What’s worse than a natural disaster hitting your community? Cleanup and repair businesses taking advantage of vulnerable homeowners
Few expected the rain and catastrophic flooding that followed to be so extreme. But it was, and the damage is severe. A displaced family with two small children scramble to have their home repaired. They’re stuck in a motel, wasting money, and they’re desperate to get back home as quickly as possible.
This is an all-too-familiar story for Lisa McIntyre of Dry Effect, an I I C R C -certified water damage restoration firm in Cincinnati, Ohio. McIntyre is also the person who, too often, tells homeowners the work they paid a premium to get done quickly wasn’t done properly.
After the catastrophic floods in South Louisiana damaged 146,000 homes, McIntyre delivered the bad news to a family in Baton Rouge who paid a water remediation company to dry out their home. The work was incomplete, and McIntyre’s team had to finish the job and demolish larger sections of the house where lingering moisture increased the likelihood of mold issues.
“With any kind of natural disaster, it’s such an emotional, high-stress situation for residents who have damaged or completely destroyed homes and belongings,” says Erin Dufner, chief marketing officer for the Better Business Bureau (BBB) in Austin, Texas, which oversees 105 counties in the state. “Those people are vulnerable and need to make quick decisions. Scammers, or ‘storm chasers’ as they are sometimes referred, take advantage of this,” says Dufner.
Here, pro disaster recovery and cleanup specialists from around the country share insights about the most common post-disaster rebuild and renovation issues homeowners face.
The Disappearing Contractor
The typical scenario: A contractor receives a few payments, completes a portion of the work — sometimes poorly — and walks off the job with more money in his pocket than he put into the house.
This may be intentional, but it’s also common for contractors to take on more work than they’re equipped to handle post-disaster, says Liz McCartney, co-founder of SBP, a New Orleans-based non-profit organization that assists homeowners in rebuilding and recovery after natural disasters.
“While there are a lot of really good contractors out there, we’ve seen plenty of contractor fraud,” says McCartney. The most mind-blowing part? For some homeowners, it can take years to recover. “Every person in New Orleans seeking assistance from SBP, a full decade after Katrina, is due to contractor fraud,” says McCartney.
Before hiring a contractor — or anyone who works on your home — ask for documentation related to licensing and insurance, and call their insurer to confirm, says Kevin Pearson, president of Pearson Carpet Care, an I I C R C -certified water restoration company in Humble, Texas. Pearson has worked in disaster sites in Texas for nearly 25 years, and recalls a client who hired a company to remove a tree that fell on his house after Hurricane Ike in 2008. “The tree removal people wound up flattening a neighbor’s fence during the job,” says Pearson. “They were paid, and told the neighbor their insurance company would be in touch. The company was uninsured and never heard from again.”
Although local companies may be easier to work with, particularly if problems arise after the work is complete, local contractors don’t always have the equipment and manpower to handle the demand immediately after a disaster, says McIntyre. If local contractors aren’t available, hire companies that can show you the appropriate licenses to work in your state or town, and check the company’s track record and profile on BBB’s websites, says Dufner.
Legitimate contractors will give you a detailed estimate and contract in writing, and you should also request references, says Pearson. Get multiple bids if possible, and once you’ve hired, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office suggests taking a selfie with your contractor and photographing the contractor’s vehicle and license plate.
Finally: never pay for work in cash or pay the whole amount upfront. In general, a deposit equal to one-third of the total price, paid by check or credit card (keep all receipts), is standard practice. Just don’t let your payments get ahead of the work.
If you need to report a problem contractor, SBP’s McIntyre recommends calling the consumer division of your state Attorney General’s office. You can also submit a complaint with the Better Business Bureau or, for fraud involving disaster assistance programs, call the F E M A Waste, Fraud, and Abuse Hotline. The BBB’s Scam Tracker enables consumers and law enforcement agencies to post public warnings about potential scams in the area.
The Door-to-Door Sales Pitch
Be suspicious of door-to-door solicitors, who may be selling anything from debris removal to water-purification systems. “After the Texas floods this spring, my customer’s neighbor hired a random guy with a truck to haul piles of debris from his yard,” recalls Pearson. “The guy picked out all the metal and loaded it onto his trailer. He got his $300 and said he’d be back the next day for the rest. He never showed up.”
The District Attorney’s Office in Monterey County, California also warns that post-disaster swindlers may dump debris you paid them to remove on someone else’s private property or in a park, and you may be responsible for the further costs of removal.
Door-to-door scams tend to wave a few red flags. Be wary if the sales representative or worker:
- Is driving an unmarked vehicle
- Can only provide a phone number or P.O. Box, not a physical business address
- Uses high-pressure sales tactics (“I can only give you this deal today.”)
- Uses fear tactics (“You may have lifelong respiratory problems if you don’t deal with this now.”)
The Faulty Dry-out
Feeling the crush of hotel bills, the Baton Rouge couple who hired McIntyre initially hired a company selling services door-to-door. After removing the obvious water and running fans in the home, the company left after three days, assuring the homeowners everything was dry, says McIntyre.
“But the homeowners weren’t there to supervise, and there was no discussion of moisture meter readings or any proof given to the homeowners that the house was actually dry,” says McIntyre. “With the high humidity in Baton Rouge it was taking at least five days for houses to completely dry.”
A few weeks after returning from the catastrophic flood zone in Columbia, South Carolina, McIntyre received calls from eight flood victims in the area. Like the Baton Rouge couple, the first company they hired did not dry their homes completely or properly, says McIntyre.
With smelly, sewage-contaminated water in their homes, flood victims often rush to hire water remediation firms. Because mold starts germinating with 24 to 48 hours, McIntyre says homeowners need to act quickly, but researching the company and verifying their work is even more critical. McIntyre recommends reading online reviews, searching the BBB website for ratings, and looking for companies certified by the Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification (I I C R C), an organization that develops the standards and certifies technicians who are trained to industry standards for professional cleaning, water damage restoration, and mold remediation.
Throughout the dry-out process, companies should maintain and show you a “dry log,” a record of moisture readings, and at the end of the work, provide a certification of completion verifying your home or business is dry, says McIntyre.
The Fake Mold Certificate
Recently, SBP’s McCartney witnessed a new scam after the South Louisiana floods. “Homeowners are given outrageous quotes for mold remediation, in the ballpark of $8,000 to $15,000, and they’re told the fee includes a mold certificate that’s required when they sell their home,” says McCartney. According to an alert released by Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office, “mold-free” certificates are not required by any federal, state or local office.
The Storm Chaser’s Roof Damage Inspection
Here’s what happens: so-called storm chasers monitor reports of hail and wind events, and representatives go door-to-door in the area offering “free” inspections, says Chad Collins, co-owner of Bone Dry Roofing Company in Athens, Georgia and a board member of the National Roofing Contractors Association.
“Sometimes there is legitimate damage, but the fear factor homeowners have of climbing onto a roof makes it easy for contractors to create false damages,” says Collins. A contractor could knock holes in a shingle and tell homeowners the damage is similar all over the roof. Or, they might exaggerate the number of missing shingles. One reliable way to ensure honesty? “I’ve heard of roofing contractors taking a video with their phones from the time they climb up and the entire time they are on the roof,” says Collins. You can also request a set of photos (panoramic, if possible).
Collins says roofers may also create a sense of urgency to complete the repair, which can make some homeowners feel like there’s no time to get additional estimates for the work. These scammers may also hook a homeowner by making a temporary repair during the inspection and telling the homeowner they won’t charge for the repair if they hire the company to re-do the roof, says Collins.
Hiring a storm-chasing contractor to replace your roof can cost as much as twice the market rate you’d pay for a new roof with a licensed, reputable local contractor, according to Collins. The biggest red flag of all? Roofers who request cash or checks from homeowners to buy materials for the job. “It’s alarming how many of these roofers ask for money to order materials and then disappear,” says Collins, who notes that reputable companies handling significant roof repairs should be equipped to accept credit card payments.