No quick fix for builders' license law

January 27, 2000

For most people, buying a home is probably the most expensive - and the most important - purchase they'll ever make. And yet in this state, no license is needed to go into the home-building business. Local homebuilders think that's crazy, considering the fact that if you want to do something as simple as putting new stairs on an existing home's back porch, you need a license from the Maryland Home Improvement Commission.

And so, last year, the Washington County Homebuilders Association worked with the County Commissioners and the Maryland General Assembly to pass a law that would enable local jurisdictions to pass builder licensing programs. But after more than a year of work, the group was startled recently when the commissioners decided to delay action until the sponsors of two competing bills can reconcile their differences.

And so a member sent me a copy of a letter of protest sent to the commissioners by James Parker, the homebuilders' group president. The letter said that the county and the homebuilders had agreed in 1998 to work together on a draft that would allow Washington County to set up its own licensing law.


Then, Parker said, even though they'd previously agreed that a locally run program made more sense than a statewide system, the county board on Jan. 18 decided to hold off until they saw what sort of a compromise bill state lawmakers could devise.

The person who sent me Parker's letter said the small homebuilders fear that if a statewide system is put in place, the big-city builders will succeed in requiring everyone who's licensed to post a tremendous performance bond. That would effectively squeeze the little guys out of the market, he said.

Not so, said David Corey Sr., three-time past president of the local homebuilders' group. What local builders really fear is that if the commission is enacted statewide, it will be as ineffective as the Home Improvement Commission. Corey called that agency a "breeder reactor" that exists only to perpetuate itself through the collection of fees while providing no enforcement activity to speak of.

There is precedent for a local licensing procedure for homebuilders. Montgomery County already has a system in place, and the legislation proposed by state Sen. Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore City, would reportedly exempt Montgomery and Washington counties. As of Wednesday morning, the bill was still being drafted and had not yet been introduced.

According to Debi Turpin, executive vice president of the homebuilders, the draft worked on with county staffers would have required a person being licensed to have one or more of the following: Five years' experience in the trade, a license from a county that does require one, "or you'd have to take a test."

Turpin also said that the ordinance would include performance guidelines, and a procedure for arbitration, so that, for example, a person whose basement floor developed deep cracks would have some recourse.

Corey said he feels that once the commissioners and staff began looking at the possibility that they might have to add people to administer the ordinance, they decided to hold off and see if the state was willing to shoulder the burden instead.

It's a disappointment, said Corey and Turpin, because the agency gets a couple of phone calls each week from someone who's unhappy with what their builder has done.

"I just talked to woman whose home had apparently been backfilled improperly and now the foundation is crumbling," Turpin said.

These complaints aren't being generated by local homebuilders association members, she said, but by outsiders who convince the unwary that they know what they're doing.

Commissioner Bert Iseminger, the only member of the county board I could reach during Tuesday's snowstorm, said there's no reason for the homebuilders to conclude that the county is abandoning their cause.

"There are some issues with the proposed legislation, and we want to step back and see what comes out of these bills. And we want to see what the administrative costs would be. We're going to discuss it with the delegation," Iseminger said.

To keep down costs, my first thought would be to hire a inspector on an hourly basis, so the county wouldn't be on the hook for that employee's pension, benefits and health care.

My second thought is that state regulators are less apt to get excited about the rights of Western Marylanders than those citizens of the state's more urban counties. In Prince George's County, for example, how long would the state have allowed a local municipality to dump raw sewage into a stream, as Hagerstown did for years in Hamilton Run?

Not long, I'd bet. My advice for the commissioners is that if they're going to allow the state to collect fees from local tradespeople, they ought to make sure those folks get more than a licensing certificate for their money.

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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