January 28, 2013

Portland handyman case puts new focus on builders

Maine has no registration and licensing system for builders and contractors who do home repairs.

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Last week's civil trial of a handyman from Portland who allegedly bilked more than a dozen customers out of thousands of dollars with shoddy or unreliable work has renewed concern about Maine's regulation of general contractors.

click image to enlarge

Daniel Tucci

John Ewing / Staff Photographer

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TIPS FOR HOMEOWNERS

PRICE SHOULD NOT be the only factor in selecting a contractor for home- improvement work, say building trade groups and consumer protection advocates. Contractors deserve just as much scrutiny as other service providers. Some tips from the National Association of State Contractors Licensing Agencies:

Request two or three estimates for the same job.

Check at least three references of past work.

Pay no more than one-third of the total cost upfront.

Don't pay for incomplete work, and don't pay in cash.

Keep copies of all contracts, receipts and paperwork.

Maine is among 20 states without registration and licensing systems for builders and contractors who do home repairs, says the National Association of State Contractors Licensing Agencies. That leaves many homeowners to rely on word of mouth, family connections and informal avenues to find worthy contractors.

"We tend to be overly trusting," said Chip Davison, president of the Maine Contractors and Builders Alliance, an industry group that favors stronger standards for builders.

Mainers often like to employ other Mainers, Davison said, which can leave them open to abuse.

"We deal with this all the time in the building world. I still go into a lot of places now and have to fix poor quality workmanship," Davison said.

That sense of trust led many customers to believe Daniel Tucci, 54, of Portland when he told them he could complete virtually all manner of home repairs.

From roof patching to basement waterproofing, Tucci's claims of expertise led many into expensive home construction boondoggles, the state claims in a lawsuit seeking as much as $235,656 in damages for 13 of Tucci's jobs.

Attorneys in the case made closing arguments Friday, ending a four-day trial in Cumberland County Superior Court. Justice Joyce Wheeler will consider the evidence and decide whether Tucci should be barred by the state from taking home-improvement jobs in the future.

Wheeler's decision could take weeks, said the Maine Attorney General's Office's Consumer Protection Division, which sued Tucci.

State Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, plans to propose legislation that would license general contractors. It's the latest attempt to keep tabs on the trade. An effort in 2010 passed in the House but failed in the Senate.

Patrick said he is awaiting input from trade groups before finalizing the language of his bill.

"I don't think that, with the way the economy is, anyone can afford being ripped off," said Patrick, Senate chair of the Legislature's Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee.

The state has adopted the Maine Uniform and Building and Energy Code, which took effect July 1, setting higher standards for insulation, radon gas mitigation and more for new homes and commercial buildings.

Communities with fewer than 4,000 residents are exempt, but the code provides a foundation on which future license tests could be based.

"Even in professions where the state requires licensing, such as for electrical and plumbing work, we see many cases like the Tucci case where the work is done without the proper license and with disregard for the law," Attorney General Janet Mills said in a prepared statement. "It is very important for consumers to be cautious and take extra steps to protect themselves."

Consumers in Maine do have some legal recourse. Work for any price over $3,000 must be done under a contract that includes provisions for warranty of work, price, and description of the work to be done.

Customers of handymen or general contractors can take them to small claims court if the disputed work cost less than $6,000. Larger amounts usually require a personal attorney, according to state guidelines.

Of the 30 states that require general contractors to get licenses or register with the state, California has one of the oldest and most stringent laws. Bonding -- when a third party guarantees that a job will be done -- is required for as much as $12,500 for all general contractors.

If Maine had such a provision, many of the 13 Mainers in the lawsuit against Tucci could have had a chance to see some of their money returned without years of litigation.

"If you open a restaurant, you have to have a license. If you want to be a lobster fisherman, you have to have a license," said Davison, with the Maine Contractors and Builders Alliance. "Now, when we're talking about spending $400,000 for a house ... you don't have to be anything."

Staff Writer Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

mbyrne@pressherald.com

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