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Help at Home : Remodeling job gone sour? Insurance canceled? Don't give up. A California homeowners group is happy to be of help.

September 15, 1996|STEPHANIE O'NEILL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Stephanie O'Neill is a Los Angeles freelance writer

The remodeling job wasn't a big one; it entailed moving a washer and dryer out of Rita Lee's kitchen in her Mission Viejo home and replacing them with cabinets. The estimate was $2,200.

"I was looking forward to having this work done," Lee, a recent widow, said of the job that was expected to take about two weeks.

But her anticipation was dashed when the contractor she hired delayed the job week after week while at the same time asking for more money up front.

"I was so frustrated. I had just lost my husband, and I had this on top of it all," she said. "I was going out of my mind."

Finally, seven months later, Lee called the League of California Homeowners, an Ontario-based nonprofit consumer organization that provides education and assistance to homeowners and home buyers.

League director Ken Willis contacted an attorney on Lee's behalf and then drafted a letter to the contractor for her that outlined the regulations the contractor had violated and what actions he needed to take to avoid formal proceedings before the Contractors State License Board.

"He helped me even before I was a member," Lee said. "I had somebody on my side willing to work with me and help me, and that was a great relief."

Lee is among 5,000 mostly Southern California members of the association, which has been assisting consumers with housing-related issues since 1993.

"There are a lot of consumers out there being taken advantage of when looking for services related to their home," said Mary Irving, an executive director with the San Bernardino Fair Housing Council and board member of the league.

Irving is most involved in the league's watchdog activities, specifically the investigation of violations against companies and people who take advantage of homeowners and, if necessary, the filing of complaints against those companies.

For example, Irving is investigating a real estate investment corporation that appears to have cheated a family out of its home. At the same time, she's working to get the house back and working with the lender in an effort to restructure the home loan to keep the family in the house.

"When you have a group of persons in the industry all working together, it makes us better able to assist consumers," Irving said.

One of the areas where homeowners need the most assistance is remodeling.

An estimated 230,000 legally permitted residential remodeling projects (total value: $2.6 billion) will be done in California this year, Willis said. Of those jobs, 22,000 will result in the filing of formal complaints against contractors.

The league is helping to reduce that number by teaching consumers how to find qualified contractors and, when necessary, by providing detailed reports on contractors compiled by banks, material suppliers and insurance companies.

"What's amazing is the average homeowner can't get that information, even if they knew where to get it," said Willis, who for 15 years headed the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California.

The league's membership in the Building Industry Credit Assn. provides league members with low-cost financial information about contractors that's usually available only to banks and large builders.

"The thing we can find out for any member is whether a contractor has a lien history or any lawsuits against them by past customers," Willis said. "We can find out if they've ever gone through bankruptcy and who their partners are, if they're incorporated. For companies that are a little more substantial, we can get a TRW business profile."


Members also get education and advice through league-sponsored seminars and a newsletter. Those who need basic legal support can consult free with real estate attorneys who volunteer with the league.

Access to such information and help gave Dr. Philip Radovic, a San Clemente podiatrist, invaluable peace of mind as he began building a custom home in San Clemente.

"Like most consumers. I didn't have a lot of knowledge about it," said Radovic, who enlisted the league's help in finding a construction insurance policy and a qualified contractor. "It's a source I became comfortable with in getting reliable information that I needed."

Radovic, who became a member about a year ago, says he plans to maintain his membership after the completion of his home and take advantage of other benefits, including credit union membership and consumer discounts on a variety of services.

"It's a good resource for further insurance I'm going to need and it's a good group buying pool," said Radovic, who also receives reduced-rate cellular phone service through the league.

Jan Brice of Malibu discovered the league after deciding to undertake a major remodeling of her home. Since becoming a member, she's attended several league-sponsored remodeling workshops and found the time spent worthwhile.

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