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Once you’ve been given permission to return to your neighborhood and home, use caution.

Use Caution

Once you’ve been given permission to return to your neighborhood and home, use caution.

  • Check outside your home for cracks in the foundation or chimney and sagging in the roof.
  • Don’t force a door open if it’s jammed. It may be supporting your home's structure.
  • Contact your insurance company. Ask what the next steps are in assessing any damage to your home or business.

You may discover that your damaged home or business needs extensive repair or demolition. Insurance settlements and relief from the federal government to property owners can provide con artists with opportunities to profit unfairly. It’s no secret that fraudsters follow weather emergencies, attracted by the demand for repairs and the availability of funds.

If your home or business is severely damaged, make sure you can legally rebuild if you intend to. When you file for a building permit, local inspectors will determine what federal regulations you must comply with. Make sure you check the building permit for any restrictions yourself and that the new structure meets any elevation standards.

If the structure is basically intact, but you need a contractor to help with some repairs, ask questions first and pay later. Remember to be SKEPTICAL: watch what is charged in your name at the building supply store.

Choosing a Contractor

  • Get recommendations from friends, relatives, neighbors, co-workers, insurance agents, or claims adjusters.
  • Steer clear of contractors who encourage you to spend a lot of money on temporary repairs, offer “special deals” in exchange for your credit card number, or promise you a loan in exchange for a fee in advance.
  • Deal only with licensed and insured contractors. Ask for copies of their general liability and worker’s compensation insurance. Check with the local Home Builders Association and consumer protection officials to see if complaints have been lodged against any contractor you’re considering.
  • Get a written estimate that includes any oral promises the contractor made. Remember to ask if there’s a charge for an estimate before you allow anyone into your home.
  • Take your time about signing a contract. Ask for explanations in price variations, and don’t automatically choose the lowest bidder. Resist dealing with any contractor who asks you to pay for the entire job up-front. A deposit of one-third of the total price is standard. Pay only by check or credit card and pay the final amount only after the work is completed to your satisfaction. Don’t pay cash.
  • Ask a knowledgeable friend, relative or attorney to review a home repair contract before you sign. Get a copy of the final, signed contract before the job begins.
  • Ask the contractor you choose to provide a lien waiver before starting your job. This is a receipt that says the workers and suppliers of material will not ask you for money once you have paid the contractor. In any case, don’t sign a consent of owner statement: it says you, the property owner, will cover the costs of materials and labor if the contractor doesn’t pay.

Paying for Repair Work

Never sign your insurance check over to a contractor. Instead, arrange with your bank for a Certificate of Completion. The bank will pay the contractor for each stage of the job only after you have given your okay.

FEMA operates a Disaster Housing Program to help homeowners who have been forced out of their homes by disasters. This includes Disaster Home Repair Assistance, which provides grants to homeowners for minor but necessary disaster-related repairs. Call the FEMA Disaster Helpline at 1-800-621-FEMA.

The U.S. Small Business Administration makes low interest loans of up to $200,000 to homeowners to repair or replace damaged or destroyed real estate.

If you get a loan to pay for the work, be cautious about using your home as security: If you don’t repay the loan as agreed, you could lose your home. Consider asking an attorney to review the loan documents.

If you used a credit card to pay for a product or service in dispute, you may be able to recover your money. Write the credit card company a letter with the details of the matter; you must do this within 60 days after you get the disputed bill.

Using a credit card to pay for products and services gives you extra protection. You generally can dispute charges for unsatisfactory goods or services (including issues about the quality of an item) if you made a good faith effort to resolve the dispute with the seller, if the charge is for more than $50, or if you made the purchase in your home state or within 100 miles of your current billing address.  

If you suspect a repair rip-off, contact your state or local consumer protection officials.

If you suspect fraud, waste, or abuse involving FEMA disaster assistance programs, report it to Dept. of Homeland Security's Inspector General’s Office at 1-800-323-8603.

To learn more, visit Home Improvement and Dealing with Weather Emergencies, and read the Red Cross’s Checking Your Home: Structural Elements.