Home Repair Problems and Scams

The following information was discussed by Attorney Whitney Hughes on the June 17, 2008 edition of Legal Briefs on KDKA's Pittsburgh Today Live.

This time of year is perfect for making all of those much needed home repairs—whether you’re doing it yourself or hiring a professional to do the work.

Unfortunately, we hear frequently how unsavory characters prey on innocent homeowners or the elderly and leave them out of their hard earned money and stuck with repairs and projects uncompleted.

Below are some frequently asked questions and some helpful tips to navigate through those home repair headaches.

I finally decided to do something about my leaking roof, but I don’t know who to hire. There has been a contractor coming door to door in the neighborhood and he’s offered to give me a good price. Is this a good idea?

Keep in mind that you should ALWAYS be wary of door to door sales, but in the case of home repair issues, even more so.

First and foremost, never let an unfamiliar person into your home. Many unsavory characters prey on senior citizens who are essentially homebound and are in need of help around the house.

You should be very careful that what you would be purchasing from this person is actually what you need. Many times consumers are taken in by a smooth talking salesman who convinces them that they need much more than they actually do.

Generally, you will be best served by dealing with local contractors who have an actual place of business and who have been recommended by friends, family, or reputable building supply stores.

Also keep in mind that if you are unfortunate enough to have been tricked into signing a contract by a door to door salesperson, you do have the right to cancel a door to door purchase within three days of the purchase if the item sold is for $25.00 or more. The seller has to give you written notice of that right and must tell you that you have the right to cancel. As long as you return whatever goods have been sold to you in the same condition, you are entitled to a refund of the money you have paid out. Keep in mind thought that you must be able to find the person who sold you the items and took your money in order to get the refund. This is why it is so important to make sure you are dealing with someone reputable and who has an actual place of business. ALWAYS FEEL FREE TO SAY NO.

I need siding on my home and have found a company to do it. They’re offering to finance the improvement, but I’m a little nervous about letting them do that. Is it safe?

You’re right to be suspicious, and you must be very careful when a contractor or a repair company offers to finance a job. Some home improvement contracts involve the contractor or another lender getting a mortgage on the person’s property as security for the loan. In addition, particularly in the case of older homeowners who are dealing with a contractor, they may face a contract that is padded with additional charges above and beyond the price you negotiated, or an extremely high interest rate.

The federal Truth in Lending Act requires that you be given notice of the right to cancel any contract where a creditor could take an interest in your home. This means that if you’re using your home as collateral for the loan, you have to be told this explicitly and also given notice that you have the right to cancel this contract within three business days.

As with any other contract, make sure you read it carefully before you sign anything. It never hurts to have a second pair of eyes review it.

I’ve selected a contractor and he says he’s sending over the contract. What should I expect it to contain, and how can I protect myself it the work isn’t done or if the relationship goes sour?

A contract for home improvements or repair should, like any other contract set out parties’ expectations, rights, and responsibilities as clearly as possible.

It should specifically list:

  • Names and addresses of both parties (check to make sure the contractor has an actual address, not a P.O. Box)
  • A detailed description of ALL work to be done and the materials to be used. Don’t assume you can rely on what the contractor has told you. It must be in the contract.
  • A start date and a completion date
  • Details about the payment arrangements — the amount down, monthly payments, forms of payments accepted
  • Specific responsibilities like clean-up, obtaining any permits necessary, trash disposal, etc.

Additional items to protect yourself:

  • Detailed description of all materials to be used including brand names and model numbers. Also check to make sure that the contract does not allow substitution without your permission — this could allow the contractor to use an inferior product.
  • Specifics as to how much the contractor will charge for any changes being made — i.e. you contract for laminate counter-top and you then choose granite.
  • A penalty clause if the job isn’t completed on time — usually you will also accompany this with a bonus clause if the job is completed early.

What are some tips to help me when I'm planning on having work done by a contractor?

  • Before you hire anyone to do any work on your home, get at least one more estimate for the exact same work from another contractor.
  • Get references — if they refuse, walk away.
  • See the contractor’s work — again, if they refuse, walk away.
  • Get a detailed written contract and have someone else review it — if it is different from the promises made to you verbally, do not sign it.
  • Do not deal with door to door salespeople.
  • Check to make sure the contractor is insured.
  • Do not allow the contractor to begin work until you have made all arrangements for payment.
  • Do not pay the contractor in full before all work is done.

What are some red flags or warning signs that would tell me I should steer clear of a contractor or business?

  • Do not deal with contractors who say they are “in the neighborhood” and have materials left over from another job and offer to give you a lower price — if they’re shorting the materials on the job they’re doing now, they will do it with your job as well.
  • Do not deal with anyone who offers you a low price ONLY if you sign now and commit today. You should always have a chance to think things over and review any paperwork before you sign it.
  • Don’t deal with anyone who has a suspicious looking unmarked truck or has out-of-state license plates.
  • Do not sign any blank papers you are presented with.
  • Beware of contractors who come to your home unsolicited and tell you about work that needs repair.
  • Beware of contractors who have only a P.O. Box or an answering service as a means of contacting them.
  • Do not deal with anyone who shows up at your door unannounced and says he/she is a contractor and asks to be let into your home. For your own safety do not let them in.

As always, for a referral to an attorney practicing in the area of collections or consumer law, contact the Allegheny County Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service at 412-261-5555.