A state law that took effect in September may help protect North Texans hit by Tuesday's tornadoes from being victimized by unscrupulous contractors.
House Bill 1711 prohibits any contractor without a physical address in the county or in an adjacent county from collecting money upfront for work after a disaster.
Also, a written contract is required from any contractor located two or more counties away who is helping homeowners after a natural disaster. It must include these words in 10-point type:
"This contract is subject to Chapter 57, Business & Commerce Code. A contractor may not require a full or partial payment before the contractor begins work and may not require partial payments in an amount that exceeds an amount reasonably proportionate to the work performed, including any materials delivered."
Contractors who do not follow the law are in violation of the state's deceptive trade practices act, overseen by the Texas attorney general. The AG uses such complaints to build a case against the company.
The protection may be minimal, but it's the best that homeowners have in Texas.
"There is no state licensing or board right now for home construction contractors," said Jon Samson, executive vice president of the Greater Fort Worth Builders Association. The state commission overseeing the home construction industry was abolished in 2009 after an unfavorable report by the state's Sunset Advisory Commission.
The new law comes as contractors have flooded into Arlington to perform work on hundreds of damaged homes. The city has required all contractors to get permits before they can work in the most heavily damaged areas.
Brett Hall, president of Joe Hall Roofing, an Arlington company for 30 years, said he saw more than a dozen contractors he has never seen before walking the streets of south Arlington on Wednesday as he put tarps on houses for temporary repairs.
"These fly-by-nighters will charge you $2,000 for tarping your house for 20 minutes of work," he said. "I've wrapped an entire house for $1,000. Partial tarping should only cost $300-$400."
Hall's advice: "Don't sign anything from a contractor walking the street. If someone comes to your door looking for work, ask yourself why is his phone not ringing off the wall? Our phone is ringing so much, we're having trouble handling all the calls."
After a house is dry and secure, homeowners should contact their insurance agent to send an adjuster to assess damage, said John Riggins, CEO of the Fort Worth Better Business Bureau, and ask for recommended contractors.
Because of the severity of the storms, most work will require a general contractor, not just a roofer, Hall said.
"Roofing is a small component of what will happen in Kennedale and Arlington," he said. "These houses need brick work, carpentry work, plumbing. General contractors will be the primary source for handling this."
Once you get a list of names, start doing your homework, Samson said.
"It's overwhelming for homeowners, but they have to do their due diligence," he said. "Don't blindly give money away. If it takes another day or two to check people out, it's worth it."
One place to research local companies is the BBB's website at www.fwbbb.org, where consumers can check a company's complaint history, years in business and other information for free. The website is tied to bureaus across the country, so out-of-town companies can also be researched.
The website also lets homeowners enter their ZIP code and request a quote from contractors accredited with the BBB located within 10 to 15 miles. Consumers can also call the bureau at 817-332-7585.
Another source of information is Angie's List, at www.AngiesList.com, which costs $35 a year and offers customer assessments of contractors.
It's important to slow down and carefully consider your choices, Riggins said. "Take a deep breath and know who you're doing business with," he said. "Don't be in too much of a hurry."
Don Bassett, owner of D. Bassett Roofing and Repair in Arlington, said he also has seen many contractors roaming the streets of damaged areas.
"The main tactic people shouldn't fall for is if they call themselves insurance claim specialists," Bassett said. "That's code for they want to work off of the insurance claim, instead of getting estimates and comparing that to the insurance adjuster's figures."
Companies that work this way often say they will cover the homeowner's deductible, which could be a considerable savings. But Bassett said they often make up the difference by cutting corners on materials or labor.
"It's a numbers game," he said. "They'll send a bogus invoice to the insurance company and pocket the difference."
A legitimate invoice for a roof repair should include up to 10 separate line items, including the number of squares of shingles, plumbing pipes, chimney flashings, ridge vents and weight of felt paper.
"Fifteen-pound felt paper is standard, but we use 30-pound on all our roofs because it is heavier and more durable," he said.
Homeowners should also consider a possible upgrade to Class 4 impact-resistant shingles, now available from several manufacturers. These can cost 40 percent more than standard shingles, but your insurer may offer a premium discount if you have them installed, Bassett said. Check with your insurer to see if they offer this break.
"I tell my customers it's worth it if they plan to stay in the house for five years or more," he said.
Consumers can find a certified roofer through the Roofing Contractors Association of Texas at www.rooftex.com. Membership requires three credit references and sponsorship by another roofing contractor and a supplier. The association also offers a certification program that requires five years' experience, general liability insurance and workers' compensation, credit check, four references and an exam. Another trade group with membership requirements is the National Roofing Contractors Association at www.nrca.net/consumer.
For general contractors, consumers can look at membership of the Greater Fort Worth Builders Association at www.FortWorthBuilders.org, which requires approval by a board of directors for membership and offers certifications. Another place to look for a general contractor is the National Association of the Remodeling Industry of Greater Fort Worth at www.narifw.org.
Teresa McUsic's column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net