Disasters like the Rice Fire can attract scam artists - Choose your building contractor carefully


Last updated 11/15/2007 at Noon

State and federal officials warn those who suffered damages from the California wildfires, like the Fallbrook (Rice Canyon) Fire, to be extremely careful when hiring contractors to clean and repair disaster-damaged property or remove disaster debris. They urge those affected by the fires to check and verify credentials. Using well-established local contractors are your best option.

“Governor Schwarzenegger and other state officials have said efforts to take advantage of those affected by the fires will not be tolerated,” said Henry Renteria, director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and state coordinating officer for the fires.

“It’s important that the public utilize the services provided by the State Department of Consumer Affairs and use caution in dealing with contractors and other service providers.”

“Unfortunately, in disaster situations, scam artists are often ready to take advantage of the misfortunes of others,” said Federal Coordinating Officer Mike Hall. “People should be especially alert for phone or door-to-door solicitors who hand out flyers and promise to speed up the insurance or building permit process, and those who ask for large cash deposits or advance payments in full.”

Whether they are architectural, engineering, electrical or general contractors, most service providers in the building industry are honest.

Unfortunately, disasters attract scam artists. Some claim to be FEMA-certified when, in fact, FEMA neither certifies nor endorses any contractor.

•Tips for hiring contractors•

Get a written estimate

Compare services and prices before making a final decision.

Also, read the fine print. Some contractors charge a fee for a written estimate, which is often applied to the price of subsequent repairs they make.

Check references

Contractors should be willing to provide the names of previous customers. Call several former customers who had similar work done to make sure they were satisfied with the job.

Ask for proof of insurance

Make sure the contractor carries general liability insurance and workers’ compensation.

If the contractor is not insured, the homeowner may be liable for accidents that occur on the property.

Use reliable, licensed contractors

Call your local Better Business Bureau to get information on a business before signing a contract. You can also go online to http://www.cslb.ca.gov to see if a contractor is licensed.

Insist on a written contract

A complete contract should clearly state all the jobs to be performed, all associated costs and the payment schedule. Never sign a blank contract or one with blank spaces.

Make sure the contract clearly states who will apply for the necessary permits or licenses. Have a lawyer review the contract if substantial costs are involved, and keep a copy for your records.

Get guarantees in writing

Any guarantees made by the contractor should be written into the contract. The guarantee should clearly state what is guaranteed, who is responsible for the guarantee and how long the guarantee is valid.

Obtain a local building permit, if required (or be sure your contractor does)

Permits may be required for site work, other than demolition, and for reconstruction. Contact your local government for permit information.

Make final payments only when the work is completed

Do not sign completion papers or make the final payment until the work is completed to your satisfaction.

A reputable contractor will not threaten you or pressure you to sign if the job is not finished properly.

Pay by check

Avoid on-the-spot cash payments. The safest route is to write a check to the contracting company.

A reasonable down payment is 30 percent of the total cost of the project, to be paid upon initial delivery of materials.

Federal law gives consumers a three-day “cooling off” period for unsolicited door-to-door sales of more than $25.

Know how to cancel a contract

This should be done within three business days of signing. Be sure to follow the procedures for cancellation that are set out in the contract.

Send the notification by registered mail with a return receipt to be signed by the contractor.

You can report fraud to the California Consumer Protection hotline at (800) 952-5210 or at http://www.rebuildyourlife.ca.gov.


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