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Beware of ‘door-to-door contractor’

With warmer, longer days greeting area residents, the transition to summer also brings a problem that Pagosa Country homeowners need to watch for: door-to-door contractors offering bargain work.

According to Pagosa Springs building inspector James Dickhoff, the problem is an annual headache, usually occurring in late spring to early summer.

“This is the time of year when we see a lot of door-to-door salesmen,” Dickhoff said, “and they usually show up on the weekends, when town staff is not available.”

Dickhoff continued, “Some of the problems we’ve encountered are poor workmanship or a misunderstanding of what the agreement is,” meaning that homeowners are often rushed to sign a contract (usually because they’re told the price is only good for a very limited time) and believe that the work they’ve agreed to is much more than what is actually delivered.

One common ploy used by unscrupulous contractors is a quick offer to repair a roof or repave a driveway. Usually, the contractor tells a homeowner that he’s just finished a job and has some leftover material — just enough to do the job they’re offering to do.

“What they’ll get is an inch of asphalt instead of four inches and the work only lasts for about a year, they end up having to repave the next year,” Dickhoff said.

Unfortunately, by the time the homeowner realizes they have paid far too much for substandard work, the contractor is long gone, usually having moved on to another state.

For the victim, there is very little recourse, if any. “We’ve had some complaints in the past,” said Det. Scott Maxwell of the Pagosa Springs Police Department, adding that there is not much the police can do.

“Usually, it’s more civil in nature than criminal,” he said. “Even if it’s a verbal contract, it’s a business deal.”

Maxwell said that, while criminal prosecution of door-to-door contractors is not unheard of, it’s not very common.

“If we can prove there’s criminal intent rather than just shoddy workmanship, we’ll investigate,” he said, but qualified that by saying, “It’s difficult to build a criminal case on those incidents.”

Archuleta County Undersheriff John Weiss agreed that there is little law enforcement can do to help protect homeowners. “My best advice is to be careful and beware of anyone offering something that seems to be too good to be true,” he said.

Dickhoff, Maxwell and Weiss agreed that there are several things homeowners can do to protect themselves.

With a little common sense and a healthy dose of skepticism, homeowners can protect themselves against scam artists looking to make a quick and easy buck:

• Always ask to see a license, insurance or bonding paperwork and references. A contractor who can’t provide any of these is not worth hiring. Check the business’ name on the Better Business Bureau website;

• Ask the contractor for local references — preferably references the homeowner can call before signing the contract;

• Never sign a contract on the spot and take the time to have a lawyer or knowledgable friend examine it before signing (a contractor who attempts to pressure you into signing at that moment should be sent packing). Never agree to a verbal contract;

• Never agree to a cash-only contract or a contract that demands most or all the money up front;

• If you receive an unsolicited offer of work or repairs, take the time and effort to get a second opinion.

Homeowners should also look out for contractors who stop by to assess “problems” with a roof, driveway, deck, siding, etc. Of course, the contractor finds problems and offers to make repairs for a cut-rate price — usually using inferior materials installed incompetently. Usually, those contractors will offer a verbal quote (which can’t be disputed), then turn around and charge double than the initial estimate.

As with a proposed medical procedure, always get a second opinion; have another contractor come out to look at the “problem” and offer an estimate if repairs are required. And never agree to a verbal contract — always demand a signed contract with a fixed price.

Finally, remember that door-to-door contractors from out of state are taking potential work and money from local businesses — neighbors who could use the work and pay taxes, money that goes back into the community. Furthermore, a contractor lacking a local business license is difficult to track down if a dispute arises.

The most important benefit of using local contractors, however, is that it is easy to get local references for ensuring a job well done, a piece of advice reiterated by Maxwell.

“I would suggest sticking with a reputable business,” he said, “someone who is local and established.”

Finally, remember the age-old adage that Dickhoff repeated when warning about door-to-door contractors: “If it sounds to good to be true,” he said, “it probably is.”

jim@pagosasun.com