Hiring a contractor

If you sustained property damage and need to hire a contractor, here are some things to make sure you check before you make an agreement:

HOME REPAIR:

* Know your contractor. A frequent problem after a disaster is a "fly-by-night" contractor who takes deposits before starting work or final payments before finishing. Ask for a list of recent customers and call them for references.
* Get at least three estimates. Be certain the estimates are itemized and are for the same work. Variations in the proposals should be noted.
* Beware of repair businesses or individuals who solicit door-to-door, arrive in unmarked vehicles, have a post office box or temporary address, claim they are from another country or state and are in the area solely to help disaster victims, or offer to work for you only if you secure the necessary permits.
* If the repairs cost more than $2500, file a Notice of Commencement with your local permitting office, and a notarized Release of Lien will ensure your home is not sold for monies not recouped by others that might not have been paid by the contractor. To obtain information about Florida's Construction Lien Law, call the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation at 850-487-1395
* Check on the contractor's address, license and complaint history by contacting the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation through its website at www.myfloridalicense.com or via telephone at 850-487-1395, or, contact your city or county building department. For further complaint information, call the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services at 1-800-HELP-FLA (435-7352)

HAVE A WRITTEN CONTRACT FOR YOUR REPAIRS AND UNDERSTAND IT BEFORE YOU SIGN. A CONTRACT SHOULD INCLUDE, AT A MINIMUM, THE FOLLOWING:

* It should be specific about the work to be done and the exact type of materials to be used.
* The contract should show a beginning date and final completion date. If a penalty assessment is stated for failing to meet the completion date, the amount of the penalty should be stated and how it is to be assessed.
* The contract should specify the terms of payment.
* Any warranties or guarantees of workmanship and materials should be explicitly stated in the contract. Be sure of the duration and what is covered.
* If the contract is on a "cost plus" or hourly basis, get a written estimate and, if possible, a "ceiling" (maximum amount to be paid).
* The contract should specify that the contractor is to obtain all permits or variances, carries full insurance on all employees and "subcontractors," releases you from all liens, and provides for a proper clean up.

SOME HOME IMPROVEMENT OR REPAIR CONTRACTS MAY BE CANCELED WITHOUT PENALTY OR OBLIGATION BY MIDNIGHT OF THE THIRD BUSINESS DAY AFTER SIGNING. THEY ARE:

* Those signed at a place other than the seller's normal place of business, unless you requested the specific product or service.
* All door-to-door agreements, except for emergency home repairs.
* Those paid on an installment basis.

CREDIT AND FINANCES

* If you are unable to pay your bills, contact your creditors and lending institutions and try to work out a payment schedule. Do not wait until they contact you for being delinquent on the payments.
* Contact the National Foundation for Consumer Credit Counseling (NFCC) at 1-800-388-2227 for help in negotiating with creditors.
* If seeking a loan, shop around. Compare finance charges and interest rates for various lending institutions before signing a contract.
* Avoid doing business with anyone who, for an advanced fee, "guarantees" you a loan.