The storm has passed and now we begin the process of assessing the damage and cleaning up the mess. At my home in Olympia, we had more than 15 inches of snow, which combined with thick ice brought down numerous branches and two entire trees.
Thankfully the trees didn’t fall on our house or cars, but we can’t just leave them lying in the yard. Like many of you, we need to hire someone to help. But how do we make sure we hire the right help and not a greedy dishonest scammer?
Attorney General McKenna offered some advice: “Avoid contractors who demand payment in advance. Shop around for a fair quote, obtain all promises in writing, and always check with the Department of Labor and Industries to ensure a contractor is registered and bonded. Except for electricians, who must be licensed, and plumbers, who require certification, there isn’t a competency test to become a contractor in Washington. And while the vast majority of contractors are honest, there are a few unscrupulous ones who will try to take advantage of your desperation.”
Below are some tips to help you find a competent, reliable contractor and avoid potential rip-offs.
Check insurance policies and warranties:
Before you start work, check your insurance policies and warranties. You may be able to file a claim and get useful information from the claims adjuster. The warranty on your roof, for example, may require you to use a certain repair company. You can find tips on dealing with storm-related insurance claims on the Insurance Commissioner’s website.
Selecting a Contractor:
- Seek referrals. Start with friends or neighbors. Home improvement stores and trade associations including the Master Builders Association can also be good resources. All contractors who do construction work in Washington must be registered with the state Department of Labor and Industries, post a bond and carry general liability insurance coverage. Check the L&I website at www.contractors.lni.wa.gov or call 1-800-647-0982.
- Contact at least three reputable contractors and ask for references. If possible, visit other work sites when repairs are underway.
- Solicit written bids from at least three qualified contractors that detail the scope of the work, the types of materials that will be used, and the total cost of the project.
Signing a Contract:
- Once you’ve agreed on a bid, get it in writing. The contract should cover the work to be performed, total price including taxes and fees, materials to be used, start and completion dates, warranties, payment schedules, sign-off procedures, and cleanup. It should also explain how changes to the work will be handled. If your residential project costs at least $1,000, the contractor must give you a written disclosure statement that explains your rights and responsibilities.
- If a contractor fails to pay a subcontractor, worker or supplier, you could be sued and have a lien placed on your property to satisfy the unpaid bill. Protect yourself by asking the project contractor for a lien release for all subcontractors and suppliers.
- Don’t make the final payment until you are fully satisfied with the finished product and know that subcontractor or suppliers have been paid.
Be wary of contractors who:
- Solicit door to door.
- Provide credentials or references that can’t be verified.
- Pressure you for an immediate decision.
- Accept only cash, require large deposits or require the entire cost up front. A deposit of 10-15 percent of the bid price is normally sufficient.
- Don’t provide a written contract or complete bid.
- Ask you to get required building permits. In most instances, the contractor is required to take out the permits.
Offer exceptionally long warranties.
- Offer an exceptionally low bid.
- Suggest you borrow money from a lender the contractor knows; this could be a scam to get you to sign a home equity loan.
Additional information about hiring a contractor is available from:
- Labor & Industries: www.contractors.lni.wa.gov
- Attorney General’s Office: /ConsumerIssues/Contractors/default.aspx
- Federal Trade Commission: www.ftc.gov.
Report an unregistered contractor to Labor and Industries by calling the agency’s fraud hotline at 1-888-811-5974 or file a complaint online at www.contractors.lni.wa.gov.
Report fraud to the Attorney General’s Office by filing a complaint online at https://fortress.wa.gov/atg/formhandler/ago/ComplaintForm.aspx or calling 1-800-551-4636.