As 'storm chaser' season arrives, beware fly-by-night contractors, officials warn
JANESVILLE Shawn McCarten’s first cause for concern was when the contractor handed him a cell phone with preprogrammed numbers for insurance company claims divisions.
“Here, wanna open a claim?” the contractor asked McCarten.
McCarten opened a claim with his insurance company for hail damage at his Janesville house, and he did sign an agreement for the northern Wisconsin-based contractor to do the work.
His second cause for concern came less than 12 hours later: a phone message from the contractor that crews would be starting the roofing project the next day.
“I didn’t get that message until 4 a.m., just a few hours before they were going to start,” McCarten said. “I let them go ahead and do the roof.”
Even though the contractor has an impressive website and a new office in Janesville, McCarten said the company was too aggressive in its bid to repair his hail damage, which most likely occurred during a storm last August.
“They were in my neighborhood, knocking on all the doors,” he said. “Just for giggles, I had them look at my roof, and, of course, they found hail damage.”
McCarten doesn’t dispute that there was damage to his roof and siding. He believes, however, that the contractor was too aggressive in getting him to sign a contract and complete the job “for whatever the insurance company was willing to pay them.”
Each spring, the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection urges Wisconsin residents to be on the lookout for “storm chasers,” which the department describes as fly-by-night contractors that scam homeowners desperate for damage repair.
Often, the department said, these contractors appear in communities and neighborhoods that have suffered storm damage.
“If contractors show up unannounced at your door immediately after a severe storm, be skeptical of their services,” said Sandy Chalmers, an administrator with the department. “Storm chasers go from home to home to pressure victims into paying up front for quick repairs. They are typically from out-of-state, have little or no background in home repair and charge high prices for shoddy work.”
In fairness, the contractor who did McCarten’s work does not meet the department’s classic definition of a “storm chaser.”
But the company is new to Janesville, its crew has knocked on doors in storm-damaged neighborhoods and McCarten said it was overly aggressive in its approach.
“It happens every year,” said Roger Olson of ABC Seamless in Janesville. “They appear out of nowhere, knock on doors and pressure people into thinking they have storm or hail damage.”
Olson said storm chasers have sophisticated computer programs that direct them to storm-damaged areas.
“They often do the work as quick as they can and use the cheapest products available,” he said, noting that state law gives consumers three days to rescind signed contracts. “People are getting taken advantage of.
“I’m out on the streets every day giving estimates, and I see a new vehicle every day.”
With more than 20 years of local experience, Todd Thiele has seen it as well. He owns Todd Thiele Roofing & Construction in Janesville, and one of his advertising slogans is “No Storm Chasers Here.”
“Unfortunately, it’s pretty much a common occurrence in the industry,” Thiele said. “They’ve got historical storm maps and an email network alerting them to where hail has fallen.
“Then they go door to door, pressure people into signing and get whatever they can from the insurance company.”
Often, he said, the storm chasers cut corners and don’t do the job the insurance company is paying them to do.
“I go back every year and fix what wasn’t done right in the first place,” Thiele said.
McCarten said his roofing job turned out OK.
“But I had to sit there and baby-sit because they wanted to cut some corners on drip edges and gutter guards,” he said.
With his roof complete, McCarten wanted to get estimates for the siding work. The contractor, McCarten said, was hesitant but relented to provide an estimate from its office.
“I said, ‘How in the hell can you give me an estimate on my siding from your office?’” McCarten said.
McCarten canceled the siding job and turned to local contractors.
“Whenever I talked to them, I talked to four or five different people and always got different answers,” he said. “They just work too fast, too hastily and are too aggressive for me.”
“If your home has been damaged in a storm, you may be relieved to have a contractor on your doorstep claiming to be able to bring your property back to normal,” she said. “But hiring the first contractor who knocks on your door will make a stressful situation even worse if you get scammed.
“Take the time to study up on contractors in your local area and ask for recommendations from friends and neighbors.”
Contractor hiring tips
The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection offers these tips for homeowners with storm damage:
-- Be wary of any contractor who knocks at your door. Call the police or sheriff’s office to check them out.
-- Try to get a local contractor. Ask contractors if they are subcontracting your job. Be careful if local contractors are using outside subcontractors.
-- Get lien waivers from anyone you pay for home repairs. If the person collecting the money does not pay the supplier or workers, a lien could be put on your property.
-- Get a written contract with start and completion dates and warranty information. Make certain the contract states exactly what work is to be done and what materials are to be used. Never rely on verbal commitment.
-- Contractors that register with the state are issued a card. Make sure that any contractor you are considering hiring shows you their state registration card.
-- Have someone watch the work being done. Ask your local building inspectors to visit your job site often.
-- Request a copy of the contractor’s certificate of liability insurance.
For more information, visit datcp.wisconsin.gov, email datcphot
email@example.com or call 1-800-422-7128.