That magical season is here. No, not Christmas. But that special time when the weather is nice and some lucky homeowners with tax refunds jingling in their checking accounts may be thinking about splurging on some long-delayed home-improvement projects.
And of course, the scammers who want that money are buzzing around as well. The Better Business Bureau says they fielded nearly 30,000 consumer complaints against various home contractors in 2011, just a drop considering many people who get scammed either contact the police or are too embarrassed to report the incident. Here are five of the most common scams hitting our neighborhoods today:
1. The Cash Deal: He might say it's because of taxes or he's got a special arrangement with his paint wholesaler, but one day you may have a painter in your kitchen telling you he'll cut 35 percent off his estimate if you pay in cash. "It might sound like a great deal, because we all want to believe we should get a discount if we're paying for something in cash," says Tyler Palmer, a spokesperson for the Arizona Registrar of Contractors. "But when you're talking about a lot of money, and about work that's going to be done to your house, there needs to be paperwork. A deal that's 'under the table' is going to hurt you if something goes wrong." For instance, that painter may ask for the first $500 to get started and he may tell you to be ready for his crew at 8 the next morning. You're still waiting.
2. "Just Finished a Job Up The Street": A friendly looking guy in overalls shows up at your door pointing at your driveway. He and his crew were leaving a big paving job they finished around the corner and they noticed that it was discolored/pitted/cracked and they had a little time and some extra materials, would you like your driveway to look like new for just $300? Over an hour they might wash it down, spread a thin coat of concrete paint and drive off, while you notice that your new driveway "surface" keeps sticking to your car's tires.
3. Nice Guy, Bad Contract: You're being smart about a home improvement project by getting more than one estimate from a contractor, and one guy stands out with a bid that's 30 percent less than the others. He's got to start tomorrow if you want him because he's got "so much business lined up" and since he seems competent you sign the contract and go to bed happy. "He's counting on you not sitting down and comparing his estimate with anyone else's line by line," says Jody Costello, a consumer advocate from San Diego who operates Contractorsfromhell.com. "If you did you'd find that there are lots of details not included in his bid, like perhaps you were thinking of granite counter tops for your kitchen and his estimate is for a cheaper laminate."
You can argue with him over the details, but he's got a contract with your signature. Upgrading your project after the contract has been signed is generally not in your favor. "This isn't a way of creating a happy customer, but it's a way for a struggling contractor to keep working," says Costello. "Make sure the contract specifies everything you've agreed upon with the contractor."
4. Check My License: All U.S. states require that people who bill customers more than a set amount (usually $1,000 or more) to work on a construction project must have a contractor's license. Contractors are generally required to put their license number on their advertising and business cards, and the Internet has made it easy to check on a contractor's license status. Or has it? "In California and many other states, I've heard of scammers who simply steal the license of a legitimate contractor," says Costello. "The contractor you're talking to is 'Jack Smith' and you find his license number is registered to 'Steve Sanchez.' When you ask him he has a story about how it's his brother in law and they're in business together and everything's good. But what's the real story?" If the names of the people you're dealing with don't jibe with the license holder, call the license holder and ask. You may be saving yourself a major headache.
5. Coughing It Up: For $50 a technician will do a quick cleaning of the air ducts in your house -- what could go wrong? Plenty. Scammers have been known to pull out handfuls of dust and debris that they've placed in the ducts while the homeowner's back was turned and say, "You know sir, I can do the $50 job, but I'm not going to be able to get all of this out. I'll need our heavy-duty equipment, $300 more." If you balk, expect him to nod and smile at pictures of your children. "Kids deserve fresh air," he may say, as you sigh and get your checkbook. The remedy? "Try to remember there's no free lunch," says Palmer. "These come-ons are tempting, but they're not worth it. Your best weapon against contractor scams is your common sense."