Watch out for storm-chasing scammers

By Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - It's severe weather season and and shady contractors are ready for it.  Experts say they often travel from state to state looking for vulnerable homeowners in desperate need of repair help. 

Though many companies who are out doing storm damage cleanup and repairs are local and reputable and do good work, Angie's List says many others aren't. Instead, they do shoddy, little or no work and disappear after they get paid.

"When it comes to storm season the worst stories we hear about are times when someone had storm damage and gets taken advantage of by a contractor," warned Angie Hicks, founder of Angie's List. "It's important to understand who you are working with. You don't want to make the situation worse. Once you've had a problem: had a storm come through, have tree damage, make sure you assess it and do the same research you would when you are hiring a company under any circumstances."

Angie's List: Common "storm-chasing" scams to avoid

  • Just sign here: A common tactic for storm chasers is to try to strong-arm homeowners into signing a contract on the spot in exchange for a "discount." Often, these contracts include language that forces the homeowner to use that roofer if the insurance company agrees to pay for the work. Always read the fine print and be aware of what you're signing. A deal today should still be a deal tomorrow.
  • Pay me now: A big red flag is any company that demands full payment upfront. Most reputable roofers won't take payment until the job is complete, unless the project requires materials specially requested by the homeowner. Never sign over an insurance check before the job is done.

Angie's List says don't let your guard down. Storm chasing contractors will be on the prowl looking to take advantage of desperate and vulnerable homeowners. Storm chasing contractors often go from house to house after severe weather strikes looking for people who need help cleaning up storm damage.

Angie's List: How to steer clear of shady storm chasers

  • Just say no: If a stranger comes to your storm-ravaged yard offering to repair your roof, remove fallen trees, or perform other major work if you'll just pay cash, just say no.
  • Do your research: Be sure to check the status of the contractor's bonding and liability insurance.  Hire a company with a permanent, local address. You have few options if the contractor is from out of state, the job goes awry or the roofer disappears. 
  • Practice patience: When severe weather hits, tree services, roofers, plumbers, and hauling companies are in high demand. The best contractors are typically the busiest, so beware of the company with time on its hands.
  • Make sure you're there: Don't let anyone inspect your property without you present. They might fake damage with hammers or golf balls and drive up repair costs.
  • Understand your insurance: Learn what your insurance policy covers before a storm hits. Never sign over your homeowner's insurance settlement upfront and avoid a company that offers to pay or help with your deductible. In some states, deductible help is considered insurance fraud.
  • Get written estimates: While an offer of a quick fix can be tempting, avoid settling on the first contractor who comes along and offers to do the job. Get at least three different estimates in writing that cover price, materials, and a timeline for completing the job. Getting the details in writing is often the best ammunition should things go wrong.
  • Know your contract rights: Remember that in many areas you have a legal right to cancel a contract within three business days if you signed it based on the contractor's visit to your home. After natural disasters, state or local officials may extend that time frame. Don't sign a contract with blank spaces. Always obtain an original copy with both party's signatures.
  • Read the contractAvoid signing contracts that are vague or do not include an itemized list of the materials being used. Be sure to inspect materials upon delivery to ensure the company isn't trying to cut corners by skimping on materials or using inferior quality products.

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