Buck up, Florida homeowners, bills could save you cash

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Diane C. Lade

Published May 10, 2007


South Floridians hoping for insurance and property tax relief were disappointed when neither appeared as the legislative session closed last week. But there is some good news for homeowners and consumers tucked among the bills now awaiting Gov. Charlie Christ's signature.

Home inspectors would have to be licensed and more accountable, as would mold inspection and cleanup specialists. Homeowners may be eligible for an interest-free loan for storm-proofing improvements such as hurricane shutters. And low-income Floridians will be automatically enrolled in a program that provides a $13.50 monthly credit toward basic phone service.

"Given that the overarching theme was property taxes, I'm sure consumers won't feel it's a good year until that's addressed," said Leslie Spencer, associate state director for advocacy with AARP, the senior citizen and consumer lobbying group. "But there were some good provisions that went through for consumers that could save money and provide access to more programs."

Two bills that should help homeowners slipped by with little fanfare.

The first, sponsored by Sen. Stephen Wise, requires licensing, testing and certification of mold and home inspectors, as well as mold clean-up specialists, by 2010. Consumers currently have little recourse against these professionals as they are not licensed or regulated.

Wise, R-Jacksonville, said he had to spend more than $5,000 in repairs to a condo he purchased, even though an inspector he hired claimed the unit was in good condition. "He had no license so there wasn't much I could do," Wise said.

Another bill expands the popular My Safe Florida Home program, which gives matching grants up to $5,000 to Florida homeowners for improvements to better protect their residences from hurricanes. The state now would help provide interest-free loans to lower-income consumers who could not immediately put up their share of the costs to start the projects.

Of course, there's some bad news, too, according to consumer advocates and some legislators.

One bill that passed would allow landlords two charge two months' rent to tenants who break their leases, even if their units already have been re-rented. Lawmakers failed to pass legislation that would have required product rebates be issued within 15 days of meeting retailers' requirements. And hospitals won't be required to post their nursing staffing levels so patients and their families could easily check them.

"The argument was that consumers would not be able to understand what the [staffing levels] meant. I give consumers a little more credit than that," said Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, who sponsored the nursing bill. "We already have transparency for infection and mortality rates in hospitals. Why not add transparency for nurse staffing ratios?"

Bill Newton, executive director of the Consumer Action Network, said insurance companies might use the mold inspector guidelines to block claims by homeowners who didn't use certified professionals. But he supports licensing mold cleanup specialists. "You want the best people you can find to do that job," he said.

Lawmakers also passed a bill to deregulate cable television. But advocates are divided on whether the legislation is good or bad for consumers.

AARP supports the proposed law -- primarily because it includes a provision to automatically enroll low-income Floridians in Lifeline, a program that provides a $13.50 monthly credit toward basic phone service. The bill also would eliminate previous legislative action that allowed phone companies to raise rates, a move that could save consumers up to $157 million, AARP said.

But the Florida Public Interest Research Group and several others are pressing Crist to veto the legislation, known as Consumer Choice Act. They say the bill will not necessarily lead to lower cable and phone rates but instead will bypass local accountability, reducing the number of public access channels and giving dissatisfied customers less ability to voice complaints.