Watchdog column: Roofing customers caught in billing dispute
March 17, 2013 at 10:03 p.m.
Updated March 17, 2013 at 10:18 p.m.
Tips on hiring a contractor
• Check with the Better Business Bureau, get referrals and compare price quotes.
• Confirm the contractor's contact information and get a copy of their insurance.
• Beware of high-pressure sales tactics, full upfront payment or low estimates that may potentially balloon over time or foreshadow shoddy work.
• Call your insurance company to ensure all necessary procedures are followed according to your policy. If you do not follow your insurance company's guidelines, you may be stuck with the entire bill.
• Ask about warranties. Trustworthy businesses will offer information about how they plan to handle any repairs covered under their warranty, particularly if they are coming in from another area.
• Make sure all work is explained in the contract, including cleanup, waste disposal and start and completion dates.
• Pay close attention to the payment terms, estimated price of materials, labor and any guarantees.
• Beware of storm chasers or door-to-door solicitors in unmarked trucks. Their common sales tactic is to tell the homeowner that his or her roof is severely damaged from the storm but that his or her insurance company will likely cover the cost. The homeowner is then required to sign a contract and make an advance payment. In many of these cases, BBB hears that the job is never completed, and the insurance company does not cover the cost.
Source: The Better Business Bureau
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Three Victoria families were served with property liens after a Richmond contractor convinced them the roofs over their heads needed patching.
The liens stem from a billing dispute between Ameristar Roofing and Restoration and its supplier, Ameristar's attorney, Hal Hargis, said.
"Rather than try to resolve it, they are attempting to strong-arm Ameristar into paying," he said.
Hargis did not know whether Ameristar's business had only been affected in the Crossroads or how much exactly was at stake, but said "it is not an insignificant amount of money."
He said a legal battle may be looming.
Wholesale Roofing Supply Inc. filed the documents, which claim it is owed between $2,000 to $4,000, on Jan. 28 in the Victoria County Clerk's Office.
This type of lien, also known as a mechanics lien, clouds the homeowner's title and makes it harder for him or her to sell until the debt is settled.
Wholesale declined to comment for this story.
Ameristar arrived in Victoria in May after weather services reported possible damaging storms. It was a major contributor to the about 400 percent increase in re-roofing work in the community in 2012, according to city of Victoria records.
Now, some of these Ameristar customers are warning others not to toss aside collection letters even if they bear an unfamiliar letterhead.
That is what Joe Valdez did, and now, he says, he regrets it.
A Caterpillar employee, Valdez and his wife moved into their two-story house after growing tired of maintaining a 24-acre ranch three years ago. They did not know to apply for a homestead exemption, one of the seven conditions outlined in both the Texas Constitution and Texas Property Code that would have invalidated Wholesale's lien or made it unenforceable, attorneys say.
Valdez said he thought the deal Ameristar pitched him in mid-November about not incurring a deductible was a sweet one. Neighbors also trusted the company with major renovations.
Valdez was satisfied when Ameristar quickly replaced shingles that blew off during a storm after the initial job.
Exaggerating damages to not incur a deductible is fraud, according to Allstate Insurance.
Valdez and his insurance company, the Texas Farm Bureau, originally paid about $5,000 of the $8,097.77 job with the promise that more funds would be on the way after Ameristar supplied them with evidence that it completed the task. Valdez said his insurance agent told him that notice never came.
"This had nothing to do with us, and it's alarming to be in the middle of it," he said. "I think that Ameristar just got too much business at one time, and they just don't have people adequate enough to follow up."
Alan Bligh, the Better Business Bureau's regional director, said that can happen. A telltale sign of trouble is if the workers ask you to buy the supplies directly, he said.
The BBB awarded Ameristar an A rating. Bligh said the rating would be higher if the company wasn't still in its infancy.
Records show most of the complaints against Ameristar, which opened in 2007, were related to problems with its warranties or products. That is not necessarily foreboding, given the volume of its transactions, Bligh said.
"They could have a pretty good track record out there, and, then, all of a sudden, things just fall apart, so you don't know if it's a scam or just bad luck," he said.
Bligh said the Houston BBB may investigate if this trend continues. It offers mediation - but only before consumers contact the court.
Martin Loa got a $2,366.03 lien off his property in north Victoria on March 7.
A first-time homeowner, Loa, too, was wooed by the promise of not incurring a deductible, but he got upset after he discovered Ameristar installed 20-year shingles rather than the agreed-upon 30-year shingles. His insurance company covered part of the work, but Loa, angry, refused to pay.
"It (the shingles) was like holding several loose-leaf sheets of paper in your hands," the Formosa plant worker said.
Loa, who has a homestead exemption, did not know the law, so he wrote Wholesale a cashier's check for the disputed amount.
Howard Marek, a Victoria Builders Association member and a real estate attorney, visited with a client concerned about a letter they received from Wholesale. He said he wrote Wholesale back that it couldn't file a lien on this person's homestead. The company withdrew it.
Marek said consumers should withhold 10 percent for at least 30 days in case a subcontractor alleges they haven't been paid.
"Really and truly, these homeowners don't have a lot to be worried about," Marek said. "But every situation can be a little bit different. They ought to at least contact an attorney, and, most of the time, they can dispose of it for $200-$300."
Hargis, meanwhile, supported Ameristar's quality. The company replaced the roofs on two of his houses.
"Ameristar is a great company," he said. "Wholesale is defaming it and costing it business by these high-handed tactics. It's using force to bend Ameristar to its will. That doesn't work. That's not going to work."