On paper, it looked like a relatively simple home improvement.
Tullytown's Linda Haraburda wanted to add a new bathroom and remodel her home's old one. But eight months and several thousand dollars later, the job was still not done.
The new bathroom was just about finished, but the old one was a mess and her contractor the son of a family member's friend was never around. Haraburda also began to suspect she was never going to see the building materials she had given him money to buy.
My sister was best friends with his mom, Haraburda said, explaining how she found him. I thought he'd never [cheat] me the way he did.
Haraburda wasn't the only homeowner to encounter problems with contractor John James Vanhorn III. A number of them filed complaints about him with the Bucks County Department of Consumer Protection office, which eventually led to a criminal investigation.
Today, he's serving an 11-month prison sentence after pleading guilty to deceptive business practices and theft by deception.
That's why consumer protection officials say it is so important to carefully screen home improvement contractors before hiring them.
There are a lot of good contractors out there, but people really need to do their homework to protect themselves, said Mike Bannon, Bucks County's consumer protection director.
Last year, state Sen. Tommy Tomlinson, R-6, introduced a bill requiring all home-improvement contractors to register with the state and draw up written contracts for jobs that exceed $500. The Senate approved the bill, but it got stuck in the House Appropriations Committee.
Tomlinson said he will give the bill another shot this year.
There are no requirements in Pennsylvania that home-improvement contractors need to abide by, Bannon said. It's so important to get a contractor with references, so there's some kind of history attached to them.
There are plenty of pitfalls homeowners need to avoid when they hire someone to construct additions and remodel bathrooms, kitchens or other parts of their homes.
Even the Pennsylvania Builders Association's director of public relations wasn't immune when he remodeled his bathroom four months ago and saw a price quote that was too good to be true.
I was tempted when one bid came in at half the price of the others, said the association's Scott Elliott. You want to jump at it. ... It was one of the first ones I got back. I was drooling over it.
But rather than sign on the dotted line, Elliott took a hard look at the proposal and found several places where he thought the contractor was cutting corners. In the end, he awarded the job to a firm whose bid was easily twice the amount.
Elliott isn't saying all low bids are bad bids. He's just saying it pays to check.
Tops among home-improvement complaints are problems with general contractors, driveway contractors, plumbers, electricians, and swimming pool installers or repairers, Bannon said.
Like any other business, there are a few bad apples, Elliott said. If your contractor is looking for a 50 percent down payment, that's wrong. A 10 or 15 percent down payment is more common.
Elliott said too many customers rush to select a contractor because they're eager to get their project started. As a result, they don't screen contractors properly.
The majority of our complaints are regarding cost overruns, missed deadlines, dirt or mess left in the house, or the inconvenience of not having your kitchen or bathroom to use, Elliott said.
The Pennsylvania Builders Association holds seminars on home-improvement topics at various locations throughout the state, usually at senior centers or other community groups.
Bannon encouraged homeowners with concerns to call the county's consumer protection department, which keeps a database of complaints filed against companies.
We might be able to share some history, he said. We try to mediate. For every complaint that comes in, we attempt to contact the business and ask for a written response.
Sometimes, [complaints] are found to be unjustified, Bannon said. In other cases, they can lead to civil or criminal complaints.
Tomlinson represents Bensalem, Bristol, Bristol Township, Hulmeville, Ivyland, Langhorne, Langhorne Manor, Lower Southampton, Middletown, Northampton Penndel, Warwick and Wrightstown.
Beware of the contractor if:
- You can't verify the company's name, address or telephone number;
- Employees use high-pressure tactics to get you to sign a contract;
- The company offers unusually low prices in exchange for having you post one of its signs on your property;
- The company refuses to provide references;
- You can't verify the contractor is insured.
Your contract should include:
- A complete job description, including brand names and costs of materials;
- Start and finish dates;
- The total cost, with a breakdown of labor and materials charges;
- A payment schedule;
- All warranties and guarantees;
- Job-site cleanup details, such as who cleans and whether cleaning is included in the price
- The contractor's name, address, telephone number and professional license number.
Source: Bucks County Consumer Protection Department
For more information, visit the consumer protection section of http://www.buckscounty.org/. To order a consumer protection brochure, visit http://www.pabuilders.org/. To report a problem with a contractor, call the Bucks County Department of Consumer Protection at 215-348-7442.
John Anastasi can be reached at 215-949-4170 and at