Source: By Amanda Bicknell (This image is from the FEMA Photo Library.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

How to hire a Chicago contractor and avoid getting scammed

Update, Nov. 20, 2013: Severe weather ripped through the Chicago area last weekend, bringing high winds, hail and reports of tornadoes. According to the National Weather Service, severe weather events in November that produce tornadoes are a rare occurrence in the area. Since 1950, there have been only six recorded weather events that produced a total of 12 tornadoes across northeastern Illinois and northwestern Indiana.

But while you may be rushing to fix the damage, be careful not to make things worse by using unqualified contractors or a potentially fraudulent one to take advantage of you during the cleanup. Here are some simple tips for hiring a home-repair contractor that can save you money and grief down the road.

  • Be wary of a contractor who is canvassing door-to-door. Work only with established local contractors and those who have a solid reputation. Ask for documentation to make sure the contractor is licensed, bonded and insured. You can look up licensing and license status on the Illinois Department of Financial & Professional Regulation’s website.
  • Ask for references, and then check them out. The Illinois Attorney General’s Office suggests several questions to ask, including the name and contact information of a former customer so you can check out the work that was done; ask if they were satisfied with the project; if it was completed on time; whether there were unexpected costs; and whether they’d use the contractor again.
  • Check with the Better Business Bureau to see if any complaints have been filed against contractors you are considering.
  • Don’t feel pressured into signing a contract, and never sign a contract with blanks (the contractor might add terms that you’d find unacceptable after the fact). A contract should include the contractor’s name, business name, phone number and address. Don’t let the work begin until the contract is finalized. And, in Illinois, if you sign a contract at home, you have three business days to change your mind and cancel the contract (you keep that right even if the contractor has already started the work, according to the Illinois Attorney General’s office).
  • Don’t pay for the entire project up front. Some contractors will require an initial payment, but you can negotiate to make that up-front payment as little as 20 percent of the estimated cost for the entire project.
  • Also, don’t pay the balance due on a project and don’t sign any paperwork that says that the project is completed until you are satisfied with the work. You are going to have to live with the work after the contractor is gone.
  • Try to avoid paying in cash. If your contractor will take a credit card, that may be the way to go, as many credit card companies offer some form of consumer protection to cardholders. If not, pay with a check and get a receipt so you have a record of the payment.
  • If anyone does any unauthorized work on your property and demands payment, contact your insurance company or local authorities.  Also, never let anyone persuade you to seek reimbursement for nonexistent or exaggerated losses or damages. This is insurance fraud.

If you do have a problem with a contractor performing a home-repair project, the Attorney General’s office recommends trying to resolve it with the contractor first. But if you feel you are the victim of a home improvement scam, the office also has a consumer fraud hotline at 800/386-5438.

Recommended by the Editors: