Monday, October 30, 2000

Shady contractors prey on consumers

The Associated Press

        MENTOR, Ohio — Home builders and remodelers go unregulated in Ohio and 18 other states at a time when the industry is in demand, leaving consumers vulnerable, state and industry officials say.

        The six Ohio chapters of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry for the first time have agreed to support legislation that would require home remodelers to register with the state. They're working on a proposal with the Ohio attorney general's office.

        Driving their effort are stories such as those of Marlene Zuccaro.

        Ms. Zuccaro hired a contractor in 1998 to build her a home in Mentor, near Cleveland. Two years later, she has filed for bankruptcy and is fighting creditors who want to seize the unfinished home to pay her contractor's debts.

        A background check, which included contacting the state attorney general's office, failed to disclose any problems, in part because the company had recently changed its name to Jewell Contracting.

        “I checked everything out and there was nothing there,” Ms. Zuccaro said.

        In fact, builder Peter Musarra, while using other business names, previously had been ordered to pay judgments totaling $67,000 to four customers, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer reported Sunday.

        Also, seven customers had complained to the state attorney general's office between 1994 and 1997 that Mr. Musarra had used deceptive sales practices, performed shoddy work or failed to perform at all, the newspaper said.

        His companies had changed names at least seven times in 15 years.

        Mr. Musarra has said he had sold the company to another man and was acting only as a salesman in 1998, the newspaper reported.

        He could not be reached for comment Sunday. The newspaper reported he had moved out of an apartment in Beachwood, Ohio. No forwarding telephone listing was available.

        Consumers are having trouble getting experienced contractors because of success in the industry. Brenda Callaghan, executive director of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, said a building trades shortage has opened the field to people who see an opportunity to make quick money.

        “In Ohio, anybody can put on a tool belt and call themselves a contractor,” Ms. Callaghan said.

        The building and remodeling industry has consistently made the attorney general's list of the top 10 consumer complaints, second to car sales, the newspaper said.

        The attorney general's office tries to mediate consumer problems, but it does not have the power to force contractors to fix poor work.

        Regulation may stop problems quickly, said Helen MacMurray, chief of the attorney general's consumer protection section.

        She said she favors registration over licensing, because registration is used more as a tracking device to see who is behind a company and where they are doing business. Licensing can give states greater control over performance issues and a state can use the threat of revoking a license to force a contractor to resolve consumer problems.


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- Shady contractors prey on consumers