Spring is prime time for home repairs -- and that makes it prime time for outright scams or frustrating disputes. You can take action to avoid both problems. Home repair scams by traveling con-artists work like this: Con-artists stop at your door, give you a hard sell, and offer sensational low prices. It might be for roofing or painting, tree-trimming, or asphalting your driveway with material supposedly "left over" from a job nearby. The con-artists insist that you pay in advance -- but they do little or no work and never return. Remember, legitimate contractors very rarely solicit door-to-door.
Be skeptical. The main rules are to check out a contractor, and never pay large sums in advance to a contractor you don't know. Help older neighbors who might be pressured or intimidated into paying traveling con-artists.
A few 'bad-apple' local contractors also take large advance payments but fail to do the work, or do just part of a job or very shoddy work. This is hard to prove as fraud, but it's costly and frustrating. Follow these tips to protect yourself when you hire a contractor: Beware of high-pressure sales tactics such as "today-only" discounts, offers to use your home as a "display home" for replacement siding or windows, and "lifetime warranty" offers that only last for the life of the company. Always get several written estimates -- shop around for the best deal before making such a large investment. Check out a contractor before you sign a contract or pay any money.
Request local references -- and check them out. Contact the Attorney General's Office to see if it has complaints or contact the Better Business Bureau. You can also contact your county clerk of court and ask how to check if a contractor has been sued by unsatisfied customers. Get it in writing. Before any work begins, agree on a written contract detailing work to be done, responsibility for permits, costs, and any other promises. Ask for a copy of the contractor's liability insurance certificate.
Put start and completion dates in writing, and consequences if the contractor fails to meet them. (Example: the contract could be nullified if the contractor doesn't start on time.) If you sign a contract at your home, in most cases you have three business days to cancel. Avoid paying large sums in advance if you don't know the contractor. If you have to make a partial advance payment for materials, make your check out to the supplier and the contractor. Insist on a "mechanic's lien waiver" in case the contractor fails to pay others for materials or labor.
Be very cautious of credit or financing arranged by a contractor. This is an area of serious abuse by a few contractors in Iowa who arrange credit with high-cost lenders. Such loans may have high interest rates, steep up-front fees, hidden costs, and even costly brokers' fees. Be wary of offers to incorporate credit-card debt or other debt into a second mortgage. Check first with your attorney or a local lender you can trust.
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