Shady repair people can hurt more than your pocketbook

After twenty years of inspecting residential property in Chicago, I have witnessed some bizarre attempts at home repairs. The most unorthodox of these tend to be the work of people with little knowledge of how building systems function and no clue how they relate to each other.

On their surface, such crazy home repairs are fodder for jokes. I recently inspected a condominium only to find the dryer line connected to the water heater flue. The work was precise, the installation neat and the execution within the minimum standards for the trade. Unfortunately, the installer didn’t seem to realize that pumping dryer lint into the flames of a water heater might be a bad idea. The humor of the situation for two home inspectors quickly wore off, however, as we noted the gaunt stare of the condo owner realizing the hazardous environment that she’d been living in for many months.

Most consumers in the city of Chicago do not know that home repairmen are licensed under the Chicago Building Code, Chapter 4-204. Home repair is defined as “the fixing, replacing, altering, converting, modernizing, improving of, or the making of an addition to any real property primarily used as a residence” (Chicago Building Code, Chapter 4-204-010).

Essentially home repair includes just about any repairs done to your home, condominium or townhome, from water heater replacement to electrical wiring to driveway paving. Specific areas exempt from licensing requirements include carpet cleaning, appliance installation, television repair, landscaping, etc. Contractors who sell materials and do not directly perform the work are not required to register, and neither are workers employed by licensed repair people. As a homeowner, you also don’t need a license to repair your own property, but the company you hire does.

The city sets a minimal licensing fee, due when the license application is filled out. Each applicant also must have a certificate of insurance covering general liability for bodily injury and property damage. The license must be displayed near the entrance to an applicant’s place of business.

Licensed repair people must operate under a strict code. For example, written estimates and costs for repair must be enumerated. Parts must be listed and budgeted, and labor and incidental services must be itemized for consumers. Any additional charges require customer approval. Several acts are deemed unlawful, including making or charging for repairs before getting a signed work order, and failing to disclose minimum charges or service charges before making an estimate.

The Department of Consumer Services enforces the provisions of this chapter and investigates consumer complaints. Anyone in violation of the home repair licensing statute can be fined $200 to $500 a day per offense for every day the violation continues.

The fines are stiff, but have you ever thought to ask your repair people for their license numbers? Have you ever asked a repair person for his insurance carrier’s name?

Most homeowners don’t. The licensing standard can seem unnecessary when applied to mundane repairs. But consumer ignorance regarding the licensing system is a big factor encouraging unqualified or unscrupulous home repair people to approach the market with impunity.

Spring is prime time for shady repair people to pray on unsuspecting homeowners. Here are a few suggestions to avoid getting ripped off:

Never let two home repair people soliciting work into your house at the same time. One person can focus your attention on a problem while the second creates problems or looks for valuable items to “recycle.”

Never allow an unsolicited chimney repair person or roofer to inspect your roof in an attempt to locate problems. Oftentimes, problems only appear once this person has climbed your roof.

Call the Department of Consumer Services and ask for the license number of contractors who are evaluating your home. If they do not have licenses, don’t use them. Get this information before the contractor arrives.

Use the services of the city and independent home inspectors as resources in helping you decide whether to hire a specific contractor or home repair person.

If someone comes to your door or calls you for an unsolicited bid regarding home repairs, view the solicitation warily. If you’re considering using such repair people, check them out with the city or with the professional of your choice before you let them onto your property.

Thomas Corbett is president of Tomacor, Inc. a professional property consulting company specializing in commercial and residential property inspections and expert witness work.

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