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Home Improvement Fraud

If there is a sucker born every minute, then unfortunately there is a swindler born every minute, too. As many homeowners have discovered, good contractors can be hard to find. If you are planning a home-improvement project, referrals for reputable contractors from friends and family, as well as your local building inspector, provide an excellent resource.

Steer clear of contractors that knock on your door and tell you that they're "working in the area today" or offer to arrange a "home-improvement loan" to do work for you. Good contractors don't need to go door-to-door looking for business. These con artists typically target the elderly with this scheme, and their work is sub-par at best. At worst, they will leave before the job is actually done. One very important tip that most professional contractors agree to -- aside from a reasonable deposit on a written home-improvement estimate -- is do not pay the contractor upfront for work and materials.

Chimney Scams

One of the most common homeowner swindles is the chimney scam. You call a chimney sweep to clean and inspect your chimney and they inform you that you need a new liner, or the whole chimney needs to be replaced because of cracks (thoughts of carbon monoxide poisoning your family fill your mind). In some cases these bogus sweeps don't even clean the chimney!

Look for a certified chimney sweep in your area; these sweeps may also have concerns about your chimney, but they will use a videoscope or a videoscan to show you the problem and make suggestions about repairs. Watch out for chimney sweeps offering cut-rate prices for cleaning, particularly by way of coupons in the mail.  A certified chimney sweep charges $100-200 for a cleaning and inspection, depending on your area of the country.

If your sweep uses scare tactics or informs you that you need a new liner, or need a large-scale chimney repair, do not agree to the repairs until you get another opinion. One great resource is the National Chimney Sweep Guild, which provides a state-by-state listing of certified sweeps.

Radon Scams

Radon was the big real estate scare several years ago, but as time has passed, the fervor over it has decreased. Radon is an invisible radioactive gas that is a product of decaying uranium found in most kinds of rocks and soil. While not all scientists agree, some say this gas is linked to lung cancer. You can test to determine if radon gas is present in your home; it can seep into your basement, permeate up through your home, and get trapped there. Home detection kits are inexpensive, around $10 to $20.

Beware of unlicensed radon "mitigators." With airborne threats we can't see come scammers with scare tactics and false claims aimed to take your money. The EPA provides links on its Web site to offices where you can get information on safe radon levels, guidance with radon measurement kits, and a list of licensed companies who can help reduce the radon in your home if it's present.

Termite Scams

Termite infestations are more common in warmer, wetter climates like the South, but termites can wreak havoc anywhere. If you find yourself overrun with the wood-eating creatures, finding a reputable pest-control company through referrals and/or company research is key to getting good service.

One of the scams to look out for in the pest control business is 
exterminators who bring their own "evidence," generally termite wings or droppings to show you proof of an infestation. Always ask the exterminator these questions:

Do they think the infestation is new or old?
Do they know the difference between ants and termites?

Any pest-control specialist should know the difference between ants and termites, but ants with wings viewed by the untrained eye can be mistaken for the termite. If they have set up a regularly scheduled visit, make sure it is not during the winter when the cold weather will take care of the critters anyway.

For those unscrupulous pest "control" companies, getting customers to pay for regularly scheduled inspections can be a windfall - for them! One homeowner complained of her bad experience with a company who promised to "control" the termites instead of exterminating them; this is an important difference when you hire a pest control company. Controlling them means that the company will only use procedures to limit the size of the colony, not eradicate them.

Another helpful article is from the Better Business Bureau titled, "Home Contractors: Tip-offs to Potential Rip-offs" --

By Diane Tuman
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  • Last edited October 12 2012
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