Avoid contractor problems

A Norwalk contractor made a Wilton resident a deal in 2016: Pay $162,000 as a down payment, plus $21,000 in a check to a personal account, to build a garage for $212,000.

The problem is, a year later the contractor had failed to complete 40% of the work, according to Wilton police, while also failing to use the funds he was paid to compensate various subcontractors he hired for the project.

While the contractor was charged two months ago with first-degree larceny, violation of the improvement sales act and deceptive practices for the scam, the homeowner was left with an unfinished garage and depleted funds.

As the weather warms up, the Connecticut Better Business Bureau is warning consumers to stay on the alert against substandard work, unethical business practices and damage to property caused by shady home improvement contractors.

While the majority of Connecticut contractors are licensed and ethical, with customers who are pleased with their end product, Howard Schwartz, spokesman for the bureau, said consumers can protect themselves from rogue and incompetent builders by following some time-honored procedures.

Horror stories include contractors who take a deposit and disappear, or start work and let a project drag on for months after the expected completion date. Some of the problematic operators come from out of state, or may not be licensed, registered, insured, or sufficiently competent to do the work properly.

If a project is botched, a legitimate contractor may be reluctant to fix or complete someone else’s work because there may be hidden problems, Schwartz said, and they don’t want to be liable if they inadvertently damage property due to shoddy workmanship by an unreliable contractor.

It is essential to obtain multiple estimates before signing a contract, he said. This helps the consumer learn what type of work is needed, the quality of the building materials, how long the job may take, and the total cost. The details may vary from one bid to another, but if one estimate is substantially lower than the others, it should raise a red flag.

The Better Business Bureau has some tips to help consumers find the best business to do the job and avoid problems with unethical contractors:

  • Check bbb.org — BBB’s business profiles can indicate how long the contractor has been in business, and provide contact information, verified customer reviews, and complaint details and how the business responded.

  • Be wary of “today only” specials. That is a sales tactic designed to get a customer to sign a contract or put down a deposit without giving an opportunity to check it out.

  • Obtain references from a contractor’s recent customers.

  • Get everything in writing — All verbal promises should be contained in the contract, as well as a detailed description of the work, the cost of materials and start and completion dates. Contracts also should guarantee quality of work and materials and specify required permits.

  • Compare apples to apples. Choose a prospective contractor by comparing quotes based on the number of hours needed and the same quality of materials.

  • Avoid putting down a large deposit. A typical payment schedule should follow the rule of thirds. The first payment is given when signing the contract and helps pay for materials, the second payment when work begins, and the final payment when the job is finished.

Wilton police Lt. Robert Kluk said most home improvement scammers prey on the elderly. From a police department perspective, the best defense against scams is an old adage: “If it looks too good to be true, it is.”