The District government says it is cracking down on fraudulent practices by home improvement contractors.
Prompted by an increasing number of homeowner complaints about shoddy work, the District's office of consumer protection has launched an investigative campaign that it hopes will lead to presecution of home improvement firms that fail to do adequate work.
Mayor Marion Barry has declared April "Home Improvement Protection Month" and the city is distributing literature about what to watch out for when buying home improvement services. April was selected because there is usually an upsurge in home improvement contracting then.
Further, in conjunction with the Metropolitan Police Department and the United States Attorney's office, the consumer protection agency hopes to bring several cases soon against major home improvement firms in the District.
"The economic climate is forcing consumers to lower their vision and is turning more of them toward expanding their existing homes instead of seeking to purchase a larger residence," said Herbert Simmons, director of the consumer protection office. "We will do what we can to protect their investments in their homes."
As part of that program, the consumer office will hold two public hearings this week to discuss problems with home improvement companies and a possible strengthening of city statutes.
"We feel that the statutory protections available to consumers are inadequate," said Fred S. Goldberg, the general counsel of the consumer protection office.
Although home improvement contractors in the city are licensed, there is no certification process anywhere in the area.
"We're not proposing certification at this point, but we are holding hearings because we want better information, with an eye toward proposing legislation to the City Council," Goldberg said.
Last year $41 billion was spent on renovation and home improvements across the country and some experts estimate that this year, for the first time, more money will be spent on home improvement than for new homes.
The average complaint involves work that cost a homeowner between $7,000 and $10,000, Goldberg said, making them the costliest consumer concern the office deals with.
In 1978, home improvements complaints to the city agency increased by 24 percent to an all-time high of 415.
"We are told that roofs continue to leak and that basements that have gone through the so-called waterproofing process are no more waterproofed after the expensive process than before," Goldberg said.
The growth of the home improvement business has been encouraged by the rising costs of buying a new home and of energy. "High energy costs and government tax incentives are making energy-oriented home improvements more attractive," Goldberg said.
Sales of storm windows and insulation, air infiltration reduction systems, fireplaces, wood-burning stoves and other equipment designed to cut energy costs are on the upswing here and across the country. The consumer protection office believes there is a shortage here of competent contractors to perform the installation of these products.
It is particularly difficult to protect consumers in the home improvement field because, unlike many consumer goods, buyers seldom have the opportunity to try the products before purchase, officials of the District agency say. Many of these customized products cannot be returned and a substantial portion of the costs are paid in advance.
The hearings will open at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Emanuel Baptist Church, 2409 Ainger Place, SE. A second hearing will take begin at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the police station at 6001 Georgia Ave. NW.