'Fine print' law worries Illinois contractors

OAKBROOK TERRACE, IL — The homeowner has a faulty furnace in the dead of winter. A contractor quickly installs a new one that works fine.

The next morning, the homeowner tells a neighbor about his purchase. The neighbor says, “Boy, did you get ripped. My brother-in-law could have done the job for half the price.”

The homeowner immediately calls the contractor demanding the new furnace be removed so the neighbor’s in-law can work his magic. The homeowner also launches some legal maneuverings to get his money back.

Although this scenario hasn’t played out to such an extent, it remains a possibility because of a decades-old “Three-Day Right-to-Cancel” law in Illinois.

It is a “fine print” law that, as of the first of this year, is required to be explained in more detail by the contractor closing a deal with a consumer. A similar law was enacted in Philadelphia in 1998 (The News, April 27, 1998). In that case, a law giving consumers three days in which to cancel a sale, was expanded to include service and repair work.

Some Illinois contractors are concerned that a higher profile given to the law (in the form of consumer pamphlets and invoice notices) will motivate less-than-scrupulous homeowners to wheel and deal after the fact.

Meant for high-pressure sales

The contractors also argue that the Right to Cancel law was originally aimed at door-to-door, high-pressure encyclopedia salesmen, whose “product” could be returned and refunded much easier than a high-efficiency furnace, or even a blower motor.

Some 70 contractors turned out recently for a chapter meeting of the Northern Illinois Air Conditioning Contractors of America (NIACCA) to hear a representative of the State Attorney’s Office and a lobbyist hired by NIACCA explain the issue.

The contractors’ concern was both self-interest and the fear that abuse of the law by homeowners could spread from state to state.

Charles Fergus, chief of the Chicago Consumer Fraud Division of the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, led attendees through the labyrinth of the law. He contended that the state legislature has provided exceptions that should protect reputable contractors.

Fergus said one target of the law is less-than-honorable, fly-by-night home repairers. He said there were 2,000 complaints in the state related to home repairs in 1999.

“There is no licensing, no training required. A guy can walk out of his house, buy a hammer, and be in the home repair business,” Fergus said.

One thing a contractor can do before work starts, he said, is to get the consumer to put in writing that s/he will waive the right to cancel. Fergus also said the right to cancel pertains to decisions made face to face in the home, and is not related to telephone deals.

Fergus said this is designed to curb high-pressure sales tactics. “I can hang up the telephone on you. It is harder to throw you out of my house,” he said.

Contractors pose many questions

Contractors in the audience continued to bombard Fergus with “what if” questions.

One contractor pointed to the newest requirement that the contractor give the consumer a statement to sign stating that the consumer has received a “Know Your Consumer Rights” pamphlet.

One contractor said, “You are opening a Pandora’s Box that will come back to haunt us.”

Steve Morrill, the lobbyist hired by NIACCA, noted that “The law is never black and white. The law is never precise. That is why trade associations are formed.”

He said a meeting is planned for April, at which NIACCA representatives will discuss the law with representatives of the state attorney general’s office and the legislature.

“If a law has a negative effect on legitimate contractors, the legislature can change that statute,” Morrill said.

Chris Colditz of Laco Mechanical Services, Palatine, IL, and NIACCA president, said the confusion over and possible pitfalls of the Right to Cancel Act should be a call to arms for contractors to be involved in their trade association.

“If you are not active, we can’t be proactive. We need your support. If that happens, in five years there will not be one legislative law that affects us that we have not signed off on.

“What’s coming up in the future, we can grab hold of and make it work for us.”

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