Are you alert for home repair scams at all times? Like many homeowners, you may associate home repair scams with the warmer months of summer and early fall. Although such scams peak at these times of year, "contractor" con artists are active year round.

As a smart homeowner, be alert for some of the most popular scams profiled in this report.

In fact, home improvement or home repair scams are among the top consumer complaints in most states every year. As a smart homeowner, be alert for some of the most popular scams profiled in this report. Tips from consumer and building industry experts can also help you select one of the many reputable home repair services and contractors. They'll also help you avoid scammers who do shoddy work, steal money advanced for repairs, and otherwise damage your wallet and your home.

Popular Home Repair Scams

Watch out for the following rip-offs year round.

  • After the storm "repairs." Whenever storms cause damage to homes, the con artists show up immediately. Many go door-to-door offering to repair storm damage at a discount. Offers may also arrive via phone, email, or even snail mail. Your best option is just to say "no." Many of these door-to-door individuals are what Consumer Reports calls "dupe-and-dash" con artists who usually travel the country working their scams. Work with your insurance agent to secure references to reputable contractors and use the tips below to select the right company or contractor for the job.

  • "While cleaning your gutters, we noticed problems with your roof." In this con, the people you've hired to do one simple job—cleaning gutters or sweeping chimneys are popular—"find" another problem. Usually they say that you should make immediate repairs to stop further damage or protect yourself—and, of course, they can give you a deal to make the repairs. Some may even damage the roof or chimney, for instance, so they'll be able to show you a "problem." Slow down. Never agree immediately to such offers. If you think there may be a genuine problem, select other reputable contractors for inspections and written estimates of needed repairs. If the service that identified the problem is local and has a good reputation and track record, you may wish to ask them also to compete for the job.

  • "We've got leftover materials from a nearby project, so we can offer you a deep discount." Resurfacing driveways, making roof repairs, and painting home exteriors are popular targets for this scam. The offer is usually made door-to-door and it's one of the oldest scams around. The scam artists typically take your money up front and, if they do the job, they typically use inferior materials or fake materials. Using old motor oil to "seal" driveways and watering down paint are two examples of popular fake materials.

  • "Your home is probably costing you thousands of dollars in lost energy costs. We'll audit your home's energy use for free. We can then 'upgrade' your energy efficiency with our cost-effective products." The problem here is that this advertising approach is used by both reputable companies and hucksters. For example, among the reputable services, your local utilities (such as the power or gas company) may provide a very good free energy audit and, if needed, make recommendations for improvements and give qualified estimates of potential savings. In contrast, the hucksters typically exaggerate the potential savings of "upgrades." They also give you the hard sell for their product or service, pushing you to act quickly; they may say something like "this deal is only good today (or this week)." Such hucksters often push products such as additional insulation (or a "new" insulation system), new storm-windows or regular windows, and various solar energy (or other alternative energy) projects. The difficulty here is separating the good guys (and projects) from the hucksters. Check out service providers using the steps discussed later in this report and also educate yourself using independent resources about good products and realistic savings that energy use improvements may provide.

  • "We'll do this home improvement project at a deep discount, if you'll let us use your home as a model." Could such an offer be a good opportunity to save? Sometimes—but not usually. Popular targets are remodeling kitchens and bathrooms and adding decks. So be wary. Check out the company or contractor very carefully. Get estimates from reputable contractors you've checked out, make sure all estimates and agreements are in writing, and that you've followed the other recommended steps for securing the right contractor for your project.

Tips for Securing the Right Contractor

Following these simple steps can help you select the best contractor or service for your home repair or improvement projects.

  • Just say no to solicitations, particularly door-to-door offers. Door-to-door offers are the favorite ploy of home repair scammers. Also be cautious with online, email or other advertising offers, even though reputable companies may use these marketing tools. Always check out every company or contractor with independent research.

  • Educate yourself about what's involved in your project. The more you know about an intended project (such as roofing repairs, an exterior paint job, or a kitchen remodel), the more equipped you'll be to talk to potential contractors, understand what the project entails, and judge project estimates. The Internet provides many sound, independent sources of information and your local library has many good books.

  • Get recommendations. Ask friends, neighbors, and relatives for recommendations of companies or contractors with which they have had a good, successful experience with a similar project. Your insurance company may also be a good source for recommendations.

  • Check out the companies you are considering. Check any complaints registered with local or state consumer protection agencies and with the Better Business Bureau. Consider how long the company has been in business and its track record. Be sure that the company is properly licensed, bonded, and insured. Online review services may also be helpful.

  • Get estimates from three companies. Estimates should be in writing and should detail the scope of the project, the cost of materials and labor, the payment schedule, and how any contingencies will be handled (such as discovering that the repair needed is more extensive).

  • Sign a written contract. You and the contractor should have a written agreement that covers all aspects of the project as you have determined based on the estimate. A written contract protects both you and the contractor.

  • Never pay the whole project cost upfront. A typical payment schedule is a third on signing the contract, a third when the project is half-completed, and a third when the project is completed to your satisfaction. Asking or demanding total payment upfront is typical of scam artists.

  • Don't use contractor-related financing. Even if the contractor links you up with a reputable third-party financing source, this practice is filled with pitfalls. If you need to finance the repair, do it independently. The FoolProof Foundation offers loans with very competitive terms.

Achieving Your Goal—a Good Repair Job at a Fair Price

You've made a big investment in your home, and keeping it in good repair maintains its value. Taking the time to check out and contract with the right repair service for any home repair or improvement is the best way to ensure a successful project that protects your home and your wallet.

For More Information

The Home Improvement site from the Federal Trade Commission offers articles on many issues related to home repairs and home improvements.