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The Real Deal: When Home Improvement Projects Turn Criminal

Updated: Friday, August 2 2013, 09:24 PM EDT
TROY - It's that time of year, many of us will be starting spring projects and if you're looking to hire someone to help, be careful.  There are scammers out there and unless you do your homework, you could be left with a mess and an empty wallet.

Ready, Set, Grow Daycare in Rensselaer itself is growing so the owners decided to put a small addition on the back as a computer room for the kids.  They hired a guy they knew to do the work and paid him $5,000 in cash, upfront. "He would do some small projects, electrical work, plumbing work, everything went well, then when it was time to do the big job, he was on board with everything and then slowly, everything went downhill," says Dom Smith, the owner of the daycare.  Months later, the project is no where near completion.

These kind of situations happen often, especially around this time of year.  Captain Robert Paul of Troy Police says many of the cases that people bring to his office start the same way, "Jeez, he seemed like a nice guy, I saw he did some work down the street and the people just get involved with these situations that cause legit problems later on," he says.

To protect yourself, Captain Paul says, everything needs to be in writing, "you should have a contract with materials and the quality of materials, verbal contracts are very, very difficult to adjudicate whether it be a civil matter and certainly in a criminal matter."    You'll only have a criminal case if the contractor takes your money without doing any work of if the work that is done is a gross deviation from the contract.  If you're just not happy with the quality, it's likely a matter you'll have to take up in civil court.

Because Smith's contact with his contractor was not a formal written agreement, he was stuck going the civil route.  He won a judgment but will likely have a tough time collecting on it.  "We're a small, independent business so the money we had aside was supposed to go to a good thing and we can't really recoup it right now," says Smith who adds for now the kids at the daycare will have to go without that computer room.

If you're looking to hire a contractor, the NYS Attorney General's office offers the following advice:

-Know what work you want done.
   * Make a thorough list and be specific. This will enable you to easily negotiate with various contractors, lock in firm prices and avoid surprises. Having a written list will also help in ferreting out unscrupulous contractors who might try to convince you to have additional work done that you don't want or need.

-Know what permits are needed.
   *Even though a qualified contractor should be aware of necessary permits and inspections, you should know them too. Check with your local building and codes office before beginning a project.

-Shop around.
   *Look at multiple contractors. Get quoted prices for the work you want done and compare. Also, find out the proposed time-line for when each contractor can start and finish the project. Get references and check them.  Ask your friends and neighbors which contractors they used for home improvement projects and whether or not they were satisfied with the results.  Get references from the contractor directly and speak directly to former customers.

-Get proof of insurance.
   *If a worker is injured, or damage is caused on your property, you could be held liable if the contractor does not have the proper insurance. So, make sure the contractor is insured.

-Never pay the full price upfront.
   *Establish a payment schedule and stick to it. Often this could include an initial down payment and subsequent incremental payments until the work is completed.  Withhold final payment until all the work is completed and all required inspections and certificates of occupancy are finalized.

-Put it in writing.
   * New York state law requires a contractor to provide a written contract for home improvement work. The contract should include a timeline for work to be completed, a payment schedule and as many specifics as possible about the project, such as types or brands of materials.  On larger projects, architect or engineer plans should specify virtually every detail of a project.

- Know where your payments are going. Contractors are required by state law to either:
   * Put your payments into an escrow account and use it only for your job until it is substantially complete (contractors are legally required to disclose where money will be held in escrow).  Prove they have bond insurance to protect your money. Ask for proof of which option they use before hiring them. Never do business with a contractor who is unwilling to abide by any of the conditions above. If the contractor doesn't meet the above criteria, look elsewhere. Even if the contractor seems reputable, it's simply not worth the risk.

-Check the Attorney General's web site for more information.
The Real Deal: When Home Improvement Projects Turn Criminal

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Hello and thank you for stopping by The Real Deal web-page! I'm hoping you'll find some useful information here. I (Jennifer Lewke) will be updating this page daily to bring you the latest news on anything and everything that may impact your wallet. Whether it's a bad business trying to rip you off, a contractor who took your money and ran, the government wasting your tax dollars, or a telemarketer who just won't stop calling, my goal is to uncover it and hopefully prevent it from happening again!

On the right-hand side of this page, you'll see a section labled "Links" --these will all take you to websites for organizations that help protect consumers. Most of the groups have the authority to fine or shut down bad businesses so it's important to file the proper complaints to get some action.

I'm happy to look into any issue you have to get you the Real Deal. You can reach me anytime at (518) 381-4992 or by email at I hope to hear from you soon!

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