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Avoiding HVAC Contractor Nightmares

We've all heard stories about HVAC contractors who show up for a service call, don't fix the heating or air conditioning problem, and then expect payment. When the unfortunate homeowner refuses to pay, s/he risks being harassed by collectors or having a lien put on the property. When this happened to a condominium owner in Chicago, he had to take the contractor to small claims court. While these stores are few and far between, they're also serious -- how can you prevent this nightmare from happening to you?

First and foremost, do your research. Ask friends and acquaintances for recommendations. Check for the HVAC company on consumer complaint sites such as those often run by state and city governments. Call your local Better Business Bureau. If you live in a state that licenses HVAC contractors, make sure your contractor has the required licenses. Look for contractors belonging to professional societies or with certifications from organizations like North American Technician Excellence (NATE). Do some of this research ahead of time, so you have two or three possible contractors to call in an emergency.

When asking former clients about a contractor, listen to their replies carefully. If they seem unenthusiastic or lukewarm in their comments, it may be a sign of problems. Be sure to ask about the responsiveness of the contractor, whether the work was performed on time and within budget, and whether they've experienced any subsequent problems. If they have, find out how the contractor handled those problems and whether they abided by any promised warranty period or maintenance schedule.

If buying a new heating or cooling system, avoid contractors who give estimates without doing an onsite inspection. Many factors go into properly determining system loads; square footage alone is not sufficient. Ask the contractor to explain how the bid was calculated and exactly what's included with the offered price. Pay particular attention to load calculations. If his answers vary greatly from other contractors, ask for an explanation of the difference. In addition, a good contractor will often ask about problems experienced with your existing heating or air conditioning systems and make sure these problems are addressed with the new system.

Ask your contractor to outline exactly what work will be completed, the cost, the expected time frame, and other details in the contract or statement of work. You might want to include:

  • When the work will be performed
  • How long heating or cooling will be unavailable during the work
  • Payment schedule
  • Warranty information
  • Contractor insurance information
  • Specific costs for parts and labor
  • How changes or variable costs will be handled

Specify as much as possible ahead of time and in writing; the more details you have set out in advance, the less likely future problems become.

No matter how well you prepare, there is no way to ensure you won't have a problem with your contractor. If you do experience a problem that cannot be handled by a simple phone call, take the time to report it to the Better Business Bureau and other consumer reporting agencies. Hopefully it won't come to this, but remember that avenues like small claims court are there to protect you from unscrupulous contractors. The documentation outlined above can help ensure success if you do need to resort to extreme measures.

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