Home Life 7 ways to avoid falling for a home improvement scam

7 ways to avoid falling for a home improvement scam

This isn’t the first time I’ve warned homeowners how important it is to carefully choose your home-improvement contractors, and I can promise you it won’t be the last.

That’s because I hear from so many homeowners about bad experiences with contractors, ranging from simple misunderstandings to downright rip-offs. If I can save just one person from becoming the victim of a scam or of an unscrupulous contractor, I’ll consider this an excellent use of my column.

Most contractors are honest and really want to do a good job for you. As in any profession, though, you’ll run across a few bad apples. Know how to spot one when you see one. Beware any contactor who:

  • Jeb-Breithaupt-HeadshotCan’t provide you with references. Many home improvement companies advertise their businesses by relying on satisfied customers to spread a good word about them. Others advertise in the paper or online. Some even go door to door in neighborhoods they are working in, just to let homeowners know they are present in the area. Regardless of how the home improvement company you choose advertises, always ask for references. If they can’t give you names and numbers, chances are they didn’t even do the work or they did the work poorly.
  • Pressures you for an on-the-spot decision. The decision to allow a stranger into your home, to write a big check for renovations or repairs, and to trust that someone will do a good job for you takes more than a couple of minutes. You deserve to work with someone who spends time with you learning about what you want and explaining his or her process and fees. A contractor who is too impatient to meet with you, bat around ideas and allow you enough time to talk things over with your spouse before making this huge commitment is one who is interested only in your money and not in your 100 percent satisfaction. Say “no thanks” to the high-pressure sales pitch, even if you like other things about the contractor.
  • Offers something for nothing. I can guarantee you that the guy who talks his way into your home for a “free” inspection of your heating and air conditioning system, roof or anything else isn’t going to leave without warning you that you need an extensive, expensive repair of something. He’ll try to scare you into agreeing to the repairs right there and then by saying if you don’t take care of it today, you’ll be stuck without air conditioning on these hot last days of summer or swimming in the water that leaks through your roof the next time it rains. Send this crook and his scare tactics away, and call a home-improvement specialist you trust and who has come highly recommended to you by someone you know.
  • Won’t take a check. These days, you’d have to be a little bit suspicious of anyone who demands cash. I’ve even heard of some so-called contractors who will go so far as to drive a homeowner to the bank so she can withdraw cash from the ATM machine and hand it over to them. You can guess what happens next: The homeowner never sees the guy again. Always create a paper trail when you pay a home-improvement contactor. Pay with a check or a credit card.
  • Asks for too much money up front. It’s typical for a contractor to ask you for a small percentage of the total cost of the project to serve as a retainer fee on the work once you both sign a contract. But a contractor who asks for half or all of the money before starting the work is not the one for you. Most likely, he wants a big payment up front so you won’t be able to withhold money if he doesn’t do the work on time–or at all. Insist on a written contract that includes a payment schedule that allows the contractor to collect a small deposit up front, and then lets you pay as the work progresses. Do not make your final payment until the work is finished and you have approved it.
  • Refuses to sign a contract. Make a written agreement mandatory. Even if you’ve known the contractor all your life, insist on a written agreement that covers the scope of the job, the time frame, the price, the payment schedule and the warranty. Most guys will honor a handshake, but you need to know who’s responsible for what should a problem arise. And some handshakes aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on–because there isn’t any paper, and the unscrupulous contractor knows how to take advantage of that.
  • Doesn’t have a state license. I cannot repeat this enough–don’t let a contractor into your house unless he can show you a contractor’s license or registration from the state of Louisiana! You can verify that the license is valid by calling (800) 256-1392 or visiting www.lslbc.louisiana.gov/findcontractor.asp. A tip: Anyone–except for you–who does work worth more than $1,500 at your home needs a contractor’s license. Another tip: If a contractor asks for you to pull your own permits, chances are they can’t pull the permits themselves because they aren’t properly licensed or insured.

A careful, thoughtful choice gives you your best shot at a finished product that is exactly what you want and an enjoyable remodeling experience.


Jeb Breithaupt, B. Arch., MBA, has been president of JEB Design/Build in Shreveport since 1983. You can contact him at 318-865-4914 or by visiting www.Jeb.net.

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