/consumer-protection/submit-consumer-complaint.
- File a business complaint with the D.C. Department of Licensing and Consumer Protection.