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Byline: Heesun Wee Daily News Staff Writer

Imagine turning your home into that dream house you've always wanted.

You hire a contractor. But one of that contractor's employees falls off your roof. When the ambulance arrives, the contractor disappears. And as Murphy's Law would have it, your insurance policy doesn't cover workers' compensation costs. So what was supposed to be a $20,000 to $25,000 job turns into a $200,000 nightmare - with no remodeled house to show for it.

This is a true story, and variations of it happen more often than you'd think, according to building and remodeling consumer-rights advocates.

While remodeling's appeal continues to grow, with Americans shelling out about $112 billion toward home maintenance, repair and improvements in 1995, according to Washington, D.C.-based Remodeling magazine, many homeowners who begin with good intentions end up disillusioned and poorer.

In 1996, more than 33,000 disgruntled homeowners filed complaints with the Contractors State License Board in California. About 25,000 of those complaints, or about 75 percent, were gripes about remodeling contractors.

``Homeowners need to remember, they should approach hiring a contractor the same way an employer would approach hiring a new employee,'' said Ken Willis, president of the Ontario-based League of California Homeowners, a consumer-rights group. ``You can't get away from the homework, and you're a fool if you try.''

Ask the experts

To help homeowners avoid common mistakes during remodeling and building projects, the league is co-sponsoring a free Home Improvement Workshop July 19 at the Woodland Hills Hilton Hotel.

``Our goal is to enable the homeowner to learn how to avoid some of the common difficulties which are so often experienced,'' Willis said.

The workshop will include a panel of experts covering a variety of topics, including planning, budgeting, saving energy, hiring a contractor, contracts and mechanics liens.

If you've already been swindled, don't feel bad. Seemingly no one is immune to home-improvement woes - not even the rich and famous.

Television mogul Aaron Spelling (creator of ``Beverly Hills, 90210,'' ``Charlie's Angels'' and ``The Love Boat'') and his family are suing the contractor of their 45-room, 56,500-square-foot chateau in Holmby Hills that cost about $35 million to create about six years ago.

The Spellings are seeking $770,000, the amount they're spending to replace the leaking roof with lead-coated copper, plus an unspecified amount in punitive damages. Other problems with the home, Spelling contends in his lawsuit, include bowling balls that are too heavy for a single-lane computerized alley and a toilet set in front of a window ``so that the user would be directly visible.'' The tile work on the pool also was shoddy, according to the Spellings. A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge is presiding over the case.

Common mistakes

Sure, there are many legitimate contractors, architects and other home-building and renovation professionals. But there are a lot of crooks, too, who often take advantage of unprepared homeowners and senior citizens, Willis said.

Willis added one of the most common errors homeowners make is assuming too much. The most well-prepared homeowners approach potential workers with lots of questions and stand their ground. ``People who are not easily intimidated, these predator contractors will back off and avoid them,'' he said.

Some of the most common remodeling and building pitfalls are easy to avoid. Experts advise homeowners to:

Plan your project thoroughly: Many homeowners ``start making changes as the work is in progress, which causes problems,'' Willis said.

Draft a well-written contract: A contract should include, for example, payment schedules designed to protect homeowners, said Larry Chafe, acting regional deputy for the Contractors State License Board in Glendale. A poorly written contract will simply state that, for example, ``one-third of payment will be made when half the project is completed.'' A better statement, said Chafe, would be ``when the foundation and electrical wiring is complete, (a specific amount of money) will be paid.''

Get it in writing: ``Oral agreements are the biggest bane to homeowners,'' Chafe said.

Check your contractor's licensing status: Every contractor doing more than $300 worth of work must be licensed with the Contractors State License Board. The board also keeps records on subcontractors. Seek out at least three current references. And longtime contractors and subcontractors should have good credit with local vendors such as a lumber supply company.

Constance Labadie of Canyon Country, a high school teacher, wishes she had spoken to experts like Chafe and Willis before she and her husband, Howard, embarked on an effort to build their dream home in Acton earlier this year.

The Labadies met an architect at a home show in March and concluded he was the ideal candidate to draw up plans for their home. In the following weeks, they handed over $4,000. As of last week, they were still waiting to see plans.

She has been on the telephone since, trying to track down the architect and get the plans or her money back. Meanwhile, the couple's lot remains empty. Constance Labadie said she's in the middle of trying to resolve the situation with the architect.

In retrospect, she said her biggest mistakes were not insisting on meeting the architect at his office and not checking at least five of his current references thoroughly.

``This is a huge loss,'' she said, ``and right at the beginning.''

The Facts

The event: Home Improvement Workshop.

Where: Woodland Hills Hilton Hotel, 6360 Canoga Ave.

When: 9:15 a.m. to noon July 19.

Sponsors: The League of California Homeowners, the Gas Co., the California Home Energy Efficiency Rating System and the law firm of Wolf, Rifkin & Shapiro.

Admission: Free.

Information/reservations: (800) 692-4663. Consumer data also is available on the league's Web site at


5 Photos

Photo: (1 -- 2 -- color) On the cover: The Getty House in Hancock Park, the official residence of the mayor of Los Angeles, before and after its renovation about two years ago.

Evan Yee/Daily News

(3) Constance Labadie holds the architect's contract she signed. Some $4,000 later, she's still waiting for plans, and her Acton lot is still empty.

(4) Television mogul Aaron Spelling and his family are suing the contractor of their 45-room, 56,500-square-foot Holmby Hills chateau, which was built six years ago at a cost of about $35 million.

Craig Mailloux/Daily News

(5) The Spellings are seeking $770,000, the amount they're spending to replace the leaking roof with lead-coated copper, plus an unspecified amount in punitive damages.

Craig Mailloux/Daily News
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 12, 1997

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