5 Biggest Home Repair Rip-offs

When Ron Harrison was buying his house outside Atlanta, the professor of entomology at Mercer University wanted to inspect it

When Ron Harrison was buying his house outside Atlanta, the professor of entomology at Mercer University wanted to inspect it for termites himself. With the help of two knowledgeable colleagues, he gave the home a clean bill of health.

At the closing, though, Harrison got a surprise. The house had recently been treated for termites. But he could tell that it never had termites. The seller had been ripped off for more than $1,000 — by a pest control firm that had both inspected and treated the house.

Home repair rip-offs are on the rise, up 60 percent over the past five years, according to the Council of Better Business Bureaus. And the cons could cost you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

Here’s how today’s five biggest scams work, and what you can do to protect yourself.

Leaky Roof Wrangling
The Rip-Off
Water is coming through your roof. Or is it? A con artist will say water is seeping through the shingles and you need to tear off all the old layers and build a new roof, a job that typically costs $5,000 or more.

The Reality

Most of the time, roof leaks occur because the sealing around vent pipes has failed, the metal flashing on the chimney has deteriorated or the connections between roof sections have eroded. Replacing the sealing or flashing, simply and cheaply, will often solve the problem.

Normally, an asphalt shingle roof lasts 15 to 20 years. You need to replace the roof if you see curling or missing shingles or a large amount of granular material from the shingles collecting in gutters.

Don’t get talked into having the bad roof torn off, at a potential 50 percent increase in costs, unless your building code demands it. Many towns will allow a second or even third asphalt roof to be installed if the home’s framing can support the extra weight.

And beware a roofer who says you need an entirely new deck, the wood base beneath the shingles. That will cost thousands of dollars more. In fact, a completely new deck is needed only one in 1,000 times. Usually only a portion of a deck needs to be replaced, but only if it’s rotted.

Basement Boondoggle
The Rip-Off
If your basement is chronically wet, unscrupulous contractors might tell you they need to dig out your entire foundation and waterproof it, for anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000. More often, though, the solution is simple and costs very little.

The Reality

Many basement leaks are caused by overflow from clogged gutters, misrouted downspouts, unsloped land around the house or even improperly aimed lawn sprinklers.

“Think of your masonry foundation as a rigid sponge,” explains waterproofing expert Richard Barako. If the water volume is above normal, water will wick through the cinder blocks. So before calling in professional help, try to reduce the moisture along the foundation by cleaning gutters, rerouting downspouts, repositioning sprinklers, or packing fresh soil six inches high against the foundation and sloping it back to level within about three feet.

Damp walls may be caused by high humidity. To test, attach a piece of aluminum foil to the foundation wall; if moisture shows up on the patch in a day or two, it’s just condensation. Start shopping for a dehumidifier.

If water is still seeping in, repair any cracks with hydraulic cement, available at home stores, and apply a quality waterproof paint such as Latex Base Drylok Masonry Waterproofer. As a last resort, consider hiring a professional engineer, whose impartial advice would be worth the expense. Home inspectors are less expensive, but be sure they’re certified by the American Society of Home Inspectors.

The Rip-Off

Myths about termites abound. In a recent survey by the University of Kentucky, 60 percent of people thought termites could take a house down in six months or less. Nothing could be further from the truth, yet con artists use this fear to pressure homeowners into quickly signing on the dotted line for unnecessary or shoddy work that could cost up to $3,000.

The Reality
By arming yourself with a few facts, you’ll be able to ask informed questions and avoid a scam. The most common termite in the United States is the subterranean, of which there are two main kinds: workers and swarmers, or winged termites. The workers hollow out the wood, while swarmers mate and create new colonies. Termites live underground and burrow through soil until they find wood or woodlike products, and water. To get into your house, they’ll often build moist, earthen tunnels across foundations to your home’s lower frames, a clear sign of infestation.

Wood that’s been damaged by termites is hollowed out along the grain, with bits of dried mud or soil lining the feeding galleries. Be wary of exterminators showing you termites on wood piles or fences unconnected to your house: This may be a scam. You have a problem only if there’s evidence of termites inside the house or close to the foundation.

Bugs flying in the home during the spring are another sign of infestation. These may be flying ants, however. Termites have a full waist, straight antennae and wings of equal length; ants have elbowed antennae, pinched waists and forewings longer than hindwings.

There are more than 17,000 pest control companies in the United States, but bigger doesn’t always mean better. You want a firm with good recommendations, lots of experience and a fair price. Question the company carefully and ask that it send an experienced technician, says Michael Potter, a professor of entomology at the University of Kentucky. And if an exterminator claims you have termites, he should show you the evidence.

Some companies charge thousands for a typical job that could be done for less than $1,000, so take notes on the exact kind of treatment and compare apples and apples when getting estimates. See at least two or three companies before hiring one.
And don’t skip the guarantee. Pest control firms offer two types: “re-treatment,” meaning the company will re-treat any area where termites show up again, and “repair,” meaning it’ll fix any damage caused by the pests. Such agreements tend to be complex and may be limited in coverage; read carefully before you sign. In either case, buy the guarantee that lasts at least five years. The relatively small annual fee (usually 10 percent of the original price) is well worth it. Even if the initial treatment was successful, termites could still be back within a year.

Chimney Sweep Swindle
The Rip-Off
In a classic bait and switch scam, a chimney sweep calls from a “boiler room” or comes to your door telling you he’s just fixed a neighbor’s chimney and is offering an inspection for the low price of $39.95. Once inside the chimney, he may claim to find problems, saying you need a new liner, for instance. Suddenly that $39.95 price tag rises thousands of dollars.

The Reality
There’s no ques-tion fireplace chimneys can be hazardous. An oily, blackish substance called creosote accumulates inside the chimney and may catch fire if it’s more than a quarter-inch thick. Occasionally, but not as often as chimney sweeps would have you believe, a blocked chimney can route carbon monoxide into your house.

Experts recommend an annual inspection to check for creosote buildup and the structural soundness of the chimney. This usually costs $100 to $250 (not that ridiculous $39.95), and if cleaning is required, an additional $100 to $150. Hire only certified chimney sweeps who’ve been taught and tested by the Chimney Safety Institute of America. Also, watch the technician as he makes his inspection. Lately, sweeps are using video cameras fed down the flue, so ask to see the video and have the technician explain it as you watch. If he balks, he’s scamming you.

Chimneys for oil and gas burners are far less a concern. An oil-heat system that’s serviced every year before winter hardly ever causes problems, says Kevin Rooney, CEO of the Oil Heat Institute of Long Island. But before you look for a professional chimney sweep, call your local fire department; some conduct inspections for free.

Mold Mayhem
The Rip-Off
Mold is making a comeback — not in your home, necessarily, but with con artists, especially since Hurricane Katrina. Playing up fears about disease from mold, particularly over the Internet, they try to convince you to run $300 to $600 tests to identify your mold. Then they recommend a remediation company for removing the mold — a firm they’re in cahoots with.

The Reality

What you need to know about mold is simple: Healthy people usually have nothing to worry about. “If you’re immunosuppressed or have allergies or asthma, it can be problematic,” says David B. Callahan, MD, medical epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Other than that, mold isn’t dangerous.”

The CDC doesn’t even recommend testing mold, because if it’s a problem to the occupants, it should be removed no matter what kind it is. And you don’t need a remediation company for small areas. Just clean nonporous surfaces with soap and water, followed by a solution of one cup bleach mixed with one gallon water. To control future growth, eliminate excess moisture by keeping humidity levels between 40 and 60 percent. Promptly fix leaky roofs, windows and pipes, and ventilate shower, laundry and cooking areas.

The CDC (www.cdc.gov) and Environmental Protection Agency (www.epa.gov) have plenty of good information on their sites — for free.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest