The homeowners have more to worry about than being ripped off in this slow economy. But such a climate can bring desperation and, unfortunately, fraud. Although most tradespeople are honest and trustworthy, many unscrupulous contractors will repair items you don’t need or charge excessively for parts or services. Even worse, con artists who pretend to be tradesmen will take your money and run. Inspectors often discover these frauds first, so they need to be well-versed in the common forms to serve their clients better.
There are several common home repair scams:
Roof work. Con artists travel from one state to another looking for severe weather and natural disaster victims. People who appear in your area and offer to repair your roof for a discounted price should be avoided. Don’t let anyone assess your roof without inspecting it. Even if the tradesman tells you otherwise, most flashing will suffice.
Driveway sealers. A tradesman will pull up in his truck to your house and offer to seal your driveway with leftover “sealant,” from another job “just down the street.” It’s unbelievable how affordable the job is. The sealant is usually painted or another cheap, black spray media, which will quickly wash off with the next rainfall.
- Termites: There are many myths about termites that exaggerate their dangers. Homeowners can easily be tricked into paying for unnecessary treatment. Compare the services of different companies and ask for quotes from multiple companies. You should ensure that you have a guarantee for termite returns within a certain period. Before you sign, read the entire contract and the guarantee. Pay attention to the following scams: The exterminator will show you termites in a woodpile or fence that isn’t connected to your home. He would be honest and competent to tell you that termites are not a threat to your home.
- You (but not he) witness “evidence”: Ask the exterminator to show you the evidence. Termite-damaged wood has been hollowed along the grain with bits of soil and mud lining its galleries.
- He offers to inspect termites for free, but his motives are unclear. He might bring the evidence to you.
- Chimney sweeps: Avoid chimney sweeps who arrive at your home unannounced and offer their services for a very low price. You might be tempted to believe that he is a neighbour who has just cleaned your chimney. Inspections will reveal “problems” which can quickly increase the cost.
- HVAC professionals: Most HVAC scams involve replacing defective parts and substituting new parts for those working. Ask to see the parts that are suspected of being damaged before replacing them. Also, ensure you inspect the packaging and documentation before the parts are installed. It may be cheaper to have HVAC work done in the off-season.
- Plumbers: Plumbers pay only a small fraction of the total cost for their services in parts, but some plumbers will still make a profit by cutting corners. For example, they may use 1/2-inch pipe rather than 3/4-inch pipe. Ask them what parts they will be installing and how long they will last.
- Painters: Some painters will agree to use a particular paint brand and then pour the paint into cans made by name-brand paint. When the job begins, most of the painter’s cans should be sealed. Ask why. Some painters skip the preparation work.
Homeowners need to be aware of the following tips when they hire a contractor
When calling a contractor to get an estimate, if you live in an area with high-end homes, you should not mention your address nor phone number until you receive the estimate. A tradesman from a nearby neighborhood or town can be called for an estimate. Their price will likely be less than the average in your area.
If the tradesman doesn’t know how much the job will cost, negotiate a flat rate. This is particularly helpful for plumbing work as nearly all pipes are hidden behind walls, making it more difficult than expected.
Ask the tradesman if he charges for travel time. It may be more affordable to hire someone closer to you if he does. Ask if he charges extra for travel to supply stores.
Know your contractor. Make sure your contractor is licensed and obtain a written agreement detailing the cost and work.
Do not let any contractor call you or show up unannounced at your home. To frustrate law enforcement, con artists have to move from time to time. They don’t have a fixed address and rely only on solicitation by phone or door-to-door. Their invoices might also contain a P.O. You will not find a street address on their invoices.
Be wary of contractors who suggest a company or person after “discovering” the problem. He will likely receive a kickback for the referral so don’t trust his advice.
Do not allow a contractor to increase the scope of your project. These people are also known as upsellers and will do the following:
- Not offer you a variety of options, including work that is cheaper or different from what you expected;
- Use scare tactics to convince you to follow his advice.
Contractors who claim they will only charge you for the materials they purchased are not trustworthy. They may actually be making a profit from the materials. If the contractor lies about material over-charging, it is illegal.
- Material-swapping is when a contractor purchases premium products and makes you reimburse him. Then he returns the product and gets the difference. You can find out if you suspect material-swapping by comparing the packaging to the product list on the receipt.
- Don’t give a large down payment. While it may be acceptable to pay a small portion of the estimate upfront, the contractor may ask for all or most of the money up-front. He may not return to do the work or leave it incomplete, so you have little right to challenge him. Pay in cash, however, is not an option.
- You should be more vigilant if you’re elderly than your children to avoid being scammed.
Homeowners and inspectors should be aware of the many ways home repair contractors (or those pretending to be such) rip off clients.