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It’s hard to make level-headed decisions when you’re standing in a fetid pool of your own feces and urine, and your mother-in-law is due to arrive any minute for a weekend visit.
That’s the position in which I found myself one Friday this spring. After following a foul smell down to the basement and discovering a cloudy pond of sewage there, I frantically called the first drain contractor I could find. (I also texted my mother-in-law and suggested she avail herself of the rest stop facilities on the Mass. Pike.)
Feeling utterly shaken, helpless, and nauseated as the drain guy inspected our main sewer pipe and its putrid eruptions, I nervously nodded along with his dire diagnosis. It was our pipe causing problems, not the city’s, and it was a mess. He phoned his boss — a gruff, intimidating man — to take a look, and suddenly the extent and cost of the needed repairs seemed to escalate.
The boss tried to frighten me (he succeeded) with horror stories of homeowners whose yards had caved in with a sploosh — sewage sinkholes collapsing from years of unseen erosion. He told me, in less printable terms, that we were screwed but that we could reserve a spot on their construction calendar the following week with a hefty deposit, preferably in cash.
That, it turns out, is a red flag, said Jeanne Foy, director of MASSPIRG’s Consumer Action Center. “I would avoid any contractor who wants to be paid in cash or even just asks for the deposit in cash,” Foy said — and that includes third-party apps like Venmo, Zelle, and PayPal. “The minute you Venmo someone money, you just handed them cash.”
The stench, the stories, and the staggering cost churned my stomach and buckled my knees. Suffice it to say, I was not negotiating from a position of strength. I paid the deposit, albeit with a credit card — not because I knew what I was doing, but because who has $4,500 in cash?
Homeowners can find themselves in a vulnerable spot when faced with a home repair crisis. Whether a storm has knocked a tree onto the roof, a burst pipe has flooded the kitchen, or an old furnace has quit on a frigid night, sometimes you need to hire help urgently — and that’s a bit different than soliciting quotes for a new bathroom or deck.
“Even the smartest people can be completely flummoxed when they’re faced with an emergency, and it’s usually water,” said Richard O’Brien, who, as associate deputy director of the Boston Home Center in the Mayor’s Office of Housing, helps seniors and other low- and moderate-income residents navigate home repairs. Thus, the best way to keep calm and ensure good decision-making in such situations is to cultivate relationships with trusted tradespeople, particularly a plumber, before an emergency occurs.
“You don’t have to send Christmas cards, but know who they are, know their cellphone number, so that when you’re in a predicament you have someone you can call,” O’Brien said. “You don’t want to be scrolling online at that time.”
You should have a go-to HVAC technician, too, since winter heat outages are another common crisis, O’Brien said. Time was, many homeowners had an annual service contract with an oil company, so they knew whom to call when the heat went out. But as more homeowners convert to gas systems or electric heat pumps, which don’t require as much maintenance, they need to be proactive about locking down an emergency service provider. (Heat stress from a failed air conditioner is increasingly dangerous, too, he said, as summer heat waves intensify due to climate change.)
As a starting point for assembling your contractor list, Foy and O’Brien both recommend asking friends, family, and neighbors about contractors they’ve hired, or making note of pros you see working in the neighborhood. “Go up to your neighbor and ask them whether or not they liked the work that they did,” Foy said.
That said, many emergencies are gratefully of a once-in-a-generation nature, so you may not have a go-to sewer company or roofer at the ready. So if you’re hiring blindly, O’Brien said, “Default to the credentials.” Start on mass.gov, where you can look up registered contractors and check whether a tradesperson is licensed for the type of work they’ll be doing. A plumber should have an active plumbing license, for example, and any contractor performing structural work should have a construction supervisor’s license (CSL).
Many service providers don’t require a specific trade license, but you should still check that they’re registered with the state as a home improvement contractor (HIC). That ensures you have access to the state’s arbitration program and guaranty fund, which can help resolve disputes and compensate homeowners up to $10,000 for unpaid judgments issued against a contractor. Foy said to avoid any contractor who asks you to secure work permits yourself, because that puts you in the role of “contractor,” making you ineligible for the guaranty program.
“Those are two easy, quick ways to confirm you’re dealing with someone who’s properly credentialed,” O’Brien said. “The next thing I would want to see is insurance. Do they have a general liability policy? Do they have workers’ comp insurance? Those should be readily produced by a contractor.” And simply searching the contractor’s name and “complaints” online is a simple step that can easily weed out scammers, Foy said.
Even so, it’s still wise to proceed with caution. “Ask to see the contractor’s driver’s license, take a picture of it, and write down that information — so if you have a problem down the road, you’re going to know how to find that person again,” Foy said. “If all you have is his cellphone, and he doesn’t answer it, you’re out of luck.” (Think requesting to see someone’s driver’s license is a lot to ask? So is giving a stranger a $3,000 deposit, Foy countered.)
It’s also good to call your home insurance company right away, Foy said. “You can always speak with your insurance agent for guidance without filing a claim,” she said, and many of them have pre-vetted lists of contractors that may prove helpful. Amica Insurance, for example, provides its customers with a network of “professionally credentialed emergency service and restoration contractors,” said Brendan Dowding, senior communications and public relations manager. “We can assist with evaluating the damage for coverage, as well as cost,” he added, which can help you determine whether it’s worth filing a claim.
In general, Dowding said, homeowners with an urgent home issue should contact emergency services first, if necessary, then try to prevent further damage if it’s safe to do so. To that end, you should know where and how to shut off the water in your home, O’Brien said, and make sure the rest of your family does, too.
“If you turn off the water when a pipe lets go, you can prevent a lot of damage,” O’Brien said. Same goes for electric service: Know where the circuit breaker is located and how to turn off the power in an emergency. He also suggests keeping a tarp in the basement for all-purpose damage control, whether a window breaks in a storm or a fallen tree punctures the roof.
Once the situation is more or less stabilized, document the damage with photos if you can, and save any and all estimates, contracts, and receipts in case you decide to file an insurance claim. If your home is rendered temporarily unlivable, your homeowners policy may provide “loss of use” coverage, Dowding said, which pays for additional living expenses such as the cost of a hotel or home rental — your insurer may be able to tell you upfront whether this is an option. Again, keep all of your receipts.
And speaking of paperwork, that’s one more clue to a contractor’s professionalism. “You can usually tell the quality of a contractor by the detail in the bid,” O’Brien said. Any contract over $1,000 needs to be in writing, Foy added, and a legitimate quote should be itemized, describing in detail the work being done, the materials being used, the start and end date, and the payment schedule. “They’re not supposed to take more than a third of the total contract price in advance, with the exception of special order materials,” she added.
When all else fails, trust your gut. “Sometimes you just have to use your instincts on whether or not you feel comfortable working with the contractor,” Foy said. If you get cold feet, remember that state and federal laws give you three days to back out of a contract signed at your home.
After we hired a remediation crew to clean up our sewage mess, I was able to think more clearly and do a bit more research, both about our drain situation and the company I’d hired to fix it. The quote we got was not at all detailed — just two hand-scribbled lines on yellow paper, as if I’d ordered a $19,500 turkey melt with fries — and the boss’s demeanor bothered me. So I ended up getting a second, far-more-detailed estimate, for a less expensive and less disruptive repair, and got my deposit back, minus the cost of the initial drain inspection. It was still a pretty awful situation, but life was a lot better a week later.
After all, one of the few things you can control when your home acts up is your own attitude. “You have to kind of know going into something like that, that it’s going to be a difficult period,” O’Brien said. “It can be very challenging to manage emotions and manage expectations. So if you go into it kind of knowing, like, This is going to be a pain in the ass, but when it’s done, it’s done, that goes a long way.”
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