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Picking Up the Pieces: Legal Tips for Rebuilding After a Disaster

Whitney O’Sullivan

Picking Up the Pieces: Legal Tips for Rebuilding After a Disaster

In recent weeks, millions of Americans have been affected by catastrophic weather. Houses and communities have been destroyed, and lives have been lost. The task of rebuilding can be overwhelming. 

If you find yourself in this position, chances are you will need to turn your attention to construction and contractors. What do you need to know to protect yourself and ensure that things go as smoothly as possible?

Beware of Price Gouging

Natural disasters often bring out the best in your neighbors; everyone is willing to lend a hand, to share resources, and to look out for each other. But it can also bring out the worst in some people. A few bad apples may try to profit off of your hardship, likely in the form of price gouging.

Price gouging is the practice of raising the cost of commodities or services in an unreasonable manner compared to their normal value. While not illegal in all states, it is illegal in most. If you suspect that this is happening to you, you can start by checking out your state’s laws, and having a conversation with your vendor. The conversation should be respectful, but go armed with knowledge. Do your homework and try to find out what the vendor normally charges and when any changes went into effect. If the vendor is not willing to honor their pre-disaster pricing, you should not engage their services and can file a consumer complaint with your state Attorney General.

Look for Proper Licenses

Many types of businesses, including general contractors, are required to have valid licenses in the state where they work. After a disaster it’s possible that individuals posing as contractors will attempt to solicit work, especially if there is a shortage of contractors to go around. Before you engage with a general contractor, electrician, plumber, or other specialized worker, verify the status of their license. While you can start by asking for a copy of their license, you should independently verify the information provided. You can usually do so with a quick internet search for your state, the type of service, and a request to verify.

If you cannot find a record of the individual, their company, or their license, do not hire that person. Not having the proper qualifications is not only a huge red flag for the quality of work you are likely to receive, but it is also illegal; and in some states may even be illegal for you to knowingly allow work to proceed.

Get it in Writing

As always, no matter how dire a situation or how eager you are to start putting your life back together, do not be so eager that you start work on a handshake alone. Get all of the details of any project in writing. Always.

Define the Scope of Work

Start by discussing the scope of work with your contractor; maybe your entire house was lost, maybe you just need flood remediation, or maybe it’s roof repairs. Whatever it is you need, be clear and be on the same page. Putting this in writing will help you both understand, with specificity, what needs to be done.

Have a plan for dealing with unexpected or unforeseen extra work, i.e. mold, pre-existing faulty wiring, or rotted wood. Who will be responsible for fixing this, and what will the process be for any changes to the original scope? Make sure to read the terms of any agreement closely and fully and to ask for help if you do not understand what you are agreeing to.

Getting Insurance Payments

It can be hard to get paid after a disaster. You might have insurance that will cover the work, you might not and then you need to apply to borrow money online, or it might cover part of the work, up to a certain price. How then will your contractor get paid? Will you be responsible for payments out of pocket? Can you set up a payment plan if you don’t have the cash on hand? Can your insurance company pay the contractor directly?

Some of these answers will take dealing with your insurance company, and some will entail an agreement with your contractor. Whatever the end result, again, make sure you have it in writing, know how much you are agreeing to pay, and where that money will come from.

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By following a few basic rules, you can help ensure that the trauma of a natural disaster doesn’t extend into the rebuilding phase.