Jacobs answers a reader’s question from his mailbag.
I recently replaced some interior doors in my house. Before purchasing the doors, I made a trip to a local company to take a look at the ones I had picked online. I asked for an estimate of the price and was told that the solid-core doors were $110 each and hollow-core doors would be $60. I indicated that I wanted the heavier, solid-core doors.
The company referred me to a contractor who frequently installs doors on their behalf. He said this installer would charge about $120 per door for installation, so overall I would be looking at a cost of about $3,000.
When I received the estimate from the company, the price of the doors was marked up to about $150 each, and installation charges were also higher than the price the company had cited.
Once the doors arrived, I could clearly see that a couple of them were hollow in the area where the hole had been cut for the doorknob. I asked the contractor about it and he said it was a solid-core door. But they weren’t heavy the way that I would expect a “solid” door to be.
Once I had made all payments for the doors, I asked the contractor for the receipts. He said he would provide them, but when he delivered the invoices they were just his contractor’s invoices that listed all costs together in a lump sum.
At this point, I strongly suspect that he sold me hollow-core doors and pocketed the difference. Do I have any recourse?
Your question regarding your minor home renovation raises several important legal points. The most troubling part of your letter is it appears that your contractor may have sold and charged you for solid-core doors, yet installed inferior, hollow-core doors. If this turns out to be true, such practices are likely violations of your state’s unfair and deceptive trade practices act and perhaps other statutes, as well.
In the District, the Consumer Protection Procedures Act prohibits merchants from committing deceptive and unfair practices against consumers. If you can prove a violation, you may recover: treble damages, or $1,500 per violation, whichever is greater; reasonable legal fees; punitive damages; and an injunction against the use of the unlawful trade practices.
Maryland and Virginia laws allow consumers who fall victim to deceptive trade practices to recover actual damages and attorney’s fees. The Virginia law also allows consumers to collect punitive damages.
All home renovation projects should be in writing and specify exactly which materials are to be supplied; what labor is to be performed and by whom; and who is responsible for any demolition, permits, inspections, cleanup and warranties. The contract should contain the full legal name of the person or company doing the work. It also should state that the contractor is licensed and contain all license numbers and insurance information. Copies of those policies should be attached as exhibits to the contract.
The contract should identify the deliverables to be exchanged for final payment. Deliverables include releases from the contractor, all subcontractors and all suppliers of materials to the job. Obtaining these releases is critical because if the subcontractors or suppliers are not paid for their labor or materials used on your project, they can place a lien against your home to secure their payment. Before making final payment to the contractor, make sure you receive original releases from all parties. As you discovered, another important deliverable is the written warranty. Absent an agreement to deliver these documents, the contractor is under no duty to deliver these warranties to you.
The project timeline and payment schedule should be part of the contract, as well. The timeline should state the start and completion dates. The payment schedule should track the value of the work performed up to that time. In other words, if 50 percent of the work (in terms of value) has been performed, then payment of 50 percent of the total price — less a “retainage” amount — should be paid to the contractor. A retainage — usually 10 percent of the total — is what you hold back until the job is finished.
By following these few guidelines, you may save yourself considerable hassle on your next home renovation project.
Harvey S. Jacobs is a real estate lawyer in the Rockville office of Joseph, Greenwald & Laake. He is an active real estate investor, developer, landlord, Realtor, settlement attorney and lender. This column is not legal advice and should not be acted upon without obtaining legal counsel. Jacobs can be reached at 240-399-7900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.