In the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation, homeowners now face another potential hazard: unscrupulous contractors.
Shady contractors can be found year round, but contracting scams tend to flourish in the wake of severe weather, when contractors know people will be in need of roof repairs, tree removal and other rebuilding services. The scams involve charging and in many cases overcharging for shoddy work or services that are not completed as promised.
Contracting schemes vary in severity and scope. Here are a few common scenarios:
Halfway house – The contractor begins the project and then halfway through it tells you it’s going to cost far more than you’d agreed to and it’s going to take twice as long. In fact, this tactic is so common that many people have come to expect it. But that doesn’t make it right. Legitimate contractors have enough expertise and experience to know how long a job will take and how much it will cost. That’s why they should willingly provide estimates for both, in writing.
Just in the neighborhood – A couple of guys knock on your door. A common ploy is to say that they were working on another house in the neighborhood and can give you a discount because they have leftover materials. They do the job, take the money, but within days your walls are crumbling and there’s no way to track them down.
Don’t Know Much About Drywall – Someone goes on your roof or takes a look at your house and tells you the outlook is bad. Unless you have some expertise in home improvement and construction, you will have to rely on the word of the so-called expert. Unfortunately, con artists will happily fabricate and/or exaggerate problems. Contractors have even been known to inflict damage themselves in order to be hired. Following a big hailstorm in Indiana, a roofing company offered free home inspections and then promptly damaged the exterior of the homes in order to bid for the job.
There are plenty of honest contractors out there who do good work. So how do we differentiate between the legitimate contractor and the con man?
Check with the authorities. Contact your state licensing board to find out if a contractor is licensed. Make sure they are insured before they begin work. Check with the state attorney general’s office to find out if anyone has filed a complaint against the company.
There are telltale signs that should immediately arouse suspicion.
Be wary of out-of-state license plates. Many scamming contractors are transient, moving in and out of areas quickly in order to find new victims and to avoid being detected. They will converge on areas where natural disasters have occurred, hoping to hit the jackpot.
Bona fide contractors do not solicit door-to-door. If they’re really good, they can keep busy through word of mouth alone and don’t even need to advertise. Ask for recommendations, but make sure you trust the person who’s doing the recommending. Get references and if possible, see the handiwork.
Once you have solicited multiple bids and decided on your contractor, there are additional red flags to look for. The crooks won’t want to give you anything in writing. Make sure you have a signed contract that includes pricing, a clear description of the work to be completed and a time frame for completion. A small deposit is reasonable, but don’t ever pay for the whole job up front. Don’t use cash and get receipts for all payments made.
Finding a legitimate – and competent – contractor is a matter of physical as well as financial security. You don’t want to hire somebody that’s going to leave your home in an unsafe condition. People have hired firms to do asbestos removal and found out later that large amounts of asbestos were left in the home.
Being the victim of a natural disaster is tragic enough without being preyed upon by people seeking to take advantage of your misfortune. For peace of mind, take your time, do your homework and get it in writing.
(Image: kjarrett on flickr)
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