- Contractor state registration numbers should be prominently displayed on all advertisements and contracts.
- A home improvement contractor must carry a minimum insurance policy of $50,000 for property damage, $50,000 personal injury.
- Customers have a three-day period after signing a contract to rescind the deal, unless the customer waives that right in writing.
- Written contracts are required with approximate start and completion dates.
- Contracts must include a description of materials and the names and telephone numbers of all subcontractors, unless the subcontractors have not been chosen at the time of a contract's execution.
Wednesday, May 6, 2015
Contractor faces trial for allegedly ripping off Falls homeowner
Posted: Wednesday, April 29, 2015
Did You Know?
A Falls homeowner says a contractor took $50,000 to build a second-floor addition then gave her nothing but excuses for construction delays. The Trenton contractor, though, contends that he was waiting for necessary permits when he was booted from the job.
So is it a crime or a contract dispute?
District Judge Jan Vislosky was tasked with deciding whether the case should be heard in criminal court during a preliminary hearing Wednesday for contractor Roman Chmielinski, 55.
Homeowner Alice Torres hired Chmielinski in June and not only paid him the $50,000 upfront but also $5,000 for blueprints for the $155,000 addition she wanted on the Lebbie Lane home, according to police. When September arrived and no work had been started or materials dropped off, Torres fired Chmielinski and demanded he return her money.
When that didn’t happen, she filed a theft report with police in October.
On the witness stand Wednesday, Torres testified that she regularly contacted Chmielinski asking when the work would start, but he always had an excuse. He was waiting for building permits or the architect didn’t include items in the blueprints, she said.
Defense attorney Stanton Lacks maintained that Torres was impatient. The second-floor addition was a major construction project, he said. Also she agreed to the terms of the contract by paying his client, who told her that he didn’t give refunds, Lacks said.
“He told you he was working on it,” Lacks said to Torres during her cross examination.
“Three months?” Torres replied.
“He told you he was working on it,” Lacks repeated.
Torres countered that she never signed a contract with Chmielinski, and the one she saw did not include a timetable for completing the construction. Pennsylvania requires home improvement contracts include approximate start and finish dates or they are considered invalid.
Falls Detective Michael Callahan testified that Chmielinski told him in November that he conducted a soil check at the home and inspected support beams in preparation for construction. He also claimed to be waiting for permits to start work, the detective said.
“He did express interest in finishing the job,” Callahan added.
Chmielinski claimed it is “common business practice” not to offer refunds, but that he would give Torres back her money within a week, but he didn’t, Callahan testified.
In court documents, Chmielinski claimed that he didn’t have the money. He said someone broke into his home and stole $185,000, including Torres’ $50,000, according to an affidavit of probable cause. The theft was never reported, according to police.
Lacks told the court that all charges against his client should be dismissed because the dispute is a civil, not criminal matter. He argued that prosecutors failed to prove his client intended to deceive or deprive Torres.
“At the moment she fires him, it becomes a civil issue,” Lacks said.
Three months is not a lot of time to secure necessary permits for such a project, Lacks said. Also, he said Chmielinski didn’t avoid contact with Torres, which shows that he had no intent to deceive her or not complete the work.
“The fact she didn’t want to wait three months is on her,” he added. “He was trying to do the work. It was never his intent to steal the money and not do the work.”
But Bucks County prosecutor Kate Byrne countered that accepting money and performing no work is the definition of home improvement fraud.
“What he did was fraudulent. He was never upfront,” she said.
Chmielinski cashed the $50,000 check the day after it was written, but there is no evidence he bought materials, started construction or attempted to get the necessary permits, Byrne added.
“As far as we know, he is in possession of the $50,000,” she said.
After hearing the witnesses, Vislosky sided with the prosecution, holding Chmielinski for trial on all charges including felony theft by deception, deceitful business practices, false statement to induce an agreement for home improvement services and receiving stolen property. He remains free on $75,000 unsecured bail.
Chmielinski is a registered contractor in Pennsylvania under the name Roman the Building & General Contractor.
What the Pennsylvania Home Improvement Law says:
Contractors who perform at least $5,000 worth of home improvement work are required to provide detailed background information including criminal complaints, civil judgments and bankruptcy filings. Contractor information is available through the state Attorney General’s Office maintained online registry, where individuals can verify that a contractor is registered.
Five things you should know about your rights under the law:
Source: Bucks County Consumer Protection Department