People like Leslie Irias and Mario Ramirez are why the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition (MCRC) is adamantly opposed to House Bill 1327. In 2006, the conmen tricked an elderly couple out of $90,000 by posing as licensed contractors. Instead of adding another level to Rolondo Zapata's meager, one-story home so he would have more room to care for his disabled son, Irias and Ramirez took the money and disappeared. As of last month both men are incarcerated, but MCRC fears House Bill 1327 has the potential to send innocent homeowners like Zapata to jail along with the imposters.
Proposed by Del. Victor Ramirez, if approved, the bill would forbid homeowners from entering into home improvement agreements with unlicensed contractors and prevent them from arguing against paying the worker because they are unlicensed. Because the current law states that an unlicensed contractor cannot legally enforce a contact, the legislation is an incentive for contractors to become licensed. To Ramirez's denial, MCRC Executive Director Marceline White also said the bill could send homeowners to prison for six months or fine them $1 thousand for unknowingly hiring unlicensed home improvement contractors.
"It looks like it's protecting contractors but what it does is penalize homeowners," White said.
Ramirez become concerned after learning some homeowners had taken advantage of unlicensed contractors by accepting their services but refusing to pay for the job and proposed the bill as a solution.
"But the complaints are much higher in the other direction," White said. "Con artists prey on older homeowners; they offer to do work that you can't tell very easily if it's been done, like fixing the roof. I think it's a real issue [Ramirez] is raising but this is not the tool to address that problem. This is far too big a hammer for what needs a tap."
While Ramirez said the bill outlines "common sense" provisions, he said it mentions nothing about homeowners be fined or jailed for any reason and has no idea where White got such an idea. However, the bill's fiscal and policy note states that "homeowners may be fined up to $1,000 or imprisoned for up to six month for violating the bill's provisions."
"We're not trying to hurt consumers," Ramirez said. "If anything, we're trying to make sure there's no incentive for people not to get a home improvement license. The real issues is we have homeowners who go out of their way to do this. To me, it protects both sides."
Ramirez said the bill protects everyday people by making sure all home improvement contractors are licensed by the state. Some homeowners have been ripped off by contractors with false licenses, he recognizes, but he has also seen the tables turned.
"If [homeowners] enter into a home improvement contract with a person who is not licensed, the owner may not argue with the fact that they don't have to pay the person," Ramirez said. "If someone presents to you a fake [license], then this would not apply."
Investigator John Creel of the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection receives a couple of cases regarding unlicensed contractors a month and thinks the statement within the fiscal and policy note is "ridiculous." He calls House Bill 1327 the "lock up grandma bill."
"If this is passed as it's written, grandma goes to jail," Creel said. "The argument that Delegate Ramirez made is that homeowners take advantage of unlicensed contracotrs. I've been in the job for 28 years and six months. I can count on two fingers how many homeowners have tried to take advantage of unlicensed contractors."