After Hurricane Irene: Storm Damage Repairs, Contractors and Your Legal Rights

Around Philadelphia and across the East Coast, homeowners and renters will soon begin receiving insurance settlement checks to help repair the widespread property damage caused by Hurricane Irene and her powerful winds, heavy rains and flooding.

But that’s not necessarily the end of their storm-related troubles.

Once you have that insurance check in your hands, you now have to find a reliable, honest and dependable contractor to make the needed storm-related repairs and help your family get your lives back together.

A photo of a tree that toppled onto a house during a storm. Image credit: © iStockphoto.com/AwakenedEye

A photo of a tree that toppled onto a house during a storm. Image credit: © iStockphoto.com/AwakenedEye

To make sure your repairs go smoothly, MyPhillyLawyer attorney Todd Richman has some advice for choosing the right contractor and avoiding hassles that could cause you to have to take a bad contractor to court in the future.

The first step is to contact various construction trade organizations in your area to find out about the work records and reputations of the contractors you are considering, Richman says. “Another place to ask is in the licenses and inspections department in your municipality, where they might be able to tell you the names of some reputable contractors who work in the area.”

Once you get some names and begin checking them out, then you’ll have to do some interviews to be sure that the company or individual that you hire is going to be working with your family’s best interests in mind. “You want to be sure that the contractor that you select is going to get the needed permits and approvals from your local government as part of their process,” Richman says. “There’s nothing worse then your contractor doing $50,000 in repairs and then having to tear it all down because they didn’t get the needed approvals ahead of time. I’ve seen it happen. You might need permits even for repairs. There are contractors who are worth their weight in gold because they know what they need to do to make the process work properly.”

You can also do online research to review contractors in your area by doing Web searches, checking for their records on pay sites such as AngiesList.com or looking for complaints or concerns on your local Better Business Bureau Web site, Richman says. All professional contractors have license numbers that can be checked with various agencies to be sure there are no complaints or actions against them. In Pennsylvania, they can be reviewed at the Home Improvement Consumer Information Web site under the office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney General.

And don’t forget word-of-mouth referrals – simply talking to friends, relatives and neighbors can often give you leads on reliable and caring contractors who have done great work for people that you know.

There are some other key things to ask contractors during the interview process:

*Ask to see their proof of insurance documentation so you can be sure that their work is insured.

You want to ask to see their insurance certificate and proof of liability coverage and worker’s compensation coverage for the workers who will work at your house, Richman says. That insurance coverage protects you if a worker is hurt while doing work on your property.

*Ask if the contractor plans to bring in any sub-contractors to help get the job done. If so, be sure to ask to see the insurance coverage information and other documentation from the sub-contractors, too, if their work won’t be covered under the main contractor’s coverage.

*Ask to see documentation to ensure that the contractors are properly and fully bonded so you are covered if a worker would damage or steal something on your property.

All of this may seem like a hassle to do today in the midst of your storm damage, but if a problem comes up later, you will be happy that you asked all of these questions and received adequate answers ahead of time, Richman says.”You want to protect yourself from contractor hassles. You’ve already had problems due to the storm. You don’t need more aggravation from under-insured or uninsured contractors and faulty repairs.”

Once the contractor is selected, you can then focus on the contract itself to ensure that it protects you as well, Richman says.

*Be sure that the contract clearly includes the total price of the job, including a breakdown of the individual work that will be done. That means an item by item list and accounting of everything that will be done and that will be replaced, from drywall to wall studs to everything else.

*Make sure that you do NOT pay the entire contract price up front, Richman says. That gives you leverage to ensure that the finished work is to the standards that you expect and which were promised by the contractors. Instead, make sure that the contract specifies that the homeowner has the right of final approval before the last payment is made. Also make sure that the contract includes the right for you to demand a “punch list” to handle any remaining problems or items to be completed under the contract. That way, if anything else needs to be done, the contractor will come back and do it without additional fees, Richman says.

“Typically, you pay them incrementally, and you want to make sure its being done right along the way,” Richman says. “You’re entitled to ask what is being done for each payment, and where and how the money is being applied.”

*Make sure that the contract specifies who is providing the needed materials for the job and who is paying for them. If you are relying on them to get the materials, be sure that the costs are included in the contract and are not something they can claim as extra-cost items later.

*Make sure that any required occupancy permits or other inspections that are required under the work are included in the contract to ensure that you can easily get back in after the repairs are completed.

One other bit of important advice you might not think about – be sure to visit your properly regularly while the work is being done if you are not living in the home during the repairs, Richman says. “Make sure you are visiting every day to confirm that the work is proceeding. One client I assisted had a contractor who ran up a $6,000 phone sex bill on their house phone line while working on the property because no one checked back often during the work.”

Taking these kinds of steps will help make the repairs after the storm go much more smoothly, according to Richman. “I’ve seen all of these problems happen before in previous legal cases,” he says. “Everything I’m talking about I’ve handled in casdes in Municipal Court and Common Pleas Court. There are some contractors out there who don’t want to follow the rules and be up-front and you have to protect yourself.”

Of course, if you take all of these steps and still have a problem with a building contractor, then your next step could be hiring an experienced, qualified and compassionate law firm to fight for you. If you need us, MyPhillyLawyer stands ready to assist you.

When Winning Matters Most, call MyPhillyLawyer.