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State's crackdown on contractors leads to warning for consumers

In the wake of a crackdown on "unscrupulous" home improvement contractors in northern New York, the state attorney general urged homeowners to follow some basic tips and be aware of state laws designed to protect them.

Noting that the start of the summer season is a busy time for home improvement, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said consumers should make sure, above all else, that every home improvement contractor provides a written contract, signed by both parties, before starting work.

That contract, required under the state's Home Improvement Contractors Law, sets out specific information and disclosures, including what work will be done and how long it will take. The contract should also have the full name and address of the contractor.

Instead, he said, "all too often," consumers hire contractors without a contract and "end up with a much larger bill than expected, or with a project that was never started or completed."

"Homeowners need to know their rights and home improvement contractors need to obey the law," he said, a day after announcing the results of a state probe in Plattsburgh that found significant violations of state law by dozens of contractors.

Forty-seven contractors reached settlements with the state, agreeing to do work only under written contracts, putting all advance deposits into accounts at local banks, and paying penalties and costs of up to $1,500 each.

Under state law, home improvement contracts must provide proposed start and completion dates, describe the work to be done, include the materials to be provided and give notice that consumers have a three-day right to cancel the contract without penalty. Advance deposits must be kept in a separate bank account from the contractor's other funds, and the contractor must tell the consumer which bank holds the account.

Schneiderman recommended that consumers be specific about what work is to be done, learn what permits are required instead of relying on the contractor, shop around, get and check references, get proof of insurance from the contractor, check licenses, put everything in writing and never pay the full price upfront. If a contractor is reluctant to follow these requests, consumers should find another one.

He also encouraged consumers to write down the license plate number of the contractors. "That will give authorities a better way of tracking the individual down, should something go wrong," he said.