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Special Section: Minding the storm chaser

The difference between opportunists and legitimate contractors starts with visibility.

September 05, 2013
Storm chasers target homes in need of emergency repairs because homeowners may g

Storm chasers target homes in need of emergency repairs because homeowners may give money upfront to secure roofs and windows.

The phone calls start shortly after Donn Lipscomb repairs the last few houses he agreed to fix following a severe storm. Spurned customers contact Lipscomb, owner of Moore?s Roofing and Insulation in Oklahoma City, when the out-of-town contractors they paid to address their insurance claims stop returning their calls and take off without warning.

Homeowners hire these companies, known as ?storm chasers,? because they consistently submit the lowest bids and promise to start each job right away. Although some of these people stick around long enough to complete a project, they know how insurance companies operate and manipulate the storm-recovery process in order to collect the largest profit possible before they abscond.

?Things always get crazy at the very beginning [following storms],? Lipscomb says. ?Everybody wants their roof done now, and they will take anybody who will come in and say, ?I?ll do your roof first.??

The term ?storm chasers? also can apply to companies that actually specialize in insurance restoration and track severe weather in hopes of generating honest revenue. In addition, the phrase describes people who follow storms to research, photograph, or simply experience weather phenomenon. For the purpose of this discussion, the moniker refers to opportunists who move into an area damaged by severe weather, knowingly cut corners on insurance repairs, and vanish without being held accountable for the quantity or quality of their work.

In some cases, storm chasers request cash upfront to cover wages and ongoing expenses before they begin repairs. Other times, they canvass neighborhoods door-to-door and ask homeowners to sign a contract that allows them to negotiate with the insurance adjuster. Once homeowners endorse these documents, they waive their right to make any decisions regarding the project; as a result, storm chasers can use cheap methods and materials to enhance their own profit margin. Homeowners also lose control of the insurance settlement and might even have to sign over the entire reimbursement check to the scam artist, who receives payment regardless of job performance.

Warranty repairs become almost impossible to obtain in this situation because the storm chaser generally vacates town long before issues arise. In extreme cases, some of these people even try to lease a local company?s name so they seem to be from the area and can ward off any suspicion. When problems emerge after the opportunist disappears, the local company remains responsible for warranty repairs because its name appears on the contract. In many cases, the volume and cost of this remedial work can drive a local contractor out of business.

Following Hurricane Sandy, the overwhelming number of insurance repairs on Long Island made it difficult to distinguish between legitimate companies and storm chasers, says Laurence Carolan, owner of House of Laurence in Merrick, N.Y. ?It?s something we really can?t prevent when every single house on every single street was having work done to it at the same time,? he adds.

Carolan encourages local contractors to display prominently their company names and logos as well as their credentials and affiliations as a way to differentiate themselves from storm chasers. ?When we come into a neighborhood, we have marked trucks, we have our NARI logos, and we have uniforms [with emblems] that we wear,? he says.

If Carolan comes across homeowners who consider hiring an out-of-town company for insurance repairs, he advises them to ask for the contractor?s local references, call each for verification, and even stop by the firm?s previous and current jobsites to make sure its work is genuine. ?The last thing I want to see is somebody get ripped off,? he says.

Contractors should have local (and supplier) references handy at all times and promote those associations during their pitch to homeowners. Proof of manufacturer certifications also can help identify a company as an established contractor. If anything, local companies should encourage potential clients to visit their office in order to eliminate all doubt and show they will be around to take care of their customers long after the storm recovery.

As Randy Jasinski surveyed a roof in Moore, Okla., damaged by the May 20, 2013, tornado, he noticed some people laying tarps on a home across the street. ?As soon as they got the guy to sign a contract, they stopped putting tarps on the house, [and] he still had big holes in the roof,? says Jasinski, owner of Randy?s Roofing in Moore. Jasinski offered free estimates in the aftermath of the twister and says about 50 percent of the homeowners he helped pro bono ultimately hired him.

In Oklahoma, the state construction industry board mandates all roofers acquire a license and liability insurance before they begin working on a home. If a contractor fails to earn both distinctions, he can be pulled off a roof in the middle of a job. Jasinski says he called the committee about storm chasers in the aftermath of the tornado and asked if the law would be enforced. ?They said, ?We don?t have the resources,?? he adds.

That response constitutes a slap in the face to everyone who went through the process of earning a roofer?s license, Jasinski says. But more importantly, the lack of oversight places the onus on local contractors to exhibit their licenses and insurance certificates when courting potential clients, and remind homeowners about checking for each document when they solicit bids for a job.

Storm chasers will continue to scam customers on insurance repairs until each state enacts legislation sanctioning licensed contractors, grants authority to the appropriate governing bodies, and exhibits willingness to enforce the law. Until then, local companies must separate themselves from storm chasers by proactively promoting their brand, qualifications, and credentials to prospective customers whose homes require storm restoration. PR

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