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How to protect yourself against common home improvement scams

Home improvement, repair and renovation projects represent significant investments. And with that kind of money at stake and decisions often made under pressure, home repairs make an inviting target for scam artists who plan to take the money and run. Protect yourself from fraud by looking out for these common schemes:

“Hey, I was doing a job in the neighborhood and I have some extra materials left over, so I’ll give you a good deal on a driveway sealing project.”

Never pay someone who arrives unannounced and drops this kind of line on you. A good contractor usually knows how much material they need, and if they have leftovers, they’re not going to just peddle it next door. Odds are you’ll pay your money and end up with a substandard or shoddy job. And you’ll never be able to find them again once they leave.

“Oh, we won’t need to pull permits.”

This should always be a big red flag. A contractor who doesn’t want to pull permits is likely to be unlicensed, cutting many other corners, and doesn’t want authorities taking a close look at their work. They might try to convince you that you’ll save a few bucks, but you’ll always pay a heavier price down the road. Not only are they unaccountable for the work, but unpermitted improvements tend to cause trouble if you try to sell the house.

“Hi, there was a storm recently and I noticed you have some rooftop damage. I’d be willing to do the work today.”

After a major storm, it’s tempting to hire someone who shows up unannounced — when hundreds of houses require repairs in a hurry, the best contractors will have long wait times and you want your work done right away. But storm chasers descend on areas after major damage and do shoddy or incomplete work for immediate payment. And by the time you notice the poor quality, they’re already on to the next town leaving you with no way to follow up.

“I’m going to need you to pay the whole job up front.”

A reasonable down payment is part of the process, but an excessive down payment, particularly one exceeding a third of the total cost, is a sign they may take the money and run. Some states limit down payments by law, so check your local regulations.

“This price is only good right now, so I need you to make a decision immediately.”

Qualified contractors don’t need to use high-pressure sales tactics that sound like they’re trying to sell you products As Seen On TV. A home repair or renovation is a serious investment, and a good contractor will understand that it’s worth your taking a few days to think it over. Even in a genuine emergency situation where your contractor will try to impress upon you the importance of completing immediate repairs, they won’t hold the price hostage to get you to agree right away.

“We don’t need to put anything in writing.”

You ALWAYS need to put it in writing. A written contract protects both you and the contractor for very good reasons. Make sure it includes a dated schedule of work, payments terms, procedures for changes, cost breakdowns, and proof of licensure, bonding and insurance. If things go wrong, a written contract is the strongest legal protection you have.

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