The Alabama Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) advise Hurricane Katrina survivors to use extra caution when hiring contractors to clean, repair or rebuild damaged homes and property. Most businesses supplying these services are honest, but disasters may attract con artists. Consumers can protect themselves by staying alert.
Here are some tips for hiring contractors:
* Beware of anyone who claims to be “FEMA Certified.” This should send up a red flag. FEMA does not certify or endorse any contractors.
* Avoid door-to-door offers to do construction work or offers that appear too good to be true.
* Use reliable, licensed and insured contractors. Ask to see a license and proof of insurance.
* Call your area Better Business Bureau, local homebuilders association or trade council and ask if the contractor has any complaints against him or her.
* Check references. Contractors should be willing to provide the names of previous customers. Call several of them to make sure they were satisfied with the work.
* Ask for a written estimate. The estimate should detail the work to be done and have a set completion date. Be sure to read the fine print. Get more than one estimate to compare costs and services.
* Get a written contract. Read your contract carefully before signing and keep a copy for your records. Never sign an incomplete or blank contract. Make sure it clearly states in detail the work to be done and who is responsible for obtaining necessary permits. You may wish to have an attorney review the contract if it is a large project.
* Ask for a written guarantee. It should clearly state what work is covered and for how long, as well as who is responsible for fulfilling the guarantee (contractor, dealer or manufacturer).
* Make a final payment only when work is completed . Legitimate contractors normally do not require more than one-third of the total charges as a down payment, and give detailed initial cost breakdowns of materials. Don’t pay for the work up front or in cash and wait until the project is done to your satisfaction. A reputable contractor will not threaten or pressure you to sign off on the job if it is not finished properly.
* Get receipts for items purchased by the contractor.
If problems arise:
* Cancel the contract. This should be done within three business days of signing. By law you can cancel a contract within this time. 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 by calling the Alabama Attorney General’s Consumer Affairs hotline at 1-800-392-5658. Report fraud by calling the FEMA toll-free fraud hotline at 1-800-323-8603. More information is also available on line at www.fema.gov .
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