Is a homeowner who retains and manages contractors for his own home improvement project able to enforce his rights under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (CFA) and New Jersey Contractor’s Registration Act?

In a recent case, the Appellate Division of Superior Court of New Jersey determined that even though a homeowner may have acted as a “contractor” for his own project by retaining and managing all the other contractors, nevertheless, he still had the protections of a “homeowner” under the Consumer Fraud Act (“CFA”) and Contractor’s Registration Act (“CRA”).   Murnane v. Finch Landscaping, LLC, 420 N.J. Super. 331. Murnane, a homeowner, contracted with Finch Landscaping, LLC to construct a bluestone patio in the backyard of his home. He also contracted with other building contractors and a patio designer to undertake other parts of the project. He did not engage the services of a general contractor and at one point also referred himself as the “general contractor” for this construction project.

The parties entered into a written contract that also specified the thickness of the bluestone. As the work progressed, various changes were made to the construction specifications but these changes were not reflected in writing. Although, Murnane paid the full contract price of $26,300, Finch Landscaping, LLC sent Murnane invoices for additional costs it incurred due to the various changes made during the construction. Murnane refused to pay the additional charges and brought an action for breach of contract and a violation of the CFA in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Special Civil Part. Finch Landscaping, LLC counterclaimed for the amount incurred for the additional work it performed.

The trial court held that since Murnane held himself out as the “general contractor” for his patio construction project, he was barred from asserting a CFA claim against Finch Landscaping, LLC. The jury ruled in favor of Finch Landscaping, LLC on its counterclaim and returned a verdict of no cause of action on the contract claim but at the same time found Finch Landscaping, LLC liable for damages to Murnane’s property. Murnane appealed from the dismissal of its CFA claim and Finch Landscaping, LLC appealed from the denial of its motion for counsel fees.

Since home improvement contracts are prone to consumer fraud violations, the New Jersey Supreme Court has applied the CFA and the CRA to these transactions. This is significant because, for example, under the CFA, every home improvement contractor is required to register with the Division of Consumer Affairs, N.J.S.A. 56:8-138.

The Court held that even if “a homeowner could be characterized as a general contractor, he is still ‘an owner … of a residential … property’ who has entered into a ‘home improvement contract’ with a contractor.” N.J.S.A. 56:8-137. The Court distinguished this case from the holding in Messeka Sheet Metal Co. v. Hodder, 368 N.J. Super. 116, 845 A. 2d 646 (App. Div. 2004). In Messeka Sheet Metal Co. a homeowner contracted with a general contractor who in turn contracted with a subcontractor to install air conditioning. The subcontractor asserted a direct claim against the homeowner and the homeowner asserted a CFA claim against the subcontractor. The Court dismissed the homeowner’s CFA claim because the homeowner had no direct contractual relationship with the subcontractor. However, in the present case, Murnane had a direct contractual relationship with Finch Landscaping, LLC. Therefore, he was not barred from bringing a claim under CFA in spite of holding out as a general contractor for the construction project.

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