Deb Violette did her homework before hiring a contractor to work on her Augusta home.
She searched for complaints filed with the Better Business Bureau or Attorney General’s Office. When the project started, she had good luck with the plumber, the electrician and the drywall installer.
“Then came the more technical work, which is a finish carpenter,” she said. “And that’s where my trouble began.”
After Violette paid one-third of the cost up front, the contractor stopped showing up. A few months later, she realized he had no intention of doing the work.
She won a court judgement to get her money back, but “sadly he defaulted on that too.”
“I am a senior citizen living on a fixed income who saved money over the years to complete this project,” she said. “My experience is just one of thousands of Maine homeowners who have experienced fraudulent behavior.”
Violette — and several others — told their stories to state lawmakers Tuesday at a hearing on a bill to create a licensing system for residential contractors. The bill, LD 1929, requires contractors to be licensed if they perform work that totals more than $7,500 and sets up a licensing board to oversee new requirements.
It also proposes insurance coverage and education requirements.
Bill sponsor Rep. Tiffany Roberts (D-North Berwick) said she’s not targeting the neighborhood handyman. She’s concerned that too many Mainers are being taken advantage of by unscrupulous home building contractors.
It’s the seventh time in the last 15 years that lawmakers have considered similar contractor licensing bills. Across the country, 35 other states have licenses or registries for contractors.
With old housing stock and the oldest median age in the country, Mainers are particularly vulnerable to bad actors, Robertson said.
“By not licensing contractors we are putting an unnecessary burden on our most vulnerable consumers who may not have the means to be able to go through the required work of vetting a builder in our current unregulated environment,” she said.
In addition, with the current lack of housing, lawmakers passed measures last year to encourage more residential building projects, which will put more pressure on builders and consumers, she said.
Since 2018, the attorney general’s office has received more than 3,300 complaints totaling more than $12 million of unfinished or shoddy work, said Assistant Attorney General Christina Moylan. She testified in strong support of the bill.
“Consumers have very little bargaining power when it comes to hiring a contractor, so when things go wrong, the loss usually falls completely on the consumer,” Moylan said.
But on the opposing side, the Mills Administration testified against the bill, with the head of the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation saying “it is unclear which problem this bill seeks to resolve.”
“If the goal is to address the fact that unqualified persons are doing substandard work in Maine homes, this bill does little to ensure that potential licensees are any more qualified with a license than they were without a license,” said Anne Head, commissioner of the department.
And if the goal is to address fraud, the bill doesn’t strengthen the state’s ability to enforce current law through the attorney general’s office, she said.
Other opponents included the Maine Policy Institute, Maine Association of Realtors, and the Associated Builders and Contractors of Maine.
For the Realtors, it’s a matter of balancing consumer protections with the vital need to build more homes, said Andy Cashman, who represents the association.
He also noted that licensing requirements for plumbers and electricians, and oversight by local ordinances, give consumers some layer of protection.
“This for us is really a matter of timing,” Cashman said. “Because of the housing crisis that we have now it’s a balance between consumer protection, consumer safety and whether or not we’re able to build the houses we need to get out of the crisis.”
Robertson told fellow lawmakers that she is willing to continue to work with stakeholders on the legislation over the summer to give more time for input and adjustments.
But she’s not giving up.
“If not now, when?” she said. “How much worse does it need to get?”