First Person: New roof? No thanks

Get lots of estimates; that's my motto

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Along with the annual tulips, daffodils, forsythias and lilacs, our neighborhood this spring is experiencing a robust sprouting of contractors thanks to this winter's heavy snows.

Indeed, what has been a bane for the homeowner -- from collapsed roofs to fallen gutters -- has been a boon for those in the roofing and construction business. One insurance representative I talked to said she had never experienced anything like the volume of storm-related claims filed for this winter's storm damage, especially in February.

It was so bad this winter that administrators in my town of Mt. Lebanon mailed notices to property owners informing them that the municipality would waive the required permitting process for contractors to do repair work.

All of which makes it that much easier for contractors who prey on frustrated and eager property owners. If ever the phrase caveat emptor -- let the buyer beware -- applied, it is this spring as folks seek out handymen and contractors to fix their roofs.

I telephoned a contractor, recommended by a friend, to look at my fallen gutters and cracked ceiling. He performed a visual inspection in a walk around the house and then, entering the living room and eyeing the crack, declared: "You'll need a whole new roof along with the gutters."

Observing my dropped jaw, he added: "Of course, if you wish to wait, I can give you separate estimates for the gutters, which you will need to replace all around the house, and for the roof." A few days later he telephoned with the estimate: $5,600 for the roof; $6,800 for the roof and gutters.

Because the contractor had been recommended, my wife and I were pretty much resigned to dipping into our savings. The deductible for catastrophic damages on our insurance coverage is $1,000, and the insurance would not cover the cracked roof repair, as that could not be demonstrated to be storm-related.

We decided to get competing estimates nonetheless. Someone else recommended a different contractor, who opined -- again, without benefit of actually going up onto the roof -- that we did not need a new roof or new gutters in the back. We did need to replace some flashing. He never sent an estimate.

A third company, which I contacted after seeing its sign in front of a neighbor's house, had a representative drive by and sent an estimate in the mail. To replace gutters front and back, install drip edges and new fascia trim and tie the gutters into the existing spouts: $3,250. Oh, and the estimate included "Clean all debris caused by our work."

For three grand-plus, I should hope so.

Finally, I saw two guys working on a gutter while I was out on a walk. I approached, hollered up to one of them and asked if he would drop by my house. He'd be glad to. He brought along his brother. They did a walk-around, came into the living room and saw the crack, noting that there was no yellowing or signs of moisture, "so it must be structural rather than leaking."

"Sure," said the brother. "Look here. Previous structural damage has been repaired." He pointed to a seam of plaster to indicate that a patch had already been applied. "This is caused by settling, not water damage. Mind if I look in your attic?"

Upstairs we went. The brother went into the attic with a flashlight, found it completely dry, noted that the crack was directly below the dormers; the brothers concluded that not only was no new roof in order, but no flashing was needed either. And the back gutter had suffered no damage.

Bottom line: $630 for the gutter replacement; $500 to repair, plaster and paint the cracked ceiling.

The lesson: Get estimates. And make sure they are based on a full appraisal of the damage and not just eye-balling.

Insurance companies encourage estimates, though my agent and her company don't require them. She said homeowners can go with the company assessor's recommended price and use the company's contractor, or they can get as many estimates as they want and pay the difference if a contractor they choose charges more.

So, again, get estimates. Several estimates. No matter what your best friend says about her favorite contractor.

Steve Hallock is an assistant professor in Point Park University's School of Communication and author of "Reporters Who Made History: Great American Journalists on the Issues and Crises of the late 20th Century"( ).


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