As the summer season approaches, many property owners may look to renovate their homes and cabins during the warmer months.
This often involves hiring a contractor. Experts say there are some basic things property owners need to be aware of when they’re looking to have work done.
Director of Consumer Protection Michael Domke said during a webinar broadcasted by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection that fraud remains a risk. The issue has seen growth in recent years, Domke said, so the agency is making a concerted effort to prevent future fraud.
“There’s a lot of moving parts when it comes to any type of home improvement building, even after disaster,” Domke said. “When we talk about consumer protection, it’s often after when you become victimized or something’s gone wrong, but we really want to emphasize how you can protect yourself upfront.”
When dealing with contractors, Domke said, homeowners need to clearly communicate what they want, only commit to a contract when they’re absolutely 100% comfortable, and make sure to get everything in writing, so as it maintain a detailed paper trail to fall back on.
Typically, Domke said, when fraud occurs, it takes place when:
- A contractor overcharges a homeowner for completed work.
- A contractor bills the homeowner for materials they agreed to purchase themselves.
- A contractor fails to complete all items listed for the project.
- A contractor fails to undertake the project whatsoever and takes the money without fulfilling a contract.
Often, scammers take advantage of homeowners who are afraid to speak up or show their lack of experience with home improvement.
As such, Domke said, homeowners need to put their pride aside and be willing to ask many, thorough questions. It is during this process that red flags often emerge. Spotting them can be the difference between thousands in losses or a successful project.
“The key to the estimate of the contract is so make sure you understand exactly what you’re getting, what’s being asked for and when it’s going to be done,” Domke said. “It is not a contract, it’s just an estimate at that point, so it is going to be reflective of what the supply costs and maybe even the labor costs at that time when you get it. If the price changes, it could be the economy. If the estimate is very, very low, that’s a red flag.”
Domke advised homeowners to seek out multiple contractors — preferably, three or four or more — to give estimates and only accept estimates if the contractor bases their assessment on site. Homeowners should always have a lien waiver attached. Having a detailed, mutually-agreed upon and written contract serves as an incentive for the contractor and protects the homeowner from cut corners or missing items.
In short, Domke said homeowners should reference the following list of key points:
- Always get more than one written estimate.
- Always make sure that all contractors are bidding on exactly the same work.
- Always make sure the contractor visits the job site rather than giving a phone estimate.
- Always be leery of a low estimate. Dealing with multiple contractors aids on this front, as it illustrates when an estimate falls below the typical market rate.
- Always ask for the names of the contractor’s recent customers and contact them to see if they are satisfied.
- Always contact the Consumer Protection Bureau to determine if complaints have been filed against the contractor. Homeowners can do so through the DATCP homepage, or call 800-422-7128.