New federal home renovation rules aimed at protecting against lead poisoning are threatening to cripple the already beleaguered home remodeling industry.
Tampa Bay area contractors increasingly are opting out of renovating older homes that contain lead paint, because they say the new rules that took effect in April are too onerous, costly and risky because of liability issues.
There's no debate about the harmful effects of lead paint poisoning, which can cause learning difficulties, behavioral problems and hyperactivity in children, as well as contribute to high blood pressure and a loss of sex drive in adults.
But contractors say the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's new rules have so many requirements that consumers face added costs ranging from 10 to 40 percent more for a renovation project. Contractors who fail to meet the requirements face fines of more than $30,000 for each violation.
Reputable contractors are opting not to renovate or remodel homes built before 1978, the cutoff date for mandatory testing for lead paint, said Tom Tafelski, owner of Thomas Construction in Largo, who has been in the contracting business for 40 years.
"We have refused to do one of them," Tafelski said of an older home found to contain lead.
Steve Gleaton, of Steve's Windows & Doors, said so far two out of 10 homes he has tested contained lead. If there is lead present, he refuses to take the job, costing him 20 percent of his business, or as much as $200,000 a year.
"The liabilities are just too huge," said Gleaton, noting the potential for lawsuits if a single rule is not followed during lead abatement. "The potential risk to me and my company, it's not worth it."
Under the new rules, any interior remodeling project performed by a contractor that exceeds 6 square feet (20 square feet for the exterior) — including painting — must be tested for lead paint.
If lead paint is present, the contractor must follow a series of protective measures, such as posting signs warning of the lead hazard and using special protective suits and respirators. In some cases, they also must relocate the family during remodeling, build a double door to help contain particles and completely enclose the house in plastic during renovation.
In the past, federal law allowed homeowners who did not have children to opt out of any safety requirements regarding lead paint. But on July 1, the new regulations eliminated that provision, leaving no exemptions.
Although the law took effect in April, contractors had until Oct. 1 to complete or at least register for a required training course for lead paint abatement to avoid any sanctions by the EPA.
Those who have registered but not completed the training course have until Dec. 31 before facing any sanctions.
Tafelski said many contractors have not taken the required training. Companies are required to pay $300 and become certified, while their employees are required to be trained, which several agencies have offered free.
Tafelski said there are about 7,000 contractors in Pinellas County, but just over 100 signed up for training offered by the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board.
Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, said contractors have been informed about the rule changes and should have taken steps to meet the requirements by now.
"Contractors have had several years' notice," Norton said. "It's been a long time coming."
Enforcement of the rules might be difficult. Norton said there has been a push to empower states to conduct investigations by passing legislation that mirrors the federal rules.
Rodney S. Fischer, executive director of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, said that while policing the issue might be difficult, contractors need to understand how much they risk with the more than $30,000 in fines they face for each violation.
"Some of them will end up paying the federal government lots of money," Fischer said.
Homeowners who work on their own houses are not subject to the new rules. If they are curious, they can conduct a lead test themselves with kits available at Lowe's and Home Depot for $10 to $12.
"The weekend warrior is not covered," said Wes Stewart, director of program services for the coalition. "Generally, a homeowner can follow unsafe practices in their own home."
Another fear is that the burden of the new requirements will increase unlicensed contracting activity or work by those not yet certified for lead paint abatement, as homeowners seek cheaper options for their renovation projects.
"It's driving the work to the unlicensed sector," said Jonathan Greaves, of Greaves Construction Inc. in Tampa. "It scares the bejeebers out of me."
The new rules make it easy for the EPA to target legitimate contractors who are properly certified, but what about all the ones who don't bother getting certified? Greaves asked.
The EPA audited Greaves in January as it began testing its plan, ahead of the official implementation of the requirements in April. Greaves, who became certified to perform lead paint abatement in 1996, said it became easy to track him because he was already on the list. Because he keeps good records, he had no trouble with the EPA, but the rules themselves are hurting business at a time when the economy already has dealt his industry a blow.
"It's the worst time," Greaves said. "In the last three years, we have lost 30 percent of our business. How much more can we take?"
Ivan Penn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Consumer_Edge and find the Consumer's Edge on Facebook.