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avatar You are viewing an archive of articles by Mitch Lipka. Mitch Lipka writes, or has written, for some of the top publications in the country. He is an award-winning consumer columnist, and has done stories on just about every topic that affects wallets, bank accounts, and peace of mind. Mitch was in charge of consumer news for AOL's personal finance site and was a senior editor at Consumer Reports. He was also a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, among other newspapers.

Mitch Lipka


It’s the height of home repair season, a time when established contractors are often in demand and unavailable. That’s a big opportunity for the fly-by-night operators to step in.

Hiring a contractor to do work on your home, whether it’s a relatively small job or a major renovation, is a big deal. For most consumers, your home is your biggest investment. It should be treated with the level of respect that comes along with that.

Just like you wouldn’t want some quack of a doctor to perform surgery on you, you don’t want someone with questionable skills to be operating on your home. On top of that, if you do end up with a shady “contractor” you not only run the risk of poor work you also are taking a chance on getting ripped off.

Scams in the home improvement business have been around for a long time. They’re finely tuned and very focused on getting consumers at their points of maximum vulnerability.

Recognizing how their game is played, however, can help you avoid getting ripped off. And, if you play the role of consumer by the book, you’ll have the best chance at getting the job done properly for a fair price.

What to watch out for

Ideally, you should be seeking a contractor rather than the contractor seeking you. So, when someone comes to your door after spotting some loose shingles, cracks in your driveway, or just about any other problem that could benefit from repair, watch out.

One of the oldest scams in involves the door-to-door approach. They’re looking to do two things: tempt you with their immediate availability and get a commitment from you without giving you the benefit of thinking things through or reviewing your options. More than likely they’ll also dangle a price that’s too low to believe. Unfortunately, for many victims, that combination can be irresistible.

You should try to resist, however, because the very next thing after you say you want the work done is you’ll be asked for money. More than likely they’ll ask for cash or, if they take a check, it will be cashed before the job even gets going.

Regardless of whether the contractor looks the part, sounds impressive, or otherwise spins a believable tale, avoid these sorts of spur of the moment decisions. Driveway repair schemes, in particular, are widespread during the spring and summer months. A crew of workers will troll neighborhoods looking for driveways in rough shape and pitch the homeowner that they can do the work then and there on the cheap. Why? Because they claim they have a bunch of asphalt left from a previous job that must be used up. In reality, they drive around with this asphalt and what they want is someone who will lured by the chance of a cheap repaving. The result for the unfortunate people who agree is a scam that involves a demand for more money with the threat of leaving a partly finished job.

How it should work

The simplest way to avoid these contractor scams is to understand the proper way to hire someone to do work on your home. That involves doing a bit of homework and taking the time to screen contractors you are considering hiring.

Recommendations are not the final word, but a place to start. Many jurisdictions license or register contractors. It is vital that consumers make sure a contractor they are considering is properly licensed or registered with the state, county, or municipality where the work is to be done. That’s a way to avoid fly-by-night outfits and typically means the contractor has at least a minimum of amount of insurance so you don’t get left holding the bag if something goes awry. (Here’s a list of state and local consumer agencies by state that can help you track down the rules where you live.)

Check with the agency that licenses or registers contractors- or your state attorney general – to see if many complaints have been filed against any company you are considering. Look on the Better Business Bureau website, as well.

Invite at least three contractors to provide detailed estimates of what they think the work should cost. Getting estimates should be free. At their visit, ask to see their liability and worker’s compensation insurance (if they have anyone working for them). Be sure to ask them to be specific on their estimates, including any particular materials they might use (the brand of window, for instance, if they’re replacing windows). Ask what the estimate includes and does not include. Check if permits will be needed for the job and if they will be getting them. A reputable contractor will play by the rules and take care of those sorts of details. Failure to get a required permit could result have serious consequences for the homeowner.

Always ask when payments are due. Payments should be incremental, starting with a small deposit, followed by percentages of payment made after certain milestones are reached, with the last payment of, say, 25 percent, being withheld until the work is completed to your satisfaction.

The lowest price is not always the best deal. Pay attention to how the various contractors communicate with you, how thorough their estimates are and how inclusive. A shady contractor will offer a low-ball estimate to entice a customer and later jack up the prices. You want to hire someone with an established track record, references you can check, who understands what they’re doing.

It takes more time and more thought, but playing it safe will help you dodge the worst of the worst and avoid home improvement ripoff.

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Whether you’re the most frequent of frequent flyers or someone who is more likely to have miles expire, understanding the real value of what you’ve earned is the key to making the right choices as a consumer.

With miles programs constantly being changed and consumers’ loyalties challenged, those with frequent flyer miles have to decide when it’s worth trying to accumulate more and when it’s time to cash in. And even when you want to use your miles for a flight, it might not be that easy.

“Miles are worth less and less all the time — that seems to be a constant,” said Jason Cochran, editor of Frommer’s and author of several travel guidebooks.

“The airlines have given so many (miles) out, partly in the pursuit of loyal business travelers, that they can be incredibly hard to redeem. It used to be that you could find a decent seat many months ahead, but now the market is flooded with points and seat inventory is down, so you may find you can’t find a free direct flight on miles almost immediately after schedules are published.”

There’s no one-size fits all answer for consumers, but having some perspective before using your miles should help to make a wiser decision — wiser, certainly, than letting them expire.

You know you’re an infrequent frequent flyer when you get that notice in the mail about converting your miles to magazine subscriptions or to donate or to redeem for some sort of gadget. For many, choosing one of those options might well be the best way you can use miles when you aren’t close to getting an upgrade or earning a free flight.

First, before you react to the notice that your miles are expiring, often sent by magazine subscription companies, be sure that they really are.

“Lots of outfits will warn you that your miles are expiring, and it’s true that some airlines do allow your miles to expire if your account doesn’t have any activity on it,” Cochran said. “But that takes a long time, and notice that those outfits don’t always tell you when your miles will be expiring. Look at your balance page yourself. It might be a year in advance, and if you should take another flight between now and then, the deadline will bump further in the future.”

Tim Winship, editor and publisher of FrequentFlier.com, said for most consumers the ideal use of miles is, well, on airplanes.

“The best use of frequent-flyer miles is almost always cashing them in for flights or upgrades. The economics are straightforward: the cost to the airline of giving away a seat that would have gone unsold anyway is negligible. As a result, a ticket with a published price of $500 can be had for 25,000 miles. That amounts to getting 2 cents for every mile redeemed.”

When airlines offer frequent flyer club members the opportunity to redeem miles for any number of different goodies, from golf clubs to electronic gadgets, they have to pay for them. That means the consumer ends up being charged more miles than they would to get the same value in airline tickets or upgrades. “For example,” Winship explained, “members of United’s MileagePlus program would have to pay 56,400 miles for a Callaway X2 Hot Driver golf club, widely available online for around $330. That’s less than 1 cent per redeemed mile. A Roku 3 media player, available from Amazon for $89, costs 18,200 United miles, delivering less than half-a-cent per mile in value.”

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t get the golf club if your goal was to not have to use any money out of your own pocket. “It’s nice to have options, of course,” Winship said. “But in the great majority of cases, non-flight awards are simply lousy values.”

As for using your airline loyalty bounty for hotel stays, Cochran said a similar rule applies. And it’s worth some pause before going in that direction.

“What’s worth more: what it would cost you to get that room on your own, or how much it cost you to accrue those miles to begin with? Given how easy it is to get a discount on a hotel room these days, the answer is almost never in favor of getting rid of miles for that purpose,” he said. “Yes, it takes a little homework, and not everyone wants to price-check the street value of what they’d be using their miles for — and that’s exactly what these pitches are about. They want you to spring for the convenience of the redemption for something other than an air ticket, and they know you’re unlikely to take three minutes to figure out if you’re actually getting a deal.”

That leads to an exception to the rules. It’s the one thing that consumers who truly have accumulated hardly any miles can take advantage of it. Magazine subscriptions.

Winship said using miles to buy subscriptions is actually a good deal. “In pure dollars-and-cents terms, cashing in miles for magazine or newspaper subscriptions can deliver a solid return on investment,” he said. “But really, how many magazines do you want in your mailbox?”

If you miles really are expiring, however, and you’re at the low end of the miles spectrum, at least it’s something. And least you know it really can be a good deal.

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