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How Not to Get Snookered With Home Improvements

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Bill Primavera
Bill Primavera

By Bill Primavera

I’ve written many times about various established contractors and their work in this column who rely on the quality of their work and good reputations to stay in business.

But I’ve learned the hard way to take advantage of the protections we have as consumers to make sure that we don’t get duped when seeking out contractors for home improvement.

I’m embarrassed to share this story, but very early in my experience as a homeowner, I was totally taken by a dishonest contractor. It happened to me when I first moved to Westchester. I was short of cash but one renovation job just had to be done, specifically the reconstruction of the mudroom that served as the main entrance to our antique home. It was literally falling off the house.

Another young couple from the city with whom we were friends had moved to Westchester just before us and had used a contractor they recommended highly for the job. They even escorted him to our house to meet us. He seemed like the most amiable kind of guy so we agreed on a deal. He asked for a $500 check in advance to “cover the cost of materials.” I wrote the check without thinking. In those days, $500 was a lot of money for me. Long story short, the contractor didn’t show on the appointed day, and when I called the number he gave me, I found that it had been disconnected.

Yes, I had been taken and was miserable about it. And, as human nature would have it, I even felt resentful toward my friends who recommended him.

However, of all the suppliers I’ve used since, I haven’t had a single bad experience with any of them, most certainly because I learned after that first experience how to choose them.

There are times when contractors haven’t been dishonest, but there were other reasons that they wouldn’t have been the best choice. For instance, I have interviewed contractors who would only commit to an hourly rate without estimating how many hours a job would take. Beware this open-ended technique for padding a project’s cost.

At the same time, be wary of bids that seem too good to be true. They probably are. Be realistic in your own mind about what a job should cost to have it done well.

Overall, most contractors are hardworking and knowledgeable pros who want to do a good job. But protect yourself from the possibility of disappointment by checking these additional points.

*Never give cash in advance for materials before any service is provided.

*Ask for referrals from people who have had similar jobs done satisfactorily by a contractor, and ask if you can see the job that was done.

*Ask for at least three proposals and bids, and review them carefully.

*Make sure that you have a written contract with all the details, including the materials to be used.

*Check to see that contractors are licensed by the county in which you live. If something goes wrong or if there is a misunderstanding, you have some recourse. Also, ask if there have been any serious complaints against the contractor you want to use.

*Ask if they are insured.

*Remember that this is also a personal relationship you’re entering. If the contractor is qualified but seems surly (it happens), move on to someone with whom you’ll enjoy interacting.

There was a time when the credo for selecting contractors was simply “buyer beware.” But for some years, those of us who live in Westchester or Putnam have had an excellent cushion against fraud. Both counties have established consumer protection programs, which require contractors to be licensed. Also, the counties serve as arbiters for complaints.

For complete information in Westchester, call 914-995-2164 or visit The county cracks down on unlicensed contractors, enforcing a law that allows the county police to seize the assets of renegade contractors.

For information in Putnam, call 845-808-1617 or visit

If there are home improvements in your future that will be contracted out, you’ll be well-served following the guidelines listed above.

Bill Primavera is a Realtor® associated with William Raveis Real Estate and Founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc. ( His real estate site is, and his blog is To engage the services of The Home Guru to market your home for sale, call 914-522-2076.





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