Attorney General warns of repair scams

The North Carolina Attorney General is warning consumers about home repair schemes that cost homeowners thousands of dollars each year.

With strong convection storms ripping through the state nearly every week, Attorney General Roy Cooper is asking North Carolina homeowners to “do their homework” before signing a contract or paying any money for repairs.

“While there are many reputable contractors who do a good job, my office gets hundreds of complaints each year about repair jobs that are never finished, contractors who abandon the job after getting paid, substandard work, missed deadlines and cost overruns,” Cooper said. “We also hear about scam artists who target seniors, attempting to talk homeowners into a series of unnecessary and expensive projects.”

In the past year, the attorney general’s Consumer Protection Division stopped multiple home repair schemes that cost consumers, including a Hickory replacement window company that forced homeowners to pay money they didn’t owe.

In 2008, Cooper alleged that The Window Pros of Hickory failed to provide customers with written and verbal notification of their three-day rights to reconsider and cancel a sale. The attorney general also alleged that Window Pros engaged in threats and other pressure tactics designed to get homeowners to cancel, waive or withdraw their decisions to cancel their sale, according to court documents.

After Window Pros denied the claims by attributing any such actions to one terminated employee, the attorney general and window company reached a settlement agreement in 2010. The agreement will cost Window Pros $50,000 during three years — money will be applied to consumer restitution, attorneys’ fees, consumer education, enforcement or other consumer protection purposes, according to court documents.

Citizens who think they are being scammed can contact the attorney general’s Consumer Protection Division.

“We respond to 20,000 consumer complaints each year,” according to the division's website. “If we find a pattern of illegal business practices, we can enforce the law on behalf of all North Carolina consumers. While we can’t represent you in a private legal case, we may be able to help if you didn’t get what you paid for or were tricked into a bad deal.”

To report a claim, call 1-877-5-NO-SCAM.

Cooper recommends that citizens do more do-it-yourself projects around the house, but said sometimes professional assistance is required. When home repair help is necessary, Cooper recommends the following to protect your money and your home from scammers:

Shop around. Seek recommendations from friends, neighbors, co-workers and others who got work done on their homes recently.

Check credentials. Check with the Consumer Protection office at (877)-5-NO-SCAM and your local Better Business Bureau to learn about the contractor’s complaint history. Ask to see the contractor’s insurance policy, especially for roofing, painting or tree removal services. If the contractor is uninsured, you may be liable if an accident occurs on your property.

Beware of fly-by-night contractors. Don’t do business with strangers who knock on your door promising immediate home repair in exchange for up-front payment.

Say no to now or never offers. Steer clear of any contractor who tries to rush you or says that a price is only good today.

Get three written estimates. Compare them and be sure to check out each contractor’s qualifications and references.

Get it in writing. Once you’ve chosen a contractor, ask for a written contract detailing the work to be performed. It should specify the quality of materials to be used, the total price for labor and materials, any warranties or guarantees, the start and finish dates, and who will be responsible for clean-up.

Study the contract carefully. Don’t sign any contract without examining it closely, and don’t get pressured into signing it before you’re ready. If you sign a home improvement contract at your home rather than at the contractor’s place of business, you have three business days to cancel the contract under North Carolina law.

Don’t pay up front. Try to pay once the project is completed, or in installments as phases of the work are finished. A reasonable down payment may be required for some projects, but don’t pay anything without getting a written contract first.

Avoid paying with cash. If possible, pay by check or credit card. If a small contractor claims to need a lot of money in advance for supplies and materials, it may be a bad sign. Instead, consider purchasing the supplies and materials yourself and paying for the labor once the project is finished.

Follow the project closely. Bring problems to the attention of your contractor promptly. If you’re building a home or taking on a major renovation, you may want to hire a home inspector or other construction expert to help you spot and fix problems.

Keep a punch list. Make a note of any problems on your “punch list” of items to be fixed by the builder. Make sure the list includes a deadline for completion of the work.

Don’t pay until you’re satisfied. Do not make a final payment until you’ve inspected the work thoroughly and agree that it has been completed as spelled out in your contract.