How to avoid chimney repair scams
It started with a phone call. Patricia Talaszek hired one of the six or so companies that would call each fall offering to clean the chimneys connected to two wood-burning fireplaces in her Staten Island home. When the technician said she'd need a chimney liner costing more than $1,000, her natural skepticism set in: "We're New Yorkers so we tend to say: 'Wait a minute, here.'"
Talaszek declined the extra work and later hired the highly rated Harris Hearth & Home off Angie's List to examine her chimneys, only to find they were in tiptop shape. "I could have easily been ripped off," she says. "An awful lot of other people would have been ripped off by this, too."
Chimney cleaning and repair scammers tend to follow the patterns of those in other home improvement industries, luring homeowners via phone solicitations, door-to-door sales pitches or ads offering too-good-to-be-true prices and preying on fear and lack of knowledge to score quick sales. Once they get a foot in the door, they may claim costly repairs or products are needed immediately to prevent serious problems like carbon monoxide leaks or chimney fires. Some encounters don't turn out as well as Talaszek's.
Jim Sheehan initially thought the contractor who called his home with a cheap cleaning offer was a local one who'd swept his chimney the previous year. The Bloomfield, Conn., member wasn't even surprised when the technician from Clean Cut Chimney told him it needed more than a cleaning, citing serious problems with the flue and lining.
"I bought the house from someone who had owned it for 20 years, and maintenance wasn't his strong suit," says Sheehan, who agreed to have a chimney liner and chase cap installed although he had never hired the company before. He ended up paying $3,800 for work that wasn't completed and $900 for a chase cap the company never delivered. When he tried to complain, he discovered the company was based in Port Jefferson, N.Y., and wasn't licensed to work in Connecticut.
"The next person who shows up is going to have a real hard time selling me anything — even Girl Scout Cookies," Sheehan says. A number for Clean Cut was disconnected and a woman who answered at another number listed for the company said it was not connected to the business.
Scams more prevalent in the Northeast
Consumer run-ins with deceptive chimney contractors seem to be concentrated in the northeastern part of the country, with many complaints targeting companies based on Long Island in New York, where Clean Cut was located, according to experts from the industry and law enforcement.
But negative experiences with chimney companies can happen anywhere. Member Richard Strecker of Loveland, Ohio, says a technician dumped soot and debris beside his driveway after cleaning his chimney, and then denied it when he complained to the company's office.
"When somebody lies to their boss, you wonder if maybe they're not shortcutting in other places," Strecker says.
Eleven percent of Angie's List members responding to an online poll say they've had at least one negative experience with a chimney contractor and 2 percent say they've had nothing but bad experiences. Thirteen percent say they thought they'd paid too much or paid for services they didn't need.
"Where I live, this type of scam is very prevalent," says John Pilger, president of the highly rated Chief Chimney Services in Smithtown, N.Y. Companies in his area advertise a chimney cleaning for as little as $29.95. "When I started out in 1986 with my own company, I was charging $60," says Pilger, adding that Chief Chimney now charges $175 for an inspection and cleaning.
Pilger, who has tried to raise awareness by working with local and national media and consumer groups, says scams have been plaguing his industry for more than two decades. News stories and consumer alerts published in the last year indicate that they persist, alongside those that dog other home service industries like paving and air duct cleaning.
Early last year, police in Darien, Conn., arrested two men working for Priority Home Improvements of Massapequa, N.Y., after they allegedly tried to bilk an elderly resident out of $1,200 worth of unneeded chimney repairs. Police in Tenafly, N.J., filed complaints against three other men associated with the same company in November.
"It's difficult to investigate and difficult to catch these guys," says Capt. John Trainor of the Tenafly Police, who estimates he's investigated about seven similar cases since 2002. "They have multiple billheads and keep changing the company names." There were no listings for Priority in Massapequa and one number formerly associated with that company was being used by another company.
The shady business practices have spread as far as Maine, where the attorney general filed suit last November against a Massachusetts-based chimney repair business called Lysco Contracting for defrauding consumers and failing to register to conduct door-to-door sales. The suit alleges that the company contacted elderly residents and offered chimney inspections or cleaning for $50 or less, and then used scare tactics to sell unnecessary chimney liners for thousands of dollars. There were no listings for Lysco in Maine or Massachusetts.
Lyndhurst, N.J., member Christina Caporale joined Angie's List after her run-in with A-Safeway Improvements, which advertised a free chimney inspection in her local coupon mailer. "I had just bought a house, and I wanted to make sure the fireplace worked OK," says Caporale, who has young children. She says the technician warned that her home was at immediate risk for carbon monoxide buildup, which frightened her into paying $9,400 for repairs, a chimney liner and an extra chimney vent that she later came to believe was unnecessary. She says she felt pressured to add the extra $3,800 vent to her work order when it was getting dark and the technician told her she'd be without hot water overnight if she didn't. "Bottom line: I was scammed," she says.
The Fair Lawn, N.J.-based A-Safeway has an F rating based on three reports. Owner John Nelson says that Caporale's chimney posed a hazard because the furnace was vented through the same shaft as the fireplace and his technician didn't notice that until he was installing the liner. "Obviously you can't make everyone happy but I try my hardest," says Nelson, adding that he has 20 years of experience.
Do your research, avoid snap hiring decisions
As with hiring any contractor, it's best to receive multiple quotes before proceeding with work. Be wary of upfront prices that appear too good to be true, and don't let contractors pressure you into making snap decisions.
Joe Sauter of Your Chimney Sweep in Indianapolis recommends homeowners hire chimney contractors who are insured and bonded. Sauter goes so far as having his insurance agent send proof that he's covered up to $1 million to prospective customers. Sauter's agent, Brian May of the highly rated May Insurance in Fishers, Ind., recommends that customers validate insurance before service, and to make sure their chimney contractors have at least $300,000 in coverage.
A legitimate contractor also should be able to provide photo or video proof if any extensive repairs are needed. "I carry a digital camera," says Sauter, whose company is highly rated with 410 reports on Angie's List. "We click a picture of their work order and the outside of the house and the next picture in line is their chimney."
Check whether your contractor is affiliated with groups such as the Chimney Safety Institute of America, which is one of only a few offering nationally recognized certification for the industry, according to experts. The Institute — or CSIA — provides technical training and consumer information with the aim of preventing residential fires and carbon monoxide poisoning. Professionals accredited by the CSIA receive training and adhere to a standard of ethics.
There are approximately 1,500 CSIA-certified technicians of about 5,000 chimney companies nationwide, according to Institute spokeswoman Melissa Heeke. You can ask your contractor to show you their CSIA or other professional credentials, proof of insurance and any additional licensing that may be needed for your job. "It's very easy to pick up some tools and say you're a chimney sweep since it's a mostly unregulated trade," Heeke says.
Chimney checkups are important
While it's wise to be wary of fly-by-night companies, it's still important to service your chimney regularly to avoid any hazards. Although nearly 90 percent of Angie's List members who responded to an online survey reported having a chimney, 56 percent say they've never hired a chimney service provider.
Whether your chimney is venting a wood-burning or gas fireplace, wood stove, furnace or water heater, you should have it inspected annually and cleaned as needed, according to the CSIA. Creosote can build up inside your chimney, creating a fire hazard. Animals can take up residence or debris can accumulate, blocking a flue. A chimney professional can make sure there aren't any problems with the various parts that may comprise your chimney — such as the mortar, flue or cap — many of which can be difficult or impossible to ascertain without special equipment and a trained eye.
Jud Irish, vice president of highly rated Chimney Specialists in Sumner, Wash., says that some homeowners consider their chimneys "out of sight, out of mind" and others are surprised that damage can occur even when a fireplace is infrequently or never used. "We see so many chimneys that need to be rebuilt from the roofline up because they've been neglected," Irish says.
The preponderance of rain in the Pacific Northwest makes chimneys highly susceptible to water damage, which can affect the interior and exterior of the structure. "You can catch repairs when they're minor and save yourself money down the road," Irish says. A chimney pro can not only spot problems taking root, but advise you on waterproofing. Heeke says an inspection and cleaning can cost as much as $300, but professionals interviewed for this story quoted prices ranging from $130 to $175.
Have your chimney serviced before the burning season starts, around April through September, if possible. "We give off-season and new customer discounts," says Karla Swanson, one of the owners of the highly rated Chim Chimney in Sacramento, Calif. You're likely to get quicker service if you don't wait for the first cold snap of the year.
Member Jane Parsons of Shingletown, Calif., says she neglected her regular chimney maintenance for several years in an effort to save money, although she uses her fireplace with a face made of lava rock daily in the winter.
"One day I started a fire and all the smoke started pouring in the house," says Parsons, who then called the highly rated Flue Season Chimney Sweeps in nearby Redding. Flue Season determined she'd had a small fire, but was able to clean and repair the chimney in her unique mountain home for $225. The company even sent a thank-you card with treats for her cats afterward. "I could have had a structure fire," Parsons says. "After that experience, I'm having it done on a yearly basis.
— with additional reporting by Ellen Miller