Responding to a rising number of citizen complaints about the cost and quality of home improvements, the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Affairs will hold a series of classes on the subject beginning next Wednesday.
Open to county residents only, the free classes will cover many aspects of home to find a contractor and how to check his reliability to landscaping and pest control, said Barbara Gregg, exceutive director of the consumer affairs office.
The volume of home imporvement complaints and requests for information has increased as "people fix up rather than move," said Gree. "We suspect that this is because the cost of housing is so great" that many people who would have bought a new house a few years ago are redecorating or adding on to the homes they now own, she said.
"Lots of people also want to save energy, to the point that even landscapers are giving plans on how to save energy and money," she added.
When the Montgomery County office awas established in 1971, consumer queries on home imporvements accounted for about 5 per cent of the office's total case load. By last year, home improvement cases had risen to 12.6 per cent of the 12,800 cases handled by the consumer office.
Local experts in the home improvement field and consumer affairs office staff members will conduct the classes, scheduled for three consecutive Wednesday evenings from 7 to 9:30 p.m. in the auditorium of the County Office Building in Rockville.
The May 11 session will provide advice on finding a contractor, laws and regulations governing home improvement, roofing and insulation and air conditioning.
On May 18, the subjects will include how to check a contractor's reliability, home improvement contracts, landscaping and lawn services, waterproofing and paving.
Common complaints and how to resolve them will be covered in the May 25 class, along with advice on pest control, plumbing, and aluminum and vinyl siding.
The fourth class will be a tour of the National Bureau of Standards in Gaithersburg for a look at experimental program that include evaluation of appliances of energy use, tests on the impact of weather on building materials, and the flammability of carpeting and upholstery.The tour tentatively is set for May 31 at 2 p.m.
Reservations of the 100 openings for the entire series can be made by calling the consumer affairs office in Rockville at 340-1010. Twenty-five weekly slots are being held for individuals interested only in one topic who do not want to attend the entire series.
The home improvement classes are modeled after a successful series of "automotive language" classes in 1975 and 1976 that taught car owners how to recognize engine problems and how to talk with mechanics to avoid typical repair problems and overcharges. The class, which was filled and had a waiting list, won a National Association of Counties award.
Despite the increase in home improvement cases, consumer complaints about automobile service and sales continue to make up the majority of cases handled by the Montgomery county office - 31.8 per cent of all cases last year.
The most recent resolution of an automotive case involved Wheaton Dodge City, an auto dealership in Wheaton. The firm signed an out-of-court agreement with the consumer affairs office last week stating that the company "will henceforth relate the price to each type of vehicle in a clear and conspicuous manner" in advertising, according to a consumer office office statement.
The agreement grew out of an investigation into complaints that the auto firm published misleading advertising last year in Washington daily newspapers. Wheaton Dodge City also agreed that the company's general manager will review all ad copy for accuracy and compliance with the county's consumer protection laws before an advertisement is placed in any media and again within two days after the ad is carried, the statement said.
In addition to entering into agreements like this one, the consumer affairs office can seek civil penalties of $500 per violation against businesses that violate the county's consumer protection legislation and can press for restitution for consumers. On an average, about 12 cases a year result in civil penalties being paid that have ranged up to $15,000, said executive director Gregg.
The consumer office has a staff of about 20 persons, including eight fulltime and four parttime investigators, and a mechanic, she said. In addition, a large number of volunteers, including retired persons, women who are not in the job market, high school and college students, work for the office.
The number of cases handled by the Montgomery consumer advocates is expected to reach 15,000 by the end of the current fiscal year on June 30, compared with 12,800 cases handled in the previous fiscal period, Gregg said.