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Miracles Happen, But Don’t Depend on Them—Instead, Cover Your Assets And Protect Yourself against Contractor Fraud

By Brian Pittman at Abecadarium

Don’t let it happen to you! Here’s how one family got conned—only to be saved by So-Cal Good Samaritans, Sunset Home Improvements. Proof that while miracles happen, there’s still no substitute for due diligence.

What do you do when and unscrupulous contractor takes your $6,700 and refuses to do the work?

Answer: File a claim, visit your local precinct—and then pray that a miracle comes along. That’s exactly what happened to Torrance-based homeowners John and Cynthia Kasper this year when a questionable remodeling business refused to deliver or install the windows that the family bought.

Saved by a Miracle: Serendipity Turns a Bad Experience into a Blessing

It all started when the Kasper family decided to invest in new windows to boost their home’s market value. They shopped around, and decided on a Marina del Ray contractor to do the job. “Everything seemed above-board,” recalls Cynthia Kasper. “My husband even checked the license number. The guy who sold us the windows said he had been in business for 30 years.”

But things are not always what they seem. The “contractor” was apparently freelancing—leveraging his employer’s contracting license to get his foot in the door. “After several months nothing had happened,” Cynthia explains. “We didn’t know what the delay was. Then one of his co-workers who measured the windows said we wouldn’t get our money back—and that no windows had been ordered through the company!”

The rogue contractor’s employer assured the Kaspers he had never lent out his license. “So we were stuck with a loss of $6,700—not to mention, a lot of headache and paperwork to try and get it back,” remembers Cynthia. “It was horrible. I couldn’t believe we’d been defrauded. I was shocked and felt vulnerable. I guess I lost a lot of faith in people.”

Despondent, the Kaspers filed their police report and drove home in silence. “That’s when our little miracle happened,” Cynthia says. “We were called by an El Segundo remodeling business. They said we won their annual sweepstakes for free installation of ten windows—the exact number we ordered. At first, we didn’t believe them—but they installed the windows in May. They did a great job, and we’re very happy with the company.”

Coincidence? Cynthia doesn’t think so: “The timing was too perfect,” she says. “The same week we got ripped off, their winners were announced. We were like, ‘Whew, there is a God.’”

Sunset Home Improvements: Three Generations of Trustworthy Business

The Kaspers aren’t the only family to be pleasantly surprised by El Segundo’s Sunset Home Improvements, which is celebrating its 55th anniversary this year. Founded in 1948 by “Grandpa” William T. Pedrino, the company has grown to include 25 employees—and thousands of happy customers. “We’re commemorating three generations of family ownership, trustworthy service and repeat business,” says Bill Pedrino, company VP and grandson to Sunset’s founding father.
“Through 55 years, we’ve had one mission—‘making your old home new again,’” he continues. “Repeat customers and referrals know we deliver on that. That’s why they keep coming back. They realize Sunset is a company whose long history they can trust. Our annual sweepstakes is just one way we give back to the people who have put their faith in our work.”
What does Pedrino think of the Kasper family’s story? “It’s awesome that we could be there when things went bad. I can’t describe what it means to us to have made them happy,” he says. “That’s what we’re all about—doing business honestly and ethically. We’re used to putting smiles on people’s faces. But that’s not always the case in today’s world. My advice is to never settle for ‘specifically vague.’ Ask to see the proof—and the proof is usually in the referrals. Almost all of our business comes through referrals.”

Caveat Emptor: How to Ensure You’re Working with a Legitimate Remodelor

How can today’s homeowner avoid nightmares like the one the Kaspers endured? In hindsight, Cynthia offers this advice: “Look up the contractor’s license number at your state’s contractor licensing board,” she suggests. “For example, California home owners should call the California State Contractors Licensing Board at 1-800-321-CSLB [or visit www.cslb.ca.gov] to see if their contractor’s license is clean and legitimate—and that it’s actually in the name of the person doing the work. Also, ask for a reference every single time—and never put any money down until the job is completely done.”

“These kinds of things happen all the time,” elaborates Mike Weiss, chairman of the Remodelors Council for the National Association of Home Builders [www.nahb.com]. “Unethical remodelors are a real thorn in the sides of consumers and trustworthy businesses. These charlatans make us all miserable. Even so, there are things you can do to avoid them.”
Weiss offers these quick checklists—some excerpted with permission from council postings at www.nahb.com—to help you ensure you’re working with a legitimate remodelor like Sunset Home Improvements:

Business Experience & Management

  • Does the remodelor maintain a permanent mailing address, phone number and a pager or answering system?
  • Does the remodelor have an established presence in the community? How long has the company been in business? Longevity usually suggests financial stability.
  • Does the remodelor participate in trade organizations like the National Association of Home Builders Remodelors Council (NAHB) or the National Association for the Remodeling Industry (NARI)?
  • Is the remodelor a member of a local professional association (e.g., the California League of Homeowners)?
  • Does the remodelor carry a designation such as Certified Graduate RemodelorTM (CGR)?
    Is the remodelor a member of the Better Business Bureau and/or local chamber?
  • Does the remodelor have a trustworthy track record of successful projects? Will the contractor provide credit, business and at least two client references?
  • Does the remodelor have a verifiable state contractors license?
  • Does the remodelor carry insurance to protects you from property damage or jobsite injuries?
  • Does the remodelor offer workmanship and fair pricing guarantees?
  • Has the remodelor received industry accolades (e.g., Sunset was named #385 in Qualified Remodelor National Magazine’s list of “Top 500” for 2002).

Construction & Technical Expertise

  • Does the remodelor have a working knowledge of the types and ages of homes in the area? A sound structural and architectural knowledge of what is likely to be behind a wall helps the remodelor provide reliable estimates. Extremely low bids may reflect a remodelor’s lack of this knowledge and a poor understanding of the actual costs involved.
  • Does the remodelor know what products and materials would likely be used for your project?
  • Does the remodelor offer a warranty? If so, what kind and for how long?
  • Does the remodelor understand the scheduling issues required to begin and complete your job within your timetable?

Customer Service & Communication

Does the remodelor respond promptly to your inquiries?
Does the remodelor emphasize customer service?
Does the remodelor listen to and understand your needs and wants? When you discuss what you’d like to do, does the remodelor show enthusiasm for your ideas and suggest ways to make them work within your budget?
Does the remodelor facilitate and encourage communication? Ask how the remodelor handles communication during construction (such as a message center in the house for you and the remodeling team).

Warning Signs

  • The contractor solicits business door-to-door. High pressure sales tactics, intimidation and threats often accompany this sales approach.
  • You can’t verify the remodelor’s name, address, telephone number or credentials.
  • The contractor claims to be endorsed by the Federal Housing Administration for the Title I home improvement loan program.
  • More information on this type of deceptive advertising is available from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s website (www.hud.gov).
  • The contractor is not willing to offer references, or the references provided were not happy with the contractor’s work.
  • You are asked to pay for the entire job in advance.
  • The contractor will accept payment only in cash.
  • If you do sign a contract and then have second thoughts, remember that the Federal Trade Commission’s “Cooling Off Rule” may apply if the contract was signed somewhere other than the contractor’s place of business (in your home, for example). Under this law, you have up to 72 hours to cancel the agreement.

Sunset Home Improvements is an El Segundo home remodeling business specializing in doors and windows. The company celebrated its 55th anniversary this year, and has been owned by the same family through three generations. The company is a member of the Better Business Bureau, and operates under license number 354572 in the State of California. Sunset is also listed in Qualified Remodelor National Magazine’s list of “Top 500” for 2002. For more information, see www.sunsethomeimprovements.com, or call: (800) 992-8526.


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