5 Biggest Home Repair Rip-offs

Replace the roof? Rebuild the foundation? Not so fast. How to avoid being scammed.

By Tom Philbin from Reader's Digest | March 2007

The Rip-Off

Myths about termites abound. In a recent survey by the University of Kentucky, 60 percent of people thought termites could take a house down in six months or less. Nothing could be further from the truth, yet con artists use this fear to pressure homeowners into quickly signing on the dotted line for unnecessary or shoddy work that could cost up to $3,000.

The Reality
By arming yourself with a few facts, you’ll be able to ask informed questions and avoid a scam. The most common termite in the United States is the subterranean, of which there are two main kinds: workers and swarmers, or winged termites. The workers hollow out the wood, while swarmers mate and create new colonies. Termites live underground and burrow through soil until they find wood or woodlike products, and water. To get into your house, they’ll often build moist, earthen tunnels across foundations to your home’s lower frames, a clear sign of infestation.

Wood that’s been damaged by termites is hollowed out along the grain, with bits of dried mud or soil lining the feeding galleries. Be wary of exterminators showing you termites on wood piles or fences unconnected to your house: This may be a scam. You have a problem only if there’s evidence of termites inside the house or close to the foundation.

Bugs flying in the home during the spring are another sign of infestation. These may be flying ants, however. Termites have a full waist, straight antennae and wings of equal length; ants have elbowed antennae, pinched waists and forewings longer than hindwings.

There are more than 17,000 pest control companies in the United States, but bigger doesn’t always mean better. You want a firm with good recommendations, lots of experience and a fair price. Question the company carefully and ask that it send an experienced technician, says Michael Potter, a professor of entomology at the University of Kentucky. And if an exterminator claims you have termites, he should show you the evidence.

Some companies charge thousands for a typical job that could be done for less than $1,000, so take notes on the exact kind of treatment and compare apples and apples when getting estimates. See at least two or three companies before hiring one.
And don’t skip the guarantee. Pest control firms offer two types: “re-treatment,” meaning the company will re-treat any area where termites show up again, and “repair,” meaning it’ll fix any damage caused by the pests. Such agreements tend to be complex and may be limited in coverage; read carefully before you sign. In either case, buy the guarantee that lasts at least five years. The relatively small annual fee (usually 10 percent of the original price) is well worth it. Even if the initial treatment was successful, termites could still be back within a year.

Chimney Sweep Swindle
The Rip-Off
In a classic bait and switch scam, a chimney sweep calls from a “boiler room” or comes to your door telling you he’s just fixed a neighbor’s chimney and is offering an inspection for the low price of $39.95. Once inside the chimney, he may claim to find problems, saying you need a new liner, for instance. Suddenly that $39.95 price tag rises thousands of dollars.

The Reality
There’s no ques-tion fireplace chimneys can be hazardous. An oily, blackish substance called creosote accumulates inside the chimney and may catch fire if it’s more than a quarter-inch thick. Occasionally, but not as often as chimney sweeps would have you believe, a blocked chimney can route carbon monoxide into your house.

Experts recommend an annual inspection to check for creosote buildup and the structural soundness of the chimney. This usually costs $100 to $250 (not that ridiculous $39.95), and if cleaning is required, an additional $100 to $150. Hire only certified chimney sweeps who’ve been taught and tested by the Chimney Safety Institute of America. Also, watch the technician as he makes his inspection. Lately, sweeps are using video cameras fed down the flue, so ask to see the video and have the technician explain it as you watch. If he balks, he’s scamming you.

Chimneys for oil and gas burners are far less a concern. An oil-heat system that’s serviced every year before winter hardly ever causes problems, says Kevin Rooney, CEO of the Oil Heat Institute of Long Island. But before you look for a professional chimney sweep, call your local fire department; some conduct inspections for free.

Mold Mayhem
The Rip-Off
Mold is making a comeback — not in your home, necessarily, but with con artists, especially since Hurricane Katrina. Playing up fears about disease from mold, particularly over the Internet, they try to convince you to run $300 to $600 tests to identify your mold. Then they recommend a remediation company for removing the mold — a firm they’re in cahoots with.

The Reality

What you need to know about mold is simple: Healthy people usually have nothing to worry about. “If you’re immunosuppressed or have allergies or asthma, it can be problematic,” says David B. Callahan, MD, medical epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Other than that, mold isn’t dangerous.”

The CDC 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. And you don’t need a remediation company for small areas. Just clean nonporous surfaces with soap and water, followed by a solution of one cup bleach mixed with one gallon water. To control future growth, eliminate excess moisture by keeping humidity levels between 40 and 60 percent. Promptly fix leaky roofs, windows and pipes, and ventilate shower, laundry and cooking areas.

The CDC (www.cdc.gov) and Environmental Protection Agency (www.epa.gov) have plenty of good information on their sites — for free.