After spring hail hit North Texas in nine different storms last month, many homeowners are assessing the damage.
More than 350,000 houses in the Metroplex were hit by hail at least 13/4 inches in diameter, according to the Insurance Council of Texas.
"Everybody got some hail," said Greg Fawcett, owner of City Roofing Co. in Fort Worth. "Whether your roof was damaged depends on the age of the shingles and how much the hail wore them down further."
Unfortunately, hailstorms bring an equally harrowing hazard -- unscrupulous roofers.
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The National Insurance Crime Bureau, based in Des Plaines, Ill., has seen a dramatic increase in questionable and potentially fraudulent claims involving hail damage in Texas in recent years, according to spokesman Roger Morris.
Questionable claims turned over for investigation to the bureau from insurance companies have grown from 76 cases in 2008 to 320 in 2010 -- a 321 percent increase, Morris said.
While some of that could be related to an increase in hailstorms, Morris said there's little doubt that some questionable claims are coming from fraudulent roofers.
"Storm chasers come through a neighborhood trying to drum up business," he said. "After you give them a deposit or the insurance claim check, you may never see them again or they stop doing the work."
One of the biggest mistakes homeowners make is to presume damage, Morris said.
"Don't be persuaded by roofers in your neighborhood," he said. "Just because your neighbor is having it done doesn't mean you've had any damage."
Kelli Williams, a Fort Worth schoolteacher who lives with her husband in southwest Fort Worth, said she hired the roofer who worked on her neighbor's house.
"They took $1,600 for supplies and never came back," she said.
That was a year ago. After the two sides were unable to agree on a new time to do the job, Williams repeatedly tried to get her money back via calls and emails. Only recently was she able to contact the roofer, who said he has been in Oklahoma City working for six months and promised to return her money. In the meantime, Williams said she has found another company to do the job.
Many complaints don't have happy endings, said John Riggins, president of the Fort Worth Better Business Bureau.
He said the bureau has had 5,000 roofing inquiries to its database of more than 540 roofing companies listed in Tarrant County in the past 30 days.
"It's typical after the hailstorms have hit," he said. "We're getting used more than ever before."
One potential scam Riggins is seeing involves so-called free roofs -- meaning roofers either pad their bill to include the value of a homeowner's deductible or offer to take only what the insurer pays and not the deductible.
"That's a red flag," he said. "It doesn't mean they're running a scam, but I expect in the next 60 days to six months, we'll start to get a lot of complaints about this."
Fawcett, with City Roofing, said that insurance adjusters are pretty accurate with replacement costs, and that any roofer willing to take a deductible out of the price is likely going to use lower-quality materials or do shoddy work.
The Texas attorney general's office said in an opinion that bumping up the cost of services to include the deductible is a Class A misdemeanor. But if the contractor waives the deductible, it is not illegal, according to the 1990 opinion by then-Attorney General Jim Mattox.
What also isn't illegal is a roofer setting up shop overnight after a storm. Roofers are unregulated in Texas and don't require state licensing or insurance limits.
The Association of Fire and Casualty Companies in Texas tried to get a bill passed during the legislative session that would have required roofers to at least register, but the measure never got out of committee, said Jay Thompson, counsel for the association.
"We had a sympathetic ear in the Legislature, and it wasn't just along party lines," he said, but some contractors fought it.
For now, homeowners should follow these guidelines and not hire the guy that did a job next door without thoroughly checking him out.
Contact your insurance company first. It will send out a certified claims adjuster.
Don't pay upfront. Roofing companies with financial stability should be able to handle upfront costs.
Check whether the contractor has general liability insurance, workers' compensation and a supplier lien waiver.
Check financial stability by asking for a stability and character letter from the roofing company's bank.
See whether the roofer is a member of the Roofing Contractors Association of Texas. It requires one year of experience, three credit references, and sponsorship by another roofing contractor and a supplier. It also offers certification that requires five years of experience, general liability insurance and workers' comp, a credit check, four references and an exam. Go to the association's website at www.rooftex.com.
Check for a complaint record with the BBB. Call 817-332-7585 or go to www.fwbbb.org.
Get at least three bids from different contractors.
Teresa McUsic's column appears Fridays.