The Consumer Protection Division of the Maryland attorney general's office has published a guide to the state's consumer protection laws. The following article is taken from the guide and is the second of several excerpts The Maryland Weekly will publish.
The Automotive Repair Facilities Act requires that repair shops do certain things before beginning repairs:
* If the repairs will cost more than $50, you are entitled to a written estimate, if you request one, showing the estimated completion date, the estimated price for labor and parts. The shop may charge a fee for this written estimate.
* When you pick up your car, your invoice must state all work that was done, including warranty work, all parts supplied, and if those parts were used or reconditioned.
* Unless the parts replaced must be returned to the manufacturer, or you say you don't want them, the shop must return your replaced parts to you.
* Even if you don't obtain a written estimate, a repair shop may not charge you for repairs that you didn't authorize or request. Additional repairs may be made only after the shop receives your written or oral approval.
* A repair shop may not charge you more than 10 percent above its written estimate without your consent.
* When repairs cost more than $50, these "customer rights" must be printed on the invoice. Disputes
In general, when cars are under warranty, disputes are referred to the Division of Licensing and Consumer Services of the Motor Vehicle Administration, which has its own complaint handling unit. The office is located in the headquarters of the administration in Glen Burnie. When a car's warranty expires, repair disputes can be mediated by the Consumer Protection Division.
The Division of Dealer Licensing and Consumer Services in the Motor Vehicle Administration has the authority to mediate disputes concerning problems arising from the initial sales contract of warranty service repairs on an automobile. Only written complaints are investigated. Forms may be obtained by calling the agency.
Here's what happens once the MVA receives a written complaint:
* The complaint is logged, given a case number and assigned to an investigator.
* The investigator meets you, usually at the dealership, and attempts to mediate the problem right on the spot. Ninety to 95 percent of the disputes are resolved this way.
* The investigator sends a written report to you and to the dealership.
If the investigator suggests a remedy that the dealership refuses to accept, a conference between the dealer and the chief investigator is scheduled. If this administrative conference still doesn't resolve the issue, the chief investigator can recommend a formal hearing, which can mean a potential license revocation for the dealer.
At this point, you also can file a "claim of loss" with the bonding company insuring the dealership. Every dealership in Maryland must be bonded for $15,000. Your claim should be accompanied by a copy of the MVA investigator's report. The company will decide either to accept or deny your claim. If your claim is accepted you will receive all or part of the money you have requested.
The name of a dealership's bonding company is part of the public file maintained at MVA headquarters in Glen Burnie. The information is not available over the phone but may be obtained by mail at a cost of $2 or by visiting the MVA headquarters.
What can you do if the bonding company rejects your claim? You may file a request for an investigation and review of your case by the Insurance Commissioner's office, seeking an order from it requiring the bonding company to pay your claim.
The Motor Vehicle Administration is located in Room 124, 6601 Richie Highway, Glen Burnie, Md., 21061. Telephone: (301) 768-7536.
The Maryland Insurance Commission is located at 1 S. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md., 21202. Telephone: (301) 659-6300.
New Home Warranties
When you buy a new home in Maryland, the law gives you certain guarantees, called "implied warranties," even if you don't get those guarantees in writing. You have a right to expect that:
* No faulty materials have been used in the house's construction.
* The house has been built in a workmanlike manner and the builder has followed sound engineering principles.
* The house is habitable at the time of settlement.
* The building site is habitable at the time of settlement.
The builder may not exclude or modify any implied warranty in the contract of sale. However, if the home is already complete and you and the builder agree, certain modifications or exclusions can be made in writing.
If you are purchasing a home that is fully completed prior to signing the contract, the implied warranties do not cover faults that would clearly have been visible to you at a house inspection prior to signing the contract.
Even if the seller or contract doesn't use the words "warranty" or "guarantee," the following items, in effect, are guarantees:
* Written promises that certain work will be performed.
* House plans, written descriptions, or specifications of the house that are part of the agreement between you and the seller.
* Special improvements that you and the builder agreed upon in advance.
If you buy a house based on a model and samples of materials shown to you by the seller, you have the right to expect that your house will be substantially the same.
If you buy a completed house from a builder, the warranties are in effect for one year from the date of settlement or from the day you take possession of the house, whichever comes first, unless your contract provides for a longer warranty period.
Legal Action for Breaches of Warranty
If you discover a defect in your new property, you have two years from the time the defect is discovered, or two years from the expiration of the warranty, to begin legal action against the seller.
If the seller fails to live up to the provisions of any of these warranties, the court will decide what compensation you are entitled to receive.
Water and Sewer Charge Disclosure
When you sign a contract to buy a home, it must show an estimate of the total cost of deferred sewer and water charges for which you will later be responsible. If this disclosure does not appear in your contract, the builder is liable for twice the total charge.
Home Improvement Commission
Most home improvement complaints . . . are referred to the Home Improvement Commission, the state licensing board located at 1 S. Calvert St. in Baltimore.
Before you begin repair or renovation work on your home, it is wise to check the reputation of the contractors you intend to use. If you plan to spend a great deal of money, you should get several estimates and check the reputation of the contractors before you award the business to one of the companies bidding on the work. It's possible you could save hundreds of dollars by doing this.
You may visit or call the commission to find out if there are complaints filed, to see if the company is licensed, or to determine if the company you are considering has ever been called for a hearing. Closed cases are a matter of public record and you are entitled to read them yourself.
Even if a company has a complaint against it, that doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't deal with the firm. It is more important to see how the company handled the complaints that were filed.
The commission has the authority to mediate disagreements and to revoke the license of a contractor who fails to live up to his contractual agreements.
To file a complaint, you must fill out a standard complaint form provided by the commission. Once the complaint is received, it is logged and assigned a case number. A copy of the complaint is sent to the company, which must reply to the commission within 10 days.
If the contractor agrees with your statement of facts and agrees to make the repairs, then the matter is resolved. However, if the contractor doesn't agree with your version of the story, the case is assigned to an investigator.
The investigation usually takes place within 20 days. The commission's investigator will visit your residence to look at the work in question. He will make a report of his findings, and if there is still a controversy with the contractor, he will schedule an informal hearing between you and the company. Hopefully, the dispute will be resolved during this informal process. However, if the complaint appears justified and the matter still is not solved, a formal hearing will be scheduled.
During the formal hearing, should the commission find that the contractor has violated his obligations, he can be cited for workmanship, contractual or permit violations, and his license can be revoked. In some cases, if the contractor refuses to correct the deficiencies, the commission can recommend that criminal charges be placed against him for failure to perform the work.
When you complain about a contractor, the commission always checks first to see if the operator is licensed. If the contractor is not licensed, an investigator will be assigned to the case immediately and the contractor's name will be forwarded to the commission's lawyer for legal action.
Home Improvement Commission, 1 S. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md., 21202. Telephone: (301) 659-6310.
Copies of the Maryland Consumer Protection Guide can be obtained from the Consumer Protection Division, 26 S. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md., 21202. Telephone (301) 659-4300. TTY for the deaf, (301) 383-7555. The guide is free to individuals and costs 65 cents for orders of 10 or more.