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Don’t Lose Your Shirt When You Fix Your House

Nov. 13, 2012
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We seniors are home more than we used to be, and at the same time we’re a little less willing to climb up and clean out those gutters, or wrestle that stump out of the back yard. But with an older home, there seem to be more and more of those things that need doing. We’re also – some of us, at least – more trusting on average, and less likely to challenge the opinion of people who claim to be experts.

This makes us prime targets for some of the classic home-repair scams.

It’s good to remember that there’s a whole class of con artists who move from town to town and state to state posing as contractors, looking for trusting seniors to fleece. You won’t find them in the phone book, and they’re probably not licensed; as a matter of fact, they’re generally not very good at anything other than talking fast and – if necessary – intimidation. But they’re great at spreading oil on an asphalt driveway or spraying silver paint on a roof.

Stories abound of seniors who answer the door to find a helpful stranger with a truck offering to help them with their roof, or their driveway, or their rain gutters, or that shaky railing on the porch. By the time the friendly workman has departed, the householder is out several thousand dollars – and the house itself may be in worse shape than it was to begin with.

The most predatory – and remunerative – home-repair scams are set in motion when a homeowner tells the “contractor” that she doesn’t have the money to pay for the repairs he’s suggesting. But he knows that with any luck there’s more than enough equity in the house itself to finance several such schemes. Countless homeowners have taken out home-equity loans, mortgages, or even reverse mortgages to pay for shoddy repairs on their property. Some have lost their homes in the process.

The rules for avoiding being involved in a home-repair scam are by and large the same ones that come in handy any time you’re contemplating spending a healthy chunk of money:

  • Know who you’re dealing with. Someone who turns up out of nowhere with a convincing spiel should raise your suspicions. As with any large expense search out recommendations from people you know and trust.
  • Don’t be rushed. Feeling pressured? That’s a really bad sign. If something is a good deal, it will stand some scrutiny.
  • Be skeptical about unbelievable bargains. You know what they say about something that sounds too good to be true. It’s essential to get several bids before agreeing to any work on your house. That’s the way to find a bargain.
  • Stay involved. Ask for references, and check them out. Get one for when the job wasn’t right the first time and the contractor had to go back. Take pictures as the work progresses.
  • Don’t be intimidated. Con men often make promises that don’t appear in the contract they ask you to sign. They’ll even suggest a blank contract. You’re the boss here; the sooner you draw the line at this kind of stuff, the better off you’ll be.
  • Ask for help. Can’t climb a ladder to look at the work? You probably know someone who can. And if you ever feel threatened – it happens – call 911 immediately.

The tales of woe are endless, but the overall picture is surprisingly the same. Be alert for the danger signs. Be prepared to say No – just before you tell the police you think you have a con artist in the neighborhood. And if you know someone who’s living alone and might fall prey to one of these schemes, let them know that they can call you for advice if they should feel pressured by a friendly stranger in overalls.