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HOUSE RULES To avoid regrets, here are some tips to hiring a home repair contractor

When Jennifer Korzelius and her husband, Matt, began pricing a new roof for their Wheatfield home, the range of bids they received was staggering.

"They were all over the place. The lowest was $7,000. One guy wanted as much as $25,000," she said. "I was like, 'What is going on here?'"

To add to the confusion, Korzelius has had her share of roofing problems in the past. During her last roof replacement, workers left the job half-done without properly covering the unfinished portions with tarps. Soon, her living room was deluged with rain ruining carpet, walls, window treatments and anything else in it its wake.

Recently, leaks started appearing near her ceiling. Though she paid five different roofers for five different fixes, the leaks only got worse. Water damage spread along the walls, along the peak of the vaulted ceiling and down the staircase.

Finally, an honest roofer told her why none of the fixes had worked. The problem wasn't with the roof at all, but an unsealed chimney. The leaks stopped once she hired someone to waterproof the brick.

As Western New Yorkers anticipate the return of roofing season -- spring and summer -- consumers are bound to face similar obstacles. So how can these problems be avoided?

"You have to do your homework," said Thomas Tucker, a Buffalo roofer whose father began teaching him the trade at 8 years old. "Contractors know the average homeowner knows nothing about roofing. They know you're not going to climb up on the roof to check things out."

What's worse, if you end up with a poorly done or incomplete job, there are few options for recourse -- none of them ideal. You can file complaints with the Attorney General and Better Business Bureau, but justice isn't exactly swift. Or you can take the company to court and hope the legal fees don't exceed a settlement.

That's why it's so important to choose the right roofer from the start. MoneySmart, with the help of local experts, came up with these helpful dos and don'ts:

* Get at least three detailed estimates in writing and compare them. Be sure they include prices and quantities of labor and material as well as a time schedule for completion, payment procedures and the number of workers assigned to the job.

* Don't jump at the lowest bid -- or the highest. Price should be just one part of the equation. What's most important is to know what you're paying for and ensure you get it.

* Go the extra mile with references.

Don't just talk to former clients to make sure they were satisfied, inspect examples of previous work in person. Show up unannounced on one of the company's jobs and watch the crew's work ethic from afar. To check out past completed work, get a pair of binoculars or ask neighbors near a past project if you can get a closer look from an upstairs window.

The same observation strategies will come in handy when it's time to keep an eye on the work being done on your home.

* Don't pay in cash, and be suspicious of anyone who asks you to do so. Pay by check and never more than 30 percent upfront. Even then, don't make the downpayment until the first day of work and when materials have been delivered. Hold the final 30 percent payment until the job is finished according to the terms agreed upon in the contract.

* Be vigilant about permits and insurance. Ask for copies of liability and workers' compensation coverage certificates and make sure they're not expired or won't expire while the work is being done.

* Know who you're dealing with. Double check the business address, contact information and tax identification number.

Visit www.BBB.org to check up on a company's record of service. How long have they been established? What types of complaints has the company received and how were they handled?

* Don't do anything in a rush. That includes committing to terms or pricing or even agreeing to work with a company. Once you've done your research and made a decision, don't sign any contract if it contains blank sections.

* Scrutinize Warranties. Roofing warranties are notoriously difficult to collect against when something goes wrong. It's all too easy for a contractor to claim "act of God" circumstances even when craftsmanship is at fault. Understand any provisions that could void your warranty.

Will all or part of associated labor be covered or will the warranty just provides replacement material costs? Is it transferable if you sell the house? If so, what are the restrictions?

Consumer Reports suggests opting for the longest full-reimbursement period available with a reputable and established company.

* Shun roofers who use door-to-door solicitation or offer discounts for finding additional clients.

Editor's note: This is the first in an occasional MoneySmart series aimed at helping consumers navigate home repairs and renovations.

e-mail: schristmann@buffnews.com

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>The skinny on shingles

Roofing materials come in metal, slate, tile and wood. But in Western New York, fiberglass singles -- or "asphalt" as they're known around here -- are by far the most common. There are two types of asphalt shingles, each with its own pros and cons.

Three Tab: This is the traditional asphalt shingle you'll see on most homes across Western New York. They lie flat against the roof and create a uniform pattern of rectangles.

Price: $24.50 per bundle at Home Depot. Three bundles will cover 100 square feet.

Staying power: 25 years.

Architectural: Like their traditional counterpart, they're made of fiberglass pressed between ceramic and asphalt particles. But they have an extra layer of laminate, which is why they're also referred to as "laminate shingles."

They're thicker, more expensive and less likely to lift in high winds than three tabs. But their main selling point is the visually pleasing, textured look they give the roof.

Price: About $28 per bundle at Home Depot. Four bundles cover 100 square feet.

Staying power: 30 to 50 years.

If you highly favor form over function, architectural shingles are widely considered better looking than three tabs. But the beauty their thickness and texture provide also prevents the layering of shingles, which means your next roofing job will be a complete tear-off.

Architectural shingles are also heavier to carry up a ladder, so labor costs can run higher for installation. And though the price per bundle is just about $4 more than with traditional shingles, it takes an extra bundle per 100 square feet to cover the same area.

With either type, Consumer Reports magazine suggests using shingles weighing less than 300 pounds per 100 square feet to prevent structural stress to the roof.

Buyer beware: Most older city homes have cedar roofs updated with a layer of asphalt shingles. Some roofers may offer to put a third layer of asphalt shingles over the top of both, saying the original cedar shingles "don't count" as a first layer.

But experts warned against this method of "creative cost cutting," saying the leaks, damage and fire hazard posed by a third layer of shingles aren't worth the price break. A complete tear-off replacement is in order after that first layer of asphalt roofing comes due.

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