TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – As home prices soar, home improvement projects do, too. But how do you know you’re hiring a contractor you can trust?
Many consumers start their research with an internet search that may turn up a host of online reviews that appear to be from happy consumers. Relying too much on those online reviews, though, can land you in trouble.
Just ask Janet Bercot. She’ll tell you first hand that you can’t believe every rosy review you read. She hired Sarasota-based Jamestown Kitchens to remodel her bathroom. Reviews were good at the time, and she paid upfront in full. After her bathroom was gutted, she couldn’t get through to the company.
She wasn’t alone.
“I know I’ve been ripped off,” Bercot said. “The guy kept signing new people, singing new people, signing new people, getting deposits. And he knew he wasn’t finishing any of the jobs.”
After our initial Better Call Behnken investigation, her contractor, James Gerard, was arrested and is now awaiting trial on charges of embezzlement and misappropriation of construction funds on at least 12 jobs.
It’s a construction nightmare that plays out over and over, and is one of the leading complaints Better Call Behnken receives.
So, how do you dig deeper into a contractor’s history to make sure you don’t hand over your money to the wrong person?
Doug Templeton, the chief investigator with Pinellas County Consumer Protection, recommends reading reviews on multiple platforms, but cautions that should be just the start.
“There’s a potential that reviews can be purchased,” he said. “They could be done by a family (member) or friend who’s doing those.”
Templeton said to expect some bad reviews.
“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect there might have been concerns throughout a job, but how did a contractor address those? How did they resolve those issues?”
When hiring a contractor, public records are your friend. You can check a business license at the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation website. Make sure the license is current and make sure the business is licensed to do your particular job.
Keep in mind that some home improvement businesses are run by people who are not contractors themselves. This was the case in the Jamestown Kitchens case and many other Better Call Behnken investigations.
In this case, the business could operate under what’s known as a qualifier, meaning under a general contractor’s license. In some cases, that contractor has limited daily contact with the company, even though they are supposed to oversee projects and can be held accountable.
You can read complaint history from the Department of Business and Professional Regulation and the Better Business Bureau. But keep in mind, some successful companies with no complaints end up with big problems.
This was the case in another recent Better Call Behnken investigation. Olympus Pools had a good BBB rating and good reviews online late last year when numerous new customers hired the company.
In recent weeks, more than a hundred upset customers turned to Better Call Behnken, complaining that they paid tens of thousands of dollars and were left with holes in their backyards and little communication from the company.
That case is currently under investigation by state regulators and the Florida Attorney General’s Office.
Watch Investigator Shannon Behnken’s full report on avoiding the wrong contractor tonight at 6 p.m.