Like a hibernating bear who knows when it’s time to wake from a long winter’s nap, unscrupulous home-improvement contractors who have spent the winter across state lines, in their garages or out of work seem to know that spring is the best time to pounce on homeowners who need help.
Here are five springtime scams to be on the lookout for as you take advantage of the nice weather to fix up your house and yard.
1. Air conditioning. One of the most common springtime scams, notes William Mundell, director of the Arizona Registrar of Contractors, involves air conditioner tune-ups.
It’s a good idea to call a licensed air-conditioning technician to give your a/c a once-over at the beginning of the cooling season. It will cost you no more than around $100, and if the contractor finds a problem, you’ll get an explanation and an offer to resolve a minor problem like replacing a belt or adding refrigerant. For bigger repairs, you’ll get a written estimate and some time to think it over, and you’ll probably need to schedule an appointment for the work.
You’ll suffer a far bigger headache if you hire someone who knocks on your door offering to perform that tune-up for free. “It never fails that something major turns up during that ‘free’ inspection,” Mundell notes. Invariably, he says, you’ll be told you need a new air conditioning system or a complicated repair that will cost thousands of dollars.
Unless you know an awful lot about cooling technology, you won’t have a clue if this is an honest assessment. Your best bet: Do not hire anybody off the street or whose name you got from a flier someone left on your front door. Instead, call a licensed, local air conditioning business that’s been in business a long time and will schedule a maintenance check for you. Professionals do not go door-to-door begging for your business.
2. Roofing. You’ll run into the same “opportunity” with roofing contractors after the monsoon storms.
The pitch: “I just did some work down the street for your neighbor, and I noticed your roof has the same problem.” If you hire the help, he’ll climb up onto your roof and come down with a report of leaks, broken tiles and other damage. I know one homeowner who says the contractor showed him a photo of the damage on the roof—only it wasn’t even his roof! He knew because he had climbed up there to take a look the day before.
Most of us don’t climb onto the roof, so how would we know? My advice is the same very time this happens: Hire a roofer who has a license from the Arizona Registrar of Contractors and who can show you proof of insurance. Call a local roofing company and ask for an appointment—and never hire a so-called roofer who shows up without an invitation.
3. Painting. You don’t want to mess around with an exterior paint job in Arizona. The sun does a number on exterior housing materials, especially wood. So you need to protect your home by having it painted regularly with premium paint that can stand up to the sun and monsoon rains.
If you’ve ever painted your own house, you know it’s not a job for amateurs. It requires scraping, sanding, patching, repairing, priming and maybe even some replacing before the first coat of paint touches the surface.
Hiring someone who offers you a sweet deal on a paint job sets you up for wood trim that gets painted without any of that prep. You could wind up with a coat or two of watered-down paint that will look nice for a couple of months and then peel right off because the surface underneath of it wasn’t tended to.
And you’ll have to have it repainted if you don’t want the summer sun to ruin your trim. Again, you wind up paying twice when you don’t take the time to check out the contractor you allow to touch your most prized possession—your home.
4. Offers that are too good to be true. Arizona’s weather attracts “gypsy” contractors who live in other states and either follow warm temperatures from state to state or follow storms.
These “travelers” know spring is the time when most homeowners like to get their yards cleaned up and the exterior of their homes in shape for the summer season. They often offer discounts on labor and cut-rate materials they say are left over from another job. They’ll repair your roof, your air conditioner, your driveway or your siding. They’ll ask for payment in cash—and then they’ll disappear.
Your problem begins weeks or months later, when you realize the out-of-state contractor has done shoddy work—or hasn’t done the work he said he did. You’ve already paid. The worker has no Arizona contractor’s license, so the state can do little to help you recover your money. And you’ll never be able to reach the contractor on your own because either he didn’t give you any contact information, or it was false.
Whenever you hire a contractor, check for a valid Arizona contractor’s license. Take some time to look for complaints about the worker with the state Registrar of Contractors and the Better Business Bureau. Notice if the truck the contractor drives has a logo painted onto it; many travelers have temporary, magnetic signs made so they’ll look like they have “real” businesses.
And check the license plate on the truck. If it’s not from Arizona, you can expect to pay twice for your job: Once to the scam artist, and again to the legitimate, licensed, local contractor you’ll have to hire to clean up the mess.
5. False credentials. Mundell points to the latest scam among fly-by-night contractors: They do show you a valid Arizona contractor’s license because they’re beginning to realize that homeowners are onto them. The problem is: It’s someone else’s license.
It’s illegal for one contractor to “borrow” another’s license. Here’s what to do: Ask the worker to show you a driver’s license, and compare the name to the one on the license. You can see the person’s photo, so you’ll know if the name matches the face.
Don’t just send the contractor away. Write down the name and ID number from the contractor’s license, and report the incident to the Registrar of Contractors
. It’s not only a violation to use someone’ else’s license; it’s illegal to allow someone else to use yours. So the state needs to know when a legitimate Arizona contractor is allowing someone else to pass himself off as licensed.
Stick with the contractors who do what they’re supposed to when it comes to licensing, insurance and honest work. Contractors who respect the law are much more likely to respect you, your home and the agreements they make with you.