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Use common sense, caution with repairs

For those who didn't hang on to the column published after Hurricane Charley, here is a repeat of information to help folks make informed decisions after a storm. It's bad enough to become a victim of the weather without making matters worse by becoming a victim of a scam.

If you have property damage and need to hire a contractor, one of the most important safeguards is to make sure you are dealing with a reputable one.

The Pinellas County Department of Justice and Consumer Services urges consumers to watch out for "fly-by-night" contractors who take deposits and never show up to do the work. Don't deal with contractors who come to your door. Get references from family, friends, neighbors and co-workers.

Make sure any contractor you hire is properly licensed and insured. Contact your local building department and local construction licensing board, as well as the area office of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation at (813) 554-2229. Keep in mind that local jurisdictions may require additional licenses. Ask about any complaint history.

Run the contractor or company by your local consumer protection agency and the Better Business Bureau.

Ask to see the contractor's license. State-generated licenses come with a wallet card. Does the license match the person showing it? Is it even a contractor's license? Make sure it is current. Ask for additional identification if necessary. By law, the contractor's license number must be on his vehicle and paperwork, such as estimates, contracts and business cards.

Get more than one estimate; Pinellas County Consumer Protection advises obtaining no fewer than three. Ask contractors for the names of previous customers and check with them.

Don't pay a contractor in full and don't pay cash. Instead, pay as the work progresses or upon its completion.

Any statement that extensive or structural repairs do not need a permit should raise a red flag. Avoid contractors who ask you to get any needed permits. Remember that you are ultimately responsible for code violations if you pull a permit for an unlicensed contractor.

Insist on a written contract and make sure you understand it before the work begins. Keep in mind that a quick fix can sometimes create additional problems or mean having to redo the work.

Get a final affidavit indicating that all subcontractors and material suppliers have been paid in full. Have the work inspected by the building department. Then make the final payment.

On a related note, it is illegal under Florida law to charge exorbitant prices for essential items such as food, water, ice, hotels, gas, lumber and equipment necessary once a state of emergency or disaster has been declared. If you encounter suspected price gouging, report it to the state attorney general's hotline at toll-free 1-800-646-0444.

Here are some additional things to keep in mind:

+ Check with your insurance company before hiring someone to make repairs. Generally, the insurance company will want to have the damage appraised and the work authorized. Take pictures of the damage before any work begins.

+ Think safety. Avoid downed power lines. Watch out for glass. If you are without power, disconnect your major appliances so that they are not damaged and/or the system overloaded when power is restored.

+ If possible, stay put, but if you must leave your home, lock it and leave an outside light turned on. Use caution outdoors. Formerly secure items such as trees, shrubs, poles or fences may no longer be. Also be careful about letting pets out. They can become easily disoriented by the damage caused by a storm. Glass and downed power lines can pose unfamiliar threats.

Some useful number to check on contractors:

+ County building departments: Citrus, (352) 527-5349; Hernando, (352) 754-4109; Hillsborough, (813) 272-5600; Pasco, (727) 847-8009; Pinellas (727) 536-4720.

+ Local consumer protection offices: Hillsborough, (813) 903-3430; Pasco (727) 847-8110; Pinellas (727) 464-6200.