2. Home Repair Rip-Offs (and how to avoid them)

Most people who do home improvement, repair and maintenance work are honest professionals. But some are outright crooks. Be especially wary of these common rip-offs:

The termite trap.
Someone who offers a free termite inspection of your home may just find what he's looking for. Some “inspectors” even bring in “proof” of infestation – dead termites or wormy wood.

Beware, too, of the exterminator who says a quick spritz of this or that will eliminate termites. Ridding a house of termites involves drilling holes near the foundation and pumping in chemicals to set up a poison barrier between the termites and their nests deep in the ground. Anything less extensive generally won't do the job.

Shady siding sales.
A contractor may quote a low price to install siding on your house. But when the outside wall areas are finished, you'll learn that such things as eaves, gutters and window moldings were not included in the estimate. To complete the job, you must pay an extra 20 percent or so – more than an honest contractor would have charged in the first place.

To avoid this, always get a clear, detailed contract that specifies what will be done at what price. As Bill Baessler, Director of Licensing for the Suffolk County, New York, Department of Consumer Affairs, says, “No contract can be too detailed.”

The roof-rot ruse.
In a typical case, a homeowner with a minor roof leak arranges to have broken shingles replaced. Part way into the job, the contractor announces bad news: the decking – the plywood or board base that the roofing is nailed to – is rotted out and has to be replaced. Instead of hundreds of dollars, the job will cost thousands. Don't fall for it. Even if there is rot, it's usually confined to small areas that can be repaired without replacing the whole roof.

To be safe, get another professional opinion before doing anything. Don't be pushed into a hasty decision by the desire to get the job finished before it rains. A plastic cover can protect your exposed roof in the interim.

The drywall deceit.
When you add a room or finish an attic or basement, you usually put drywall on the interior walls. Be careful to avoid two types of rip-offs. In the first, the contractor installs drywall that is not as thick as the contract specifies. The thinner material looks the same and is cheaper – but provides less insulation and is more susceptible to damage. You can check the drywall's thickness yourself: a tab at one end indicates the size.

In the second drywall scam, the contractor substitutes regular drywall for the more costly water-resistant kind. If it's being installed in a bathroom and water gets to it, the walls may eventually have to be torn down. Again, check the tabs or the color. Water-resistant drywall is green; regular drywall is gray.

Chimney cheats.
It's important to clean a chimney periodically to avoid the backup of dangerous gases or creosote buildup. Con artists take advantage of these very real perils by calling and offering to clean your chimney “before it's too late.”

The problem is they do a superficial job – and it's difficult for the average homeowner to tell if the chimney has been cleaned properly. The only protection is to get recommendations, check with the Better Business Bureau or local consumer-affairs office. Then call in the sweep.

Furnace fakery.
Typically, a man will call offering a free inspection of your furnace or a low price for cleaning it. Or he may ring your bell and identify himself as a fire inspector checking furnaces in the neighborhood. Once he looks at your furnace, he's sure to find something dire – a gas leak or ominous “blue spots” in the fire. Of course, he'll insist the furnace must be shut down before it kills someone.

The friendly “inspector” also just happens to know someone who can get you another furnace fast. The “new” unit will be a used model that's been refurbished. Your perfectly good furnace will be sold to the next victim.

If you do have safety worries, call your fuel company and have one of its representatives check for leaks. Then get a second opinion about the condition of your furnace.

Sewage swindle.
When a cesspool overflows, you may have no choice but to get it pumped out. Cesspool pumpers charge by the number of gallons they remove. But some shysters show up with the truck half full and charge you for pumping the entire load.

Ask to see the truck's “sight gauge,” then watch how many gallons are actually pumped. Even if the truck has no gauge, you've put the contractor on notice – and he'll be much less likely to rip you off.

Paint and switch.
Some painters agree to use a specific brand of high-quality paint, then pour cheap paint into name-brand cans. As a result, you get a surface that isn't as bright and fades more quickly.

It's customary for a painter to have one or two open cans when he starts a job, but the majority should be sealed. If they're not, ask why.

Raw deal on doors.
Many people now replace wood entry doors with metal insulated doors. Most of these are sold without finish painting. They've been primed to look finished – and many contractors don't tell you they're not. You'll discover it a few months later, however, when the door starts to rust. It's important, therefore, to specify finish painting in the contract.

Driveway dodges.
The biggest scam on driveways involves what William L. Webster, Attorney General of Missouri, calls “asphalt gypsies.” They drive around in uniforms and offer to seal a driveway for what seems like a good price - $60 for a five-gallon can. If you give the go-ahead, they'll be back half an hour later asking for $600. It turns out they used 10 cans.

The scam artist is prepared to settle for less - $400, perhaps. But he won't take a check and usually insists on accompanying you to the bank. If you agree, his confederates may rob your house while you're gone. And the driveway will be improperly sealed with low-quality sealer, or even motor oil or paint.

If you need to have a driveway poured or resurfaced, hire a reputable contractor and get a detailed contract. Be there when the work is done, or you may fall victim to other rip-offs, such as delivery of much weaker concrete than the contract specifies.

These tips are brought to you as a public service by the Crime Prevention Office of the Monroe County Sheriff's Office.

For more information please call (585) 359-7106.

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