Jim Lett, owner, A.B.E. Doors & Windows
Credit: Photo: Owen Fitter/Getty Images Jim Lett, owner, A.B.E. Doors & Windows
"We'll tell home�owners: If you want to deal with contractors who are licensed and insured, this is now the law." ?Bob Dillon, president Unique Window & Door
Credit: Photo: Owen Fitter/Getty Images "We'll tell home�owners: If you want to deal with contractors who are licensed and insured, this is now the law." ?Bob Dillon, president Unique Window & Door

Jim Lett is worried. After years of steady growth, sales at A.B.E. Doors & Windows, the company he founded in Allentown, Pa., more than 25 years ago, have taken a hit two recession years in a row. Now, on top of that, there's something else to concern him: lead, or lead-based paint, how to safely remove it, and what happens if you don't.

On April 22, new regulations issued by the Environmental Protection Agency require that contractors working in homes built before 1978 must follow strict containment and clean-up procedures when encountering lead-based paint. Ignoring the new rules can result in hefty fines: $37,500 per day per violation.

Industry observers compare the effect of this change to the 2002 state and federal Do Not Call laws, which forced some home improvement companies to completely change the way they market. D.S. Berenson, an attorney who has represented many home improvement companies in litigation around many issues, including lead-safe practices, says that the new EPA regs could well be "a sea change" for the way companies "price and process their jobs."

Will This Put Me Out Of Business?

It gets stickier. The EPA has made clear (in published form, see www.epa.gov/lead) what it expects contractors to do when they encounter lead paint in a home they are renovating, and how to document what they've done ? as proof in the event of an audit.

But what remains unknown for the moment is whether or not any owners of pre-1978 homes will be able to "opt out" of safe lead-removal practices and whether or not at some point third-party inspectors will be required to verify that a jobsite is free of lead dust. The third-party inspection component seems especially intimidating. "My fear," Lett says, "is that if I have to bring in a third-party inspector [after job completion], it will add a tremendous burden of cost to the consumer. "

Lett says that the cost of a job such as replacing two windows could suddenly go up another $500 or $600, putting it beyond the reach of homeowners on fixed incomes. "The majority of my jobs are small jobs," he says. "People call me up and say: I want to replace my front door, or my patio door." The new regs, Lett says, "make the small job almost prohibitive."

Like Lett, many contractors count on small jobs to eventually become big ones. Specifically, his fear is that the time spent organizing for containment and clean-up will "double the cost or add 50% at least," so that the $1,000 job becomes a $1,500 job, and then no job at all, as homeowners balk.

Facts and Fictions

The new regulations make contractors responsible for determining whether or not lead-based paint is present in homes built before 1978, for containing any dust or debris created in the course of a renovation, and for ensuring that the work area is free of lead-bearing dust particles when the job is finished. These also make it the contractor's responsibility to inform the homeowner when lead-based paint is present, to document that the homeowner was informed and that the work was done safely and at least supervised by a Certified Renovator (CR), that is, someone who has earned a certificate after completing an eight-hour course by an EPA-approved trainer.

To be able to work in homes where lead-based paint is present, companies must register with the EPA, and in order to register, the company must have at least one Certified Renovator on staff. What that means, in plain language, is that after April 22, if you are working in homes built before 1978 ? when the government banned the manufacture and sale of lead-based paint ? and your company is not registered, you're breaking the law.

Prior to this, remodeling and home improvement companies working in pre-1978 homes were required to hand off an EPA pamphlet to homeowners called "Renovate Right." Steve Klein, a home improvement company owner who also operates Kachina Contractor Solutions (KCS), www.kachinaleadpaintsolutions.com, a company approved to offer CR training, estimates that until very recently maybe one in 10 remodeling or home improvement contractors actually made the pamphlet hand-off part of their sales process. Most, Klein says, were unaware of the law, had no idea where to get such pamphlets, or felt that since enforcement was largely nonexistent, they could safely ignore it.

Not so this time around. KCS, which was approved on Oct. 22 to conduct CR training, has offered training courses weekly ever since, under the auspices of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) or large companies such as Unique Window & Door, in Indianapolis, which last fall flew trainers in for a session involving 30 people, including the company's attorney. "A lot of people have said: Why worry about it till the time to worry about it is imminent?" says Paul Toub, director of marketing for KCS. "Now, for the first time, we're starting to see a lot of people."

Bob Dillon, president of Unique Window & Door, estimates that 28% of the homes his company works in would require lead-safe practices and says he plans to be 100% compliant by March 1. Unique Window & Door, he says, will market the fact that the company practices safe lead removal. "I've already invested a significant amount of money and I will continue to do so."