There are many honest, hardworking craftsmen out there eager to get your business as a homeowner. But summer is also prime time for "con-tractors" intent on scamming their customers, especially older ones.
See also: 7 steps to hiring a contractor.
And often these types give themselves away with some simple words from their mouths. Among the phrases that should raise your radar:
1. "I was in the neighborhood."
Beware of the handyman who comes knocking unsolicited, with news that he happened to notice some problem with your home's roof, driveway, chimney, windows, etc., while driving by or working on a neighbor's home.
Alarm bells should ring if he comes calling with a buddy or his truck has out-of-state license plates.
Good contractors are usually too busy to make unsolicited house calls, rarely have to travel far for work, and may lack x-ray vision. For the scammers, the goal is to do a fast and faulty repair — like applying used motor oil to coat driveways or roof shingles. You only get wise to it after they've been paid and vanished.
When a pair of this kind comes knocking, it's not uncommon for one to try to distract you (often outside) while the other sneaks inside for a quick burglary.
2. "I need cash upfront. Or at least a large deposit."
Never pay upfront — it's too easy for a fix-it fraudster to take the money and run (often under the guise of "leaving to buy materials"). Legitimate contractors have credit lines to buy materials and don't charge before the work is complete.
And although a deposit is often warranted for huge jobs — such as a complete kitchen renovation or new siding, roof and windows — it should be no more than a third of the total estimate (materials and labor), payable on the day materials arrive at the job site, suggests Tom Silva of the long-running public television program This Old House.
3. "I can help you finance the project."
Assuming your contractor isn't named J.P. Morgan, pass on these offers. What contractors claim is a special deal with a lender could really be a home improvement loan scam.
If you sign, you may be socked with kickback-earning high interest rates, fees and points, or unknowingly agree to borrow far more than the project costs. There have even been cases of owners signing over the home to the contractor or his associates.
Sometimes these loans are the fraudster's real incentive. And once paperwork is signed, "the contractor, who may have been paid by the lender, has little interest in completing the work to your satisfaction," says the Federal Trade Commission.
4. "Check my references."
Indeed, you want to hear this. But you should understand that sleazy contractors can easily supply the names and phone numbers of buddies to give bogus praise. What you want — and will get, from legit workmen — are the names of past local customers, neighbors whose homes can be visited to check their work.
It's also smart to check the local courthouse and your state's contractor licensing board, asking about any current or past lawsuits against the contractor. You'll also want a copy of the contractor's license.
Other calls worth making: Your town's building inspector, who may only be allowed to verify a workman's credentials. Saying nothing may be code for "pass on this guy."
Or try specialty lumber yards and plumbing and electrical supply stores where reputable contractors are likely to be known.
5. "We have a special limited-time offer."
This mantra is common among summertime door-to-door salesmen who claim to represent home improvement companies. And sometimes they do. But any legitimate offer for today should be honored in coming weeks, after you've had a chance to shop around and check references.
6. "I have leftover materials from another job."
His leftovers, his problem — but hiring him could be yours. At best, assume this phrase means the contractor is inexperienced or incompetent for not accurately estimating what was needed for the earlier job. And what does that say about the price he'll quote for yours?
You should suspect that, at worst, he purposely cheated the last customer by overbuying, never finished the job or is just cruising neighborhoods looking for "act now" patsies who believe that unused two-by-fours or roof shingles will spoil on the back of his truck. Don't be one of them.
Also of interest: 3 reasons why older adults may fall for scams. >>
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.