For post-hurricane rebuilding, only hire contractors you can trust
Sounds of buzzing saws and pounding hammers fill the air as rebuilding continues after Hurricane Matthew. But some of those workers might not be licensed, insured or qualified, and that could lead to costly trouble for homeowners who fall for their pitches.
Southern Beaufort County residents, however, can ensure their homes get needed repairs in a cost-effective and proper way by taking some precautions. The measures take extra time, but they can save you lots of money and frustration in the long run.
NO WORK, NO PAY
The two biggest mistakes homeowners make are paying too much upfront for work and hiring unlicensed companies, according to the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
Both leave the homeowner vulnerable to scams in which the company gets paid, but the work is shoddy, doesn’t get finished or never occurs.
“If they ask for money upfront, it’s definitely a no,” says Meg James, executive officer of the Hilton Head Area Home Builders Association.
It’s also a misdemeanor for unlicensed companies to operate in South Carolina. Conviction can lead to jail time, a fine or both. Still, fly-by-night operations will take the risk. James urges people to be extra vigilant when hiring a subcontractor.
“If they tell you that they’re licensed, don’t just take their word for it — look it up, get a reference, make that phone call,” she says. “It will save you in the end.”
The Hilton Head Area Home Builders Association will look up subcontractors’ local and state licensing for residents. The association can be reached at 843-681-9240. You can search the state licensing office at www.llronline.com or check with your town’s licensing office.
The Town of Hilton Head Island is on the lookout for unlicensed workers and those who don’t have the necessary permits. To prevent against unlicensed or unpermitted work, the town has placed green, yellow or red placards on homes. Green is for minor repairs that don’t require a permit. Yellow means work can begin after a permit is obtained, and that permit replaces the yellow placard on the home. The red placard can’t be removed until receiving approval from a building official.
James said she has heard of some unscrupulous businesses creating fake green placards to avoid having to get permits. She’s also heard of cases in which companies get licensed for one specific type of work but will perform other work they are not licensed to do.
GET IT IN WRITING
Once you’ve found a company that won’t charge you upfront for the work and its licenses and references check out — and someone didn’t just show up at your door unannounced to solicit your business — the state licensing office and the National Home Builders Association offer some further tips to keep in mind:
- Make sure you get a signed contract for all work to be done and for the price. Without a signed contract, you aren’t protected if something goes wrong. Make sure you save a copy of the contract.
- Don’t sign anything before you’ve hired the company. Some scammers will try to get you to sign an “estimate” or “authorization” that could turn out to be a binding contract.
- Verify the contractor’s cancellation policy, such as what you have to do to opt out and what fees may be required.
- If possible, get more than one estimate.
- Avoid high-pressure sales tactics or offers of “special pricing.”
- Beware of companies that vastly underbid other contractors. They may cut corners, which could cost you more in the long run.
- Check with the Better Business Bureau and conduct online searches to see if there are any complaints against the company. The Hilton Head Area Home Builders Association can offer a list of reputable contractors. You can also check out the company with the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs by calling 800-922-1594 or by going to www.consumer.sc.gov.
- Pay by credit card or check, not cash.
- Don’t pay until the work is done and you have inspected it, making sure the company followed the contract.
- Get a receipt for all payments and save those receipts.
REPORT SUSPICIOUS ACTIVITY
Unlicensed contractors should be reported to the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation at 803-896-4300. They should also be reported to the appropriate local government’s business license office.
And if you need legal assistance but can’t afford an attorney, the state of South Carolina has set up a toll-free legal hotline at 877-797-2227, ext. 120.