Home improvement scams
Q: I want to remodel my 1960s, flower power bathroom. How do I find a reputable contractor and avoid scams like unfinished projects or astronomical add-on charges?
A: Start by asking friends and family to recommend a contractor who performed work for them. Otherwise, check with local trade associations or the directory provided by the National Association of Home Builders to locate contractors in your area.
Once you find one, Stephen Hannon, administrator at the Office of Consumer Affairs in Howard County, Md., recommends using the power of the Internet to check out the contractor's reputation. "Google their name with the word 'complaint' afterward and see what comes up. People these days are doing most of their complaining on the Internet," he said.
Hannon also suggests checking with your state's Attorney General's office, your local consumer protection agency and the Better Business Bureau.
Any contractor that you choose should be licensed and covered by three types of insurance: personal liability, worker's compensation and property damage coverage. Ask for copies of the insurance certificates and make sure they're current. If the contractor you hire doesn't have insurance, you could be liable for any injuries and damages that may occur during the project.
Licensing for contractors and remodelers differs from state to state, so contact your local building department to find out your area's licensing requirements. Additionally, some locales within a state have their own requirements. Get a copy of the license or the license number and double-check that the license is legitimate.
Make sure that your contractor, and not you, will pull all the necessary permits. If the project wasn't done correctly or doesn't conform to code, the person who got the permit is the one responsible for correcting the work. If the project requires several inspections like a kitchen or bathroom renovation, schedule your payments to correspond with the passing of each inspection, Hannon recommends.
Lastly, check out at least three references, preferably on jobs similar to yours. Ask the reference if you can see the finished work and if the person would recommend the contractor. Find out if there were any additional costs tacked on to the original estimate or if the project took longer than promised.
However, don't depend on just the references, Hannon said. "Here's the problem with references: Home improvers only give you the good ones. They're self-serving, so I wouldn't put references at No. 1 of my list of things to check," he said.
Hannon suggests to keep a lookout for contractors who demand full payment upfront. In Maryland, the maximum amount that a contractor can ask for upfront is one-third the total payment. He recommends to give no more than half of the payment upfront, which should be enough to cover materials costs.
Also, avoid the wandering contractor who solicits door-to-door, wanting to asphalt your driveway with leftover supplies, Hannon said. "Just don't deal with them." On its Web site, the Federal Trade Commission also spells out suspicious contractor behavior to avoid. Don't hire a remodeler who promises discounts if you find customers for him or one who only accepts cash payments. The contractor or business should have a fixed location and not just a cell phone number.
Also, don't ever trust a contractor who recommends that you borrow money from a lender he knows. This home improvement scam could cost you your house.
On the Net:
www.ftc.com www.nacaa.net www.nahb.com