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Repair problems can double storm losses
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Most people just want to get their life back together quickly after a storm deals a devastating blow to their house, but rushing too fast can compound the problem.
Homeowners across the Southeast are trying to reassemble the pieces of their homes and belongings after Hurricane Katrina tore through Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama Monday. It will take several weeks to get basic services back to many areas, and months for life to even begin to resemble what it used to be.
Rebuilding is not even a priority to many today on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and in the New Orleans area. Some people are just trying to find safe drinking water, a sandwich, or oxygen and medicine just to say alive. Once these needs are met, survivors turn to trying to put together the pieces that remain of their lives.
Bobbie Shaffett, Extension associate professor of human sciences at Mississippi State University, said residents should not move so fast that they make mistakes.
"The main thing is to avoid home repair fraud and rip-offs," Shaffett said. "Make temporary repairs for emergency things, like covering a hole in the roof with plastic. Take pictures of everything to document the damage, and contact your insurance agent. Only then do you begin cleanup and start looking to hire work done."
Check with the company providing the homeowners insurance to learn specific filing and claims procedures. Proceed as directed by these individuals. With widespread devastation such as occurred in Katrina's path, it may take weeks before an insurance adjuster can make it to every claim site. A photo provides evidence of the damage after work has started.
"Never pay in full in advance for work to be done to repair your property," Shaffett said. "Even in these extreme situations, get all the details in writing about what will be done and when. If a contractor asks for money for materials in advance, try to make your payment directly to the materials provider.
"Most contractors are reputable, but some take your money and run. In other cases, a contractor will complete the work but not pay suppliers for materials. If this happens, a lien may be put on your house," Shaffett said. "Make sure contractors are licensed and bonded, and contact the Better Business Bureau or the office of the Attorney General to inquire about the reputation of the business before signing an agreement."
Other common scams involve people offering to help with cleanup work, especially tree removal and home repairs, but either not doing the work they are paid for or charging excessive fees for inferior work.
"If you don't know who they are, be very wary," Shaffett said. "Get the address and telephone number of the contractor and call the office to see if they are legitimate."
She cautioned storm victims to get in writing the work to be done. This contract can be a formal document or it can be handwritten. Both parties should sign the document. The Better Business Bureau suggests what should be included in this contract.
"It should delineate the work to be done, the materials to be used, and the price breakdown for both labor and materials. Review it carefully before signing. Never pay for all repairs in advance, and don't pay cash," the organization states online.
If the outside of the house is damaged, there's often damage inside, too. Wet mattresses, upholstered furniture and wood veneer items usually cannot be salvaged. Clothing and solid wood furniture can sometimes be saved if they were not submerged. The key to saving as much property as possible is to prevent further damage from exposure and to let things start drying out.
"Discard items that are easily replaced, and give first priority to antiques and things that cannot be replaced," Shaffett said.
Save all receipts, including those for materials, services, temporary housing costs, restaurant meals, cleaning supplies and more. More information on each of these subjects is available online at http://www.msucares.com/.
"We make mistakes when we don't take the time to think through the situation and make a wise decision," she said.