The 5 Biggest Home Repair Ripoffs

I’ve had numerous people come to my house offering “great deals” on home repair services over the years.

You know the type.   Most of these guys wouldn’t know what a contractor’s license looked like if it hit them in the head.

Even more telling, they are often willing to do any job for whatever amount you are willing to pay, no matter how low your offer.

I’m not kidding.   Here is an exchange I had with one of these fly-by-night guys one day last week:

“Good afternoon, sir!   I’m with Speedy’s Chimney Sweep Service.   When was the last time you had your chimney inspected and swept?”

“Hmmm, that’s a good question,” I said, scratching my chin and looking towards the heavens.   “I think it was about 40 years ago.”

“But, sir,” the contractor said,   “these homes look like they can’t be much older than 10 years old.”

“Then maybe it was 10 years ago.”

“Right.   Anyway, we’re having a chimney inspection special today, complete with top hat and tails, for $99.”

“Sorry,” I quickly replied, refusing to be sucked in to his scam, “but I don’t get paid until a week from next Friday and all I’ve got in my wallet is $26 and a couple of coupons from Wienerschnitzel.”

“I actually think we can make that work, sir!   When would you like us to start?”

“How about right now – but only if I get to keep the coupons.”

“I’ll get my top hat.”

Okay, okay.   I may have embellished this story just a bit – but you get the point.     These guys can be real shysters.

Coincidentally, after I dispatched that guy – no, I didn’t really hire him – I got on the Internet in an effort to learn more about chimney sweeps.   In the course of my research I found an article from Reader’s Digest that revealed the five biggest home repair ripoffs, including how they work and what you can do to protect yourself.

Guess what ripoff was on the list?   Yep.

Here is a brief summary of all five…

The Chimney Sweep Swindle

The Rip-off: In this typical bait and switch plan, the dirty chimney sweep will cold-call you, offering an inspection for a relatively low-price.   After the inspection is complete the chimney sweep may claim to find major problems, such as a new chimney liner, costing thousands of dollars.

The Reality: Experts recommend an annual inspection to check for creosote buildup and the structural soundness of the chimney.   A quick review of chimney sweep prices on the Internet show inspections and most cleanings can be had for $250 or less.   Major repairs are rare – and local fire departments often will inspect your chimney for free.

Mold Mayhem

The Rip-off: Scammers taking advantage of the public’s fear of mold’s adverse health effects will offer to run expensive tests costing as much as $600 to identify your mold.     Then they recommend a remediation company they’re in cahoots with for removing the mold.

The Reality: Unless you are immunosuppressed, or have allergies or asthma, mold isn’t dangerous.   The Center for Disease Control 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.   You can clean small areas yourself just as good as any remediation company.   For nonporous surfaces simply use soap and water, followed by a solution of one cup bleach mixed with one gallon water.

Leaky Roof Wrangling

The Rip-off: 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 when it actually isn’t – a job that can run upwards of $5000.   Even worse, he may say you’ll need an entirely new deck, which is the wood base beneath the shingles, for several thousand dollars more.

The Reality: A roof leak can be often be repaired by simply replacing the sealing or flashing for a fraction of the cost.   As for getting a new deck: Reader’s Digest notes that they are required only once in every 1000 roof repairs.

The Termite Trap

The Rip-off: Unscrupulous termite control guys will convince unwitting homeowners to sign on the dotted line when the home isn’t actually infested.

The Reality: Be wary of exterminators showing you termites on wood piles or fences unconnected to your house: This may be a scam.   If an exterminator claims you have termites, he should show you the evidence.   You have a problem only if there’s evidence of termites inside the house or close to the foundation.

The Basement Boondoggle

The Rip-off: To repair a chronically-wet basement, shady contractors will offer to dig out your entire foundation and waterproof it for anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000, when most of the time the solution is much simpler and cheaper.

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, so before calling in professional help, try to reduce the moisture along the foundation.   Humidity can be another culprit.   Before undertaking any major work, you should get the advice of a professional engineer or a certified home inspector.

In general, to minimize your risk of being ripped off by scam artists always get opinions from multiple contractors.   Finally, keep in mind that contractors who are willing to do jobs for significantly less than their competition or are too eager to do the job at any price are most likely going to cut corners – or worse – which will end up costing you even more money in the long term, so be wary.

Comments

  1. 1

    says

    Since the economy went south, we’ve had armies of people showing up at the door to fix both real and imagined problems.

    Some are legitimate. We’ve used a couple of people to clean our gutters and they’ve done a good job for not a lot of money. Most I think are just looking for work–any kind of work and I have a bit of a soft spot for that.

    The ones I worry about are the more polished ones who won’t take NO for an answer. I never entertain these guys for long, because all I can think of is that if they’re that determined to get my business, they must be getting one heck of a commission, which means I’ll be paying an even larger fee.

  2. 2

    says

    Great information. I’m not a homeowner yet, but at least I have some clues as to what kind of scams I may be in for. When I do buy a house, I’ll be sure to check out your site along with Consumer Reports. Both are most informative! :)

  3. 3

    says

    I 100% agree with the obtain multiple bids advice. It can save you a ton and give a great idea of what fair market value is for a given service. I also agree with the caution of people who will accept anything as well. It certainly can be more trouble than it is worth from what I have seen (not experienced though).

  4. 4

    says

    I’m renting by choice now, but when I owned a house I was very wary of random offers. We had most work done by our general contractor (2 brothers). They were cheap and did a great job. I found them by calling a few out of the phone book and checking references. Most of their references wanted to adopt them :)

    • 5

      says

      @Kevin: I guess I should have noted that there ARE legitimate folks who come knocking on your door, but I think more often than not that is the exception rather than the rule. At least that’s been my experience.
      @Little House: And there are plenty of other scams homeowners are subjected to as well that aren’t related to home repair. One of the biggest I can think of is people offering services to file the paperwork for one-time property tax exemptions, when the homeowner can easily do it for free.
      @Shawn: I learned the lesson of negotiating an irrigation contractor’s price down a little TOO far when I bought this house. Little did I know that, among other ways he cut corners to make a profit, he ended up using very thin-walled sprinkler pipe that has always been prone to leaks and bursting. I am reminded of that every spring when I restart my sprinklers after being shut down over the winter. Grrrr.
      @Jennifer: The one instance where I will take significantly cheaper price is with relatively new contractors who are still trying to establish themselves in the local area – assuming they have references that I can interview, that is. The Honeybee and I hired a really young and hungry tile contractor to do our floors about 8 years ago. He told us he was still starting out and he really wanted the job and he had the references – and photos – to back up his work. He did a fabulous job, as we knew he would. Three years later we called him back for another job upstairs, but he was so popular that he became very expensive. So expensive that we didn’t go with him!

  5. 6

    says

    I fell victim to the basement waterproofing scam once, to the tune of $3600 and a still leaky basement a month later when the rain came again. Turns out that the area the house was sitting on was subjected to run off from a nearby field and this was always going to be an issue. lesson learned more research and closer inspection before purchasing the home were in order.
    Suzanne
    Social Media Specialist
    CareOne Debt Relief Services
    @AskCareOne

  6. 7

    says

    Thx for the info!

    It seems that when you are not a handyman, you always end-up as a victim when repairing your house!

    I had trouble with my pool over the weekend (there was sand thrown in my pool by my filter). The first guy I called told me that I had to replace my filter and it would cost $300 + his man’s work (minimum 1.5 hours).

    I went into a store and they told me to empty my filter with a shop-vac and look at a piece of plastic. That piece was broken and it still cost me $100 but at least, I have saved my filter ;-D

  7. 8

    says

    I was suckered in by a scam like once (although not a chimney sweep one). The real clue should have been when they refused to take a check for the “work” they had done, and instead followed me to the ATM so I could give them cash. Live and learn….

    • 9

      says

      @Suzanne: I’m sorry to hear about that, but don’t feel too bad. I think most of us have all made a few expensive mistakes like that in our lifetime. Just goes to show there is no substitute for experience!
      @Panda Mike: That’s a great example of why it is always best to get multiple opinions/estimates, Mike!
      @Jackie: Yikes, that seems kind of scary letting some guys follow you to an ATM, Jackie. I hope you had your hubby/boyfriend with you when you went!

  8. 10

    says

    Great article. And you started it off with an important concept – the unsolicited hard sell. Whenever someone’s trying to sell you something unsolicited it’s often a scam. Even worse is when it’s an “exploding offer” like you have to act now or I can’t get you this deal later. So many scams out there and so many people are taken, it’s a shame – the human condition.

  9. 11

    says

    Interesting list Len! What about those $5 dolla chimney sweeping logs u burn? Sounds good to me no?

    I’ve never been scammed by contractors yet. Although, I’ve had to drive SUPER HARD bargains and watch them like hawks. They are a shady bunch!

    Sam

  10. 12

    says

    The unsolicited hard sell is like a face to face telemarketer. I see a common theme with these contractors: fear. If they can convince us that our home is about to self destruct unless we take immediate remedial action, they have us.

    This is a great list and gives peace to quiet those fears. I never would have dreamed that new roof decking is needed in only one out of 1000 cases! Good to know!

    One more thing: moving one gutter downspout location solved my leaky basement. Cost for labor and materials about $120.

    • 13

      says

      @Darwin: The hard sell is still around because it works. I actually enjoy rebuffing hard sells, but I think more people than not would rather just succumb to it rather than have to fight it off.
      @Sam: Just make sure you don’t drive too hard of a bargain or it could backfire. It did for me once.
      @Joe: Fear IS a powerful motivator, but it can be usually be neutralized by understanding that you can always get a second and third opinion!

  11. 14

    says

    @ Darwin: Ugh, I hate the hard sell. Unless it’s for a legit charity, my default reaction is to close the door on them. I used to have a dentist with the same tactics until I got rid of him. Of course, it’s hard to leave with hands in your mouth!

    • 15

      says

      Jennifer–you must go to the same dentist I do! The past 2-3 years he’s been trying to upsell us at every turn, my wife in particular.

      I had to tell him (and tell my wife to tell him) that the well is dry and we can’t afford it. That seems to have shut him up. For now.

      • 16

        says

        @Jen, @Kevin: I have a few coworkers who were recently complaining about the same thing! One of them, though, took the bait and he really regrets it.

  12. 17

    says

    I hate the scare tactics. My husband and I left for a new dentist when we realized he missed a big cavity until it almost needed a root canal. Obviously too much time was spent on sales and not enough on diagnosis.

  13. 18

    kayumochi says

    I pay $250 a year for some sort of termite detection traps and having my house “bonded” (the company will pay for the termite damage) Wonder if it is worth it? Found some old termite damage in an out building and found evidence there may have been some in a small place in the hardwood floor of my 1940′s house that probably occurred decades ago so I signed on the dotted line … the exterminator was telling me that termites are “everywhere” in the soil and he is right but do I really need this service I wonder …

  14. 19

    kayumochi says

    Dentist story: as mentioned in another thread I lived in Japan for 15 years. When I would visit the States with my wife I’d go to the dentist here because I like American dentists’ teeth cleaning better than Japanese dentists’ even though dentists are covered under Japan’s reasonably priced single payer healthcare system. I once convinced my Japanese wife to go to the American dentist with me and the dentist claimed he found a cavity and showed her the X-ray. She asked if she could have the X-ray to take back to Japan with her (she didn’t let the American dentist repair her tooth because she could get it done much more cheaply in Japan). When she showed the same X-ray to the Japanese dentist he told her she didn’t have a cavity …

    When we first moved back here to the States I was sitting in an American dentist’s chair and looking at a poster designed to scare me into paying for a oral cancer exam. Never once saw this kind of upsell in Japan … my wife detests all the marketing and upselling done by medical professionals here and I do too.

  15. 20

    says

    I 100% agree with the obtain multiple bids advice. It can save you a ton and give a great idea of what fair market value is for a given service. I also agree with the caution of people who will accept anything as well. It certainly can be more trouble than it is worth from what I have seen (not experienced though).

  16. 21

    says

    Hey Lenpenzo,
    Along the same lines,, I have a 52″ RCA TV with built in DVD player. The DVD player quit working. When I bought the TV, I also bought the 3 year in home service warranty. Now, the TV repair shop has had the TV for 2 months. They keep getting the replacement part from RCA factory and when the shop installs the DVD unit, it is defective from the factory. Now, this has happened 2 times. The part is on back order, no one knows when it will arrive. Frys tells me that I can borrow a 27″ CRT TV. Umm, why would I not just get a new TV? The warranty supposedly states it has to be a defective part 4 times in a row before they will consider replacing the TV. At this point, the store manager basically says I must go pound salt. And the great thing is that while this must be a defective part 4 times, no time frame or limit is stated. It can take a year, and I still have to wait for the fourth part. Does this sound like BS to anyone else? Any help would be great! Advice, phone numbers, etc!!
    Cheerio

  17. 22

    says

    Hello Lenpenzo,
    I take your point, I just had a guy come out today who says he knew roofing. I only paid him $40 and I bought the shingles, but he didnt use roofing cement and only hammered “roofing” tacks into the shingles. These are asphalt shingles. The rest of the roof has them layered with half the shingle under the one on top. With his repair job he didnt layer them, but placed the shingle in line under the one above it.

    When I asked him, he told me that if he lifted the shingles above, he would have to glue or tack those down and then the ones above them and so on like a domino effect. I wonder if he was just trying to get out of bringing roofing cement up on the roof. I saw those containers at Home (ripoff) Depot and they are only sold in those huge 5 gallon containers.

    Do I have to buy the materials and do this myself? Or is this going to be ok? The roofing tacks are exposed on those shinges. Is that going to be a problem?
    Thx.

  18. 23

    says

    If people only knew what water can do. Getting to a leak, moisture issue or even crawlspace issue cause by water or leaking early saves you so much money later. Too often I have seen people ignore it and wish they did not. Not just about property, but conservation and safety as well.

  19. 25

    says

    You have no idea home many times my customers tell me they they have been ripped of by at least one of these methods that you describe. I honestly don’t know how people can live with themselves when they know they perform services that are below the cut. Very bold to risk the safety of peoples home to try to make a profit.

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