County considers ways to protect homeowners from shoddy contractors

Posted 1/13/22

After hearing complaints about some contractors getting away with shoddy work, Park County commissioners are considering how they can help protect rural homeowners.

On Tuesday, commissioners …

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County considers ways to protect homeowners from shoddy contractors


After hearing complaints about some contractors getting away with shoddy work, Park County commissioners are considering how they can help protect rural homeowners.

On Tuesday, commissioners discussed how they might get every project to follow standard building codes — though there remained serious questions about how far the county can go without incurring big costs.

“There’s a public outcry to do something,” said Park County Commission Chair Dossie Overfield, “but trying to decide what to do is a little tough.”

Tuesday’s discussion was prompted by public feedback that followed a recent two-part series in the Powell Tribune. Titled “Left without recourse,” the package highlighted multiple examples of how homeowners had no effective legal options after suffering financial losses from paid contractors that they say did substandard work or didn’t perform the work they were paid to do.

The stories focused in part on Dan and Jen Catone, who hired a contractor in 2019 to build a home in rural Powell. After a series of delays, cost overruns and failures to follow basic construction standards, the Catones say they were left with a house that was at risk of collapsing, among other problems. The couple says they’ll eventually have to demolish the structure and, despite attempts to pursue the contractor civilly and criminally, will be unable to recoup roughly $500,000 worth of losses.

There are several steps that could have been taken that might have helped protect the Catones, such as if they’d signed a formal contract with their builder. It’s also likely that, if the project had been required to undergo an inspection, the most serious issues with the structure would have been detected.

Construction projects within the City of Powell and the City of Cody are subject to inspections to ensure compliance with building codes. But that’s not the case in rural Park County, where inspecting all the projects across the sprawling area would be much more of an undertaking — and expense.

“I hate to use the ‘buyer beware,’ because people get pissed when I say that,” County Planning Director Joy Hill said. “But quite frankly, at some point, people need to take on a little responsibility themselves for these big dollar projects that they’re doing, because we can’t handhold them through all of that at no expense to the county.”

Commissioner Overfield suggested it would likely take two staffers to inspect all the projects from the South Fork to Garland, plus additional staff time to schedule the visits.

“We’re talking [about] growing government quickly,” she said of such a scenario.

Not only would inspections slow the construction process, property owners would likely foot the bill for the added staff through substantially higher fees. As an example, putting up a complex of new storage units on the City of Powell’s eastern edge last summer brought $3,350 in city fees, whereas the county would have charged $100 if the project had been outside city limits.

Among the commissioners on Tuesday, there appeared to be zero interest in copying the municipalities and hiring inspectors, with Commissioner Lloyd Thiel suggesting the county could instead advise homeowners to hire a private inspector.

But he also wants the county to take some action. Thiel specifically suggested putting language on the county’s building permits that says structures must be built to the Uniform/International Building Code.

While 99% of contractors are excellent, “there’s a bad apple now and then and they’re able to get away with stuff because we don’t have any building codes in Park County,” Thiel said in an interview.

Currently, if a contractor takes shortcuts or otherwise does a shoddy job, Thiel said they can respond, “I did nothing wrong, because there’s no rules I have to follow.”

While property owners also need to protect themselves, Thiel said adding language about building codes to the county’s permits would “at least give the homeowner some meat in a civil suit, saying my contractor did not follow the basics.” Following those codes would not be a problem for the overwhelming majority of contractors, he added, as “99% of them already exceed these.”

The new requirement could be worded in a way that the county doesn’t assume any liability, Thiel said, though other commissioners questioned how that could be done.

“I’m very much in favor of what you’re talking about,” said Commissioner Joe Tilden. “I’m just not sure who enforces it.”

Commissioner Overfield added that “we all understand what the reasoning is and why it needs to happen” and “I think maybe there is some wording that we can do.”

However, “the tough part is the wording of ‘requirement,’” she said, “because when the county requires something, we are responsible to follow through to make sure it happens.”

Overfield suggested the county might only be able to advise homeowners that their projects should be built to international standards.

“At least it puts it in their mind to make sure that those things are being followed,” she said.

Commissioner Scott Mangold wondered if the county’s building permit application could perhaps just ask whether the basic codes are being followed.

Planning Director Hill said the county cannot require projects to be built to certain standards unless that requirement is publicly reviewed and formally added to the county’s rules. As for making a recommendation that projects follow the code, there’s “some gray area there as to whether that’s going to be something we want to be doing or not,” she said.

Hill added that, if homeowners sign a contract, they can require their builders to follow standard codes.

“It seems like the buyer has the option to protect themselves through their own contract,” she said.

Commissioners and staff plan to consult County Attorney Bryan Skoric and his office about possible changes they can make to their building permit applications to aid homeowners.

“I believe ... something would be better than nothing,” Thiel said.