State steps toward licensing home repair contractors
Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D-Gloucester) speaks on the Assembly floor on June 29, 2022. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)
Jason Gewirtz just wanted new windows.
Months and more than $90,000 later, a fraction of the work was done, and his contractor had all but disappeared and would not return to see the job completed.
“He took the money, and we didn’t know what he did until we hired an attorney about a year and a half later,” Gewirtz told lawmakers on the Assembly Consumer Affairs Committee Thursday. “The first thing we did was subpoena his checks and his bank account. We found out that right after we wrote that third check, he did pay for a $35,000 Sweet 16 party for one of his daughters.”
Gewirtz’s story isn’t unique. Legislators heard different versions of that same tale from a series of residents Thursday, as they considered a measure that would strengthen state oversight of contractors.
Jody Stewart, a community organizer with the New Jersey Resource Project who is married to a retired contractor, recounted the tale of an 84-year-old neighbor from Little Egg Harbor who faced similar fraud in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.
“She hired a contractor who she thought was legitimate. One of the partners was a lawyer, so who wouldn’t believe it?” she said. “The same 84-year-old woman is still not in her home and will never get her home. We still look at her house up in the air with no siding, no insulation, and no windows.”
The neighbor bounced from apartment to apartment after her contractor disappeared, and now the federal government is seeking to claw back her disaster recovery grants because the work on her home was never completed, Stewart said.
The bill sponsored by Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D-Gloucester), who chairs the consumer affairs panel, would create new rules for contractors, along with a state board to enforce them. It cleared the committee in a unanimous vote.
Under the legislation, anyone providing home improvement or elevation services in New Jersey would have to obtain a license to practice from the nine-member board, as well as insurance and a compliance bond or similar security, worth $10,000 to $50,000, to demonstrate financial stability and make customers whole if a contractor disappears.
New contractors would have to have a high school or GED diploma and complete an apprenticeship program or spend two years working under the supervision of a license contractor, while contractors already working would have ongoing training requirements.
“The state has failed to protect homeowners that have home repairs by not having a system in place to license home contractors and make sure that they have some level of expertise. I think this is long overdue,” Moriarty said. “It should’ve been done long ago.”
New Jersey currently requires all home repair contractors to register with the Department of Consumer Affairs — but they only need a license from the Department of Banking and Insurance if their services are financed. Those that accept only cash or credit card payments do not need licenses.
Moriarty’s bill would allow contractors who have been registered with the state for at least five years to forgo licensing initially, although they would have to obtain a license once their registration lapses.
The chairman more than once compared the state’s oversight of home repair contracting with that of other fields, like nail and hair salons, whose services are far less expensive but are subject to stricter state regulation.
“Those people have to have hours of training, and they have to pass a test, and they have to obtain a license to paint my nail, but if I’m going to pound a nail and build a $100,000 extension to your house all I have to do is have a business license? It’s preposterous,” he said.
The bill appears to have a smooth path into law. While it faced some opposition from business groups during a June hearing, amendments that reduced the level of the required bond, tied the same to a contractor’s size, and made various technical changes appear to have largely assuaged critics.
“This bill is now a major step forward by holding contractors more accountable while raising the bar to better ensure only qualified professionals are working in our field, professionals that will be required to continue their education as they gain experience and expertise in the field,” said Tom Bovino, president of the New Jersey Builders Association, a trade group.
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