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Homeowner wariness best defense

Watch out! The home-repair hucksters and cheats are poised and ready to pounce on unwary homeowners who may only want to make their house more energy-efficient this year, add an outside patio, repair a pesky gutter leak, or get an estimate on a new roof.

Home-improvement fraud has grown every year since the end of World War II, according to Larry Brown, director of the Economic Crime Unit in the Philadelphia district attorney's office.

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Many of the errant firms are fly-by-nighters who move into a community, rake a few homeowners over the coals, and then fade into the night till they pop up somewhere else. If a victimized homeowner then has a problem with a "remodeling" job, there is no way to find the responsible firm because it has "left town."

Consequently, it's the homeowner who takes the fall.

In California, according to Realtor News, a publication of the National Association of Realtors in Washington, D.C., a dozen laws were changed a little more than a year ago because of abuses involving home improvement.

"The most prevalent of these involves so-called lien-sale contracts," says NAR. "These allow a contractor to foreclose on a customer's house, often without going to court, if the customer doesn't pay his bill."

Once again, it's the homeowner who ends up paying twice for the same materials. Otherwise, he may lose his home.

"Hundreds of millions of dollars are lost every year to fraud," reports Kenneth Austin of HomeMaster of America of Bound Brook, N.J., a home-inspection firm.

"We're called out many times a year by homeowners who are ripped off by contractors," he adds. "It's so easy to get into the contracting business."

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How can the homeowner protect himself?

* First, he should check out whoever is going to do the job. Check with people for whom the contractor has worked. Get references. Go to the banks and the Better Business Bureau.

People are very vocal these days and often report unsatisfactory work to whomever will listen to them, including the police and the attorney general's office.

You also can check with such organizations as the National Home Improvement Council which has 38 individual local associations around the country.

If located in the Chicago area, you can get in touch with the Professional Remodelers Association, a nonprofit grouping of contractors and other elements of the home-improvement industry. The address is 20 East Delaware Place, Chicago, IL 60611. Phone (312) 664-6541.

* Don't assume that a person is who he says he is.

* Get everything in writing, including what is going to be done, the specifications, payment schedules, and the like.

This is a big failing of many people because they just assume more than they have a legal right to assume.

Fraud always has been very high and it is still a major source of discontent on the part of homeowners.

If the front-door bell rings and someone says he'll give you a good price on such and such a job, make no mistake about who the person is before you make a deal.

It may save you a b undle to be sure.

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