Mass. agency Web site doesn't list contractors whose licenses have been suspended for fraud
The contractor overseeing improvements to John Bohn's neighbor's house in Wareham seemed upstanding and responsible. His work was good. He was confident and personable.
So Bohn didn't feel any apprehension in hiring the man to build him a two-car garage for $48,500.
Construction was well under way this summer before Bohn learned that his contractor, Dennis M. Bartel, was awaiting trial on charges of larceny by false pretenses from 22 customers of his former business, New Dimensions Construction of Easton.
Bartel, 39, of 133 Williams St., Taunton, was convicted on seven counts last week. He is jailed at the House of Correction pending sentencing on Nov. 15.
Bohn, meanwhile, worries that his own problems are just beginning.
While his garage is mostly finished, some subcontractors may not have been paid, making him potentially liable for thousands of dollars in additional payments.
"It just kind of makes me mad," said Bohn, who understands now the need to research contractors before hiring them.
"Especially people that smile at you and have this wonderful attitude. You can't be fooled by that," said Bohn. "You have to do your homework."
State police Detective Lt. Stephen M. O'Reilly, who investigated the Bartel case for the district attorney's office, said homeowners need to investigate contractors through every agency possible, from state regulators to the local police department.
"You have to check on these people. You can't just call them out of the yellow pages," O'Reilly said. "The thing about this guy was, he could sell ice to an iceman."
Bartel folded New Dimensions Construction in early 2005, after the state Board of Building Regulations and Standards, which oversees contractors in Massachusetts, stripped him of his construction supervisor's license and his home improvement contractor registration, and fined him $10,000.
By then, Bartel had already begun working under a new name, DB and Sons Builders, the company Bohn hired in March.
Visitors to the Web site of the Board of Building Regulations and Standards (www.mass.gov/homeimprovement can check the status of the construction supervisor's license and home improvement registration of any contractor.
But if anyone had checked for information on Dennis Bartel after 2005, nothing would have come up at all.
The board does not include license suspensions on its Web site, said spokesman Robert Anderson. Instead, homeowners are supposed to call for more information when they don't find a contractor's name, to check whether action has been taken against him.
"We have debated that back and forth," said Anderson. "We thought it was better to cause someone to call or send an e-mail for up-to-date information."
Easton Building Inspector D. Mark Trivett said he always calls the board directly (617-727-7532) when he fails to find a contractor's name on the Web site.
"If a complaint is pending, it doesn't mention that on the Web site, either," said Trivett. "So I always make the call."
Contractors aren't supposed to work without a home improvement registration, but many customers don't know that.
When Bartel obtained the building permit for Bohn's garage in April, he got around his lack of licenses by listing Bohn as the general contractor.
Technically, that is not illegal, said O'Reilly. The state building code allows homeowners to take out building permits, then pay someone to work for them.
"It's not against the law, because a homeowner can hire Joe Blow off the street to build something for him as long as the homeowner pulls a building permit," said O'Reilly.
But the law regulating home improvement contractors says that homeowners spending more than $500 on a project should have a contract with the workman. In turn, the worker should have a home improvement contractor registration number to put on the building permit.
"If you have a contract of more than $500, you're supposed to have a home improvement contractor registration," said Trivett. "The building code does allow the homeowner to pull the permit, but the home improvement contractor law does not."
Using a registered home improvement contractor benefits the consumer. In a dispute with the contractor, the homeowner can appeal to the state Arbitration Program. Its guaranty fund allows eligible homeowners to recover up to $10,000 in lost funds.
O'Reilly said homeowners should make sure contractors have both workers compensation and liability insurance.
They should then go a step further and call the insurance companies to make sure the policies are in effect, he said.
Homeowners should also pay subcontractors themselves, and pay for supplies, such as lumber and windows, directly to avoid liens, O'Reilly said.
Most of Bartel's former customers have liens on their property from National Lumber Co. of Mansfield, his main supplier of building materials. Liens can make it impossible to access construction loans, refinance or sell property.
"I've learned a big lesson in all of this myself," O'Reilly said. "Pay the suppliers yourself."
Vicki-Ann Downing can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.