FEMA Warning Louisiana Residents to Watch for Unlicensed Contractors

January 26, 2006

Whether they are architectural, engineering, electrical, or general contractors, most service providers in the building industry are honest. But disasters invariably attract scam artists, so consumers must be vigilant in protecting themselves.

“It’s unfortunate, but disasters often bring scam artists into the area to take advantage of the situation,” said Scott Wells, federal coordinating officer. “Some scam artists claim to be FEMA certified. FEMA neither certifies nor endorses any private-sector contractor.”

Here’s what to be mindful of:

* Beware “FEMA Certified.” This can signal a scam. FEMA does NOT certify or endorse any contractor.
* Get a written estimate. Compare services and prices before making a final decision. Also, read the fine print. Some contractors charge a fee for a written estimate, which is often applied to the price of subsequent repairs they make.
* Check references. Contractors should be willing to provide the names of previous customers. Call several former customers who had similar work done to make sure they were satisfied with the job.
* Ask for proof of insurance. Make sure the contractor carries general liability insurance and workers’ compensation. If the contractor is not insured, the homeowner may be liable for accidents that occur on the property.
* Use reliable, licensed contractors. Call your local Better Business Bureau to inquire about a business before signing a contract.
Insist on a written contract. A complete contract should clearly state all the tasks to be performed, all associated costs and the payment schedule. Never sign a blank contract or one with blank spaces.
* Make sure the contract clearly states who will apply for the necessary permits or licenses. Have a lawyer review the contract if substantial costs are involved, and keep a copy for your records.
* Get any guarantees in writing. Any guarantees made by the contractor should be written into the contract. The guarantee should clearly state what is guaranteed, who is responsible for the guarantee and how long the guarantee is valid.
* Obtain a local building permit if required. Permits may be required for site work, other than demolition, and for reconstruction. Contact your local government for permit information.
* Make final payments when the work is completed. Do not sign completion papers or make the final payment until the work is completed to your satisfaction. A reputable contractor will not threaten you or pressure you to sign if the job is not finished properly.
* Pay by check. Avoid on-the-spot cash payments. The safest route is to write a check to the contracting company. A reasonable down payment is 30 percent of the total cost of the project, to be paid upon initial delivery of materials. Federal law gives consumers a three-day “cooling off” period for unsolicited door-to-door sales of more than $25.
* Canceling a contract. This should be done within three business days of signing. Be sure to follow the procedures for cancellation that are set out in the contract. Send the notification by registered mail with a return receipt to be signed by the contractor.
* Report problems with a contractor or fraud to your state Office of the Attorney General.

Consumers can find a list of state-licensed contractors, plus a variety of relevant resources by logging on to the Louisiana State Licensing Board for Contractors Web site at http://www.lslbc.state.la.us/findcontractor.asp. Licenses may also be verified by calling 225-765-2301. Unlicensed activity may be reported to the Office of Compliance at 225-765-2301.

For more tips regarding hiring a contractor, visit http://www.fema.gov/press/2005/recoverytips.shtm .

The Louisiana State Licensing Board for Contractors will be a resource in helping consumers guard against hiring illegitimate or unscrupulous contractors. Information is provided on specific licensing and permit issues. The Web site also provides a means to search for contractors by location, areas of specialty and license number.

This agency will also ensure that the out-of-state credentials are reciprocal with Louisiana qualifications.

Rules worth repeating are, never pay in cash or pay more than a reasonable down payment before the work is completed, always check references and make sure the contractor has the necessary insurance to protect workers. State-licensed contractors will be more than willing to show potential customers their license.

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