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Contractors in SWFL after IRMA

IF NOTHING ELSE, A GOOD HURRICANE should make you a good researcher. A chorus of voices from longtime licensed and established tradesmen and women all offer roughly the same advice in both DOs and DON’Ts for hurricane recovery:

Don’t hire people coming to the door. Don’t hire people working for cash or asking for a lot of money up front. Don’t hire out-of-region-or-state crews or businesses, and don’t fail to research a business by checking for licenses, insurance and referrals.

Those are the DON’Ts. So what are the Dos — the right steps to take if you need a new roof, a new floor or walls, kitchens, decks, pools or docks, or for that matter new office or commercial space?

Do ask the right questions, right up front.

"If you’re working with a contractor, ask for referrals, ask how long they’ve been in business, do they have workmen’s comp, how much of the project is done by subcontractors, does the company require a big deposit, what’s the warranty on the projects or products being purchased, and is the business locally owned?” advises Tony Leopardi, owner of the widely respected Cornerstone Builders of Southwest Florida, a family business based in Lee County.

“Another thing you should do is check anybody you hire with the Better Business Bureau and the state website — you can go to www.sunbiz.org, and that will take you right to the state website for the Division of Corporations. You punch in the guy’s name and check his records,” Mr. Leopardi added.

Cornerstone itself took a big hit from Irma — not from wind or water directly but from the cancellation or postponement of more than 25 jobs, or about $600,000 worth of work, he estimates.

“We’re doing all right, though,” he says, patiently — and patience, in this case, is a virtue that can save property owners both time and money, in the long run.

“You’re not going to get a new roof this week,” explains Cathy Curatolo, executive vice president of the Collier County Building Industry Association.

“Roofers are dealing with the most difficult situation, where people are in desperation right now. But if you have a few tiles off the roof, wait a month.”

Roofers aren’t the only ones taking a huge volume of calls for help. So are swimming pool professionals who do pools themselves, along with the sometimes elaborate pump and pool cage repairs so many owners require after hurricanes.

A Pool Pros employee does Hurricane Irma cleanup in Coconut Creek.

“Patience is the word — if people will be patient, they’ll do better,” says Joe Mitchell, founder and owner of Pool Pros, a company with 26 years and a number of hurricanes under its belt.

“I know everybody wants to be first in line, but we have thousands of clients calling us for work. For customers, they should find a quality company they know will come out and represent them well, remembering that not only will it take time to get to the job, but pool products are tight.

“We have a lot of screen enclosures down or screens ripped out, so it will take a little extra time to get (all the inventory required).”

Like other reputable and established local businesses in the various trades, there is no price gouging because of a hurricane, and the work is ultimately done by licensed, insured trades people who know what they’re doing.

“The worst thing I’ve seen is people out there underbidding jobs, asking for half their money or more up front, and then not showing up to do the work,” Mr. Mitchell says.

“So I would say, do your homework. With ‘cheap’ often comes trouble. Check your county and state websites for licensing, ask for referrals, and don’t pay in cash or up front. I take a small percentage down — 10 percent seems a fair number to secure the job, but not too much.”

The work will ultimately get done and done better, for those with patience.

The legitimate businesses are working full-out right now.

At Crowther Roofing, for example, “We are overwhelmed by calls, both for domestic and commercial work,” said Jan Jones, vice president of marketing.

“So we’ve created a waiting list.”

The list depends on the good will and candor of people — and some patience.

“If you don’t have water damage in your house, wait a bit and we’ll get to you. If you do, we will try to come sooner.”

Everything about the company suggests they do business the right way, and not some other way, and Ms. Jones echoes the advice to consumers of others who do business the right way, too: “If they ask for money up front, ‘Run, Forrest, Run!’” she explains, referring to the 1994 movie with Tom Hanks in which the hero is well advised to leave a situation without further ado.

Whether for pools, floors, rooms or roofs, “Wait a month, if you can,” says Ms. Curtolo, and then follow the same rules: “DO NOT pay cash for any job. Look to local contractors and make sure they’re licensed. You can find the Collier County licensing department at www.colliergov.net, 252-2431, or the state’s Department of Business and Professional Regulations, at www.myfloridagov.com.” The telephone: 850-897-1395.

Both Lee and Charlotte County provide licensing information on their county websites, as well. Lee County’s site for contractor licensing, for example (www.leegov.com/dcd/ContLic), opens with following paragraph: 

“To perform work in unincorporated Lee County, contractors must have a state-issued license OR a Certificate of Competency (local license), which is subject to an application and issuance through Lee County. A contractor must also have a current Certificate of Insurance for liability and workers’ compensation and/or a current workers’ compensation exemption status from the state of Florida.”

The state’s website, meanwhile, requires visitors to select “Departments & Agencies,” and then the particular trade — electricians, for example — and then to scroll down an alphabetical list to a given name, where licenses, dates and other information is recorded.

But many people are still impatient, even desperate to get a fix, and that can create long-term headaches whose results are evident for years.

Not just state enforcement agencies but the federal government, therefore, prosecuted more than 1,000 cases of fraud following the 2005 disaster, Katrina, that swept the south and ruined New Orleans.

Avoiding such an outcome only takes patience and a bit of research — and the ability to follow some good advice.

This advice from the Florida Roofing, Sheet Metal & Air Conditioning Contractors Association probably fits the bill:

“First and foremost, homeowners should check the Florida Construction Industry Licensing Board’s website, www.myfloridalicense.com, to verify that a contractor’s license is real and up-to-date before hiring any company to do work on your home. When looking for a Florida licensed contractor, visit the Disaster Contractors Network, www.dcnonline.org, for a contractor in your area.

For those not quite ready to make repairs, FEMA offers disaster assistance, at www.disasterassistance.gov and can help people find emergency housing at www.femaevachotels.com.

Homeowners can also take advantage of a public-private partnership known as HERO Property Assessed Clean Energy to finance hurricane resilient improvements and repairs with no upfront cost, allowing them to rebuild the right way and protect against future storms. HERO vets contractors and tracks their customer satisfaction records.

Finally, homeonwers should not hesitate to report bad actors to the consumer price gouging hotline, at 1-866-966-7226. Honest players in the construction industry are here to help, and will be happy to settle any concerns or disputes through appropriate channels.

This story was written by Roger Williams and first published on Florida Weekly on October 4, 2017.

State Licensed & Insured to provide Commercial and Residential Pool Design, Pool & Spa Construction, Pool Repair, Pool Service, Pool Maintenance, Pool Cleaning for Salt Water Pools and Chlorine Swimming Pools in the communities of Cape Coral, Naples, Sanibel, Fort Myers, Bonita Springs, Estero, Sanibel, Captiva, and all of Southwest, Florida.