BBB Tips for Rebuilding After Northern California Fires

As evacuees return to their homes and begin to assess the fire damage, one of the biggest questions on their minds might be how to rebuild. Although there is usually an outpouring of support and generosity from the public after a tragedy, unethical businesses may also emerge to try to take advantage of those recovering.

It’s important for those affected by the fires to do their research when hiring a business. In 2016, consumers nationwide filed more than 6,000 combined complaints against both remodel as well as repair contractors and general contractors with BBB. Complaints frequently involved workers doing a shoddy job and consumers having trouble getting their problems resolved.

The following BBB tips will help fire victims rebuild and recover:

  • Watch out for storm chasers and home improvement scams. According to the BBB Risk Index, home improvement scams are the most risky scam to consumers. In 2016, 53% of scam victims reported losing money, and the median loss was $1,425. Unfortunately, consumers in fire-stricken zones may see a surge in “storm chasers” looking to make money off of their misfortune. Consider it a red flag if: a worker shows up on your doorstep unannounced without identification; someone offers a “too good to be true” deal or uses high-pressure sales tactics; a worker claims they just finished a job down the street and have left-over materials; the contractor doesn’t have a permanent place of business; the worker claims to be FEMA-certified; or if anyone asks for personal information like bank account or Social Security numbers. Visit org/homescam to learn more.
  • Check with your insurance. As soon as you can, call your insurance provider and ask about policy coverage and specific filing requirements. Take pictures of the damage, and make sure to save all receipts, including those for food, temporary lodging, or other expenses that may be covered under your policy.
  • Take your time. Although you may be anxious to get things back to normal, avoid letting your emotions get the better of you. Don’t be pressured into making an immediate decision with a long-term impact. Be proactive in selecting a business and not reactive to sales solicitations. Make temporary repairs if necessary. Don’t rush into decisions and don’t automatically hire the first contractor who comes along.
  • How to find a business. Visit org to find a trustworthy contractor near you. A contractor’s BBB Business Profile includes company information, a BBB rating, a complaint history, and reviews from past customers. Look for a contractor that specializes in the work you need to be done – whether it be smoke damage, rebuilding, or debris removal. Take time to shop around and get three estimates based on the same specifications and materials. It’s also important to ask for, and check, references.
  • Make sure they’re licensed. According to the Contractors State License Board (CSLB), “it is a felony to contract without a license in a declared disaster area”. You can easily verify licenses at cslb.ca.gov. To become licensed, “a contractor must pass two licensing exams, verify at least four years of journey-level experience, carry a license bond, and pass a criminal background check” (CSLB). CSLB licenses contractors in 43 different classifications, so verify that the contractor holds a license for the work you are having done. Ask for proof of insurance as well.
  • Get it in writing. Make sure you get a written contract from anyone you hire. It should specify the work to be done, the materials to be used, and the price breakdown for both labor and materials. The more details, the better! Any promises made orally should be written into the contract, including warranties on materials or labor. Be sure their name, address, license number and phone number along with a start and end date for the work are included in the contract. Read and understand the contract in its entirety and don’t sign a blank contract. A copy of the signed contract should be given to you when you sign. Monitor the progress of the project and keep a paper trail of all documents.
  • Don’t pay in full before work starts. Never pay full price in advance and don’t be pressured to pay cash. Establish a payment schedule. Do not make a final payment until you are satisfied with the completed work. CSLB advises that you pay no more than ten percent down or $1,000 – whichever is less. Don’t let the payments get ahead of the work.
  • What to do if you have a problem. If you’re having issues with your contractor and, despite your efforts, they can’t be fixed, you have resources. File a complaint with your BBB at org/complain. It’s also wise to file a complaint with CSLB. To report home improvement scams, or any other type of scam, visit BBB Scam Tracker at bbb.org/scamtracker.

Please visit go.bbb.org/sf-norcalwildfires for more Northern California wildfire resources, including tips for donating, rebuilding, and avoiding

Rebecca is the Community Outreach Coordinator for BBB serving the San Francisco Bay Area and Northern Coastal California. She works to advance BBB’s vision of an ethical marketplace where buyers and sellers can trust each other. She does this by developing content such as blog posts, press releases, newspaper columns, and PSAs to educate businesses and consumers. Rebecca also represents BBB at community events.

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Posted in Business Tips, Consumer Tips, Consumer/Business Services, Scams

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