How to Avoid Contractor Scams

Well You Did It: You Bought That Victorian Fixer-Upper

The Interview

Here are some questions to ask.

How long have you been in business? Look for a well-established company and check it out with consumer protection officials. They can tell you if there are unresolved consumer complaints on file. One caveat: A zero complaints record against a particular contractor may be that problems exist, but have not yet been reported, or that the contractor is doing business under several different names or perhaps very little business is done. Why you need references.

Are you licensed and registered with the state?

Only 36 states have some type of licensing and registration statutes affecting contractors, remodelers, and/or specialty contractors. Check with your local building department or consumer protection agency to find out about licensing requirements. If your state has licensing laws, ask to see the contractor's license. Make sure it's current.

How many projects like mine have you completed in the last year?

Ask for a list. This will help you determine how familiar the contractor is with your type of project.

Will my project require a permit?

A competent contractor will get all the necessary permits before starting work on your project. Be suspicious if the contractor asks you to get the permit(s). It could mean that the contractor is not licensed or registered, as required by your state or locality.

Get References?

The contractor should be able to give you the names, addresses, and phone numbers of at least three clients who have projects similar to yours.

Will you be using subcontractors on this project?

Make sure they have current insurance coverage and licenses and get a copy. A "mechanic's lien" could be placed on your home if your contractor fails to pay the subcontractors and suppliers on your project. That means the subcontractors and suppliers could go to court to force you to sell your home to satisfy their unpaid bills from your project. Protect yourself by asking the contractor, and every subcontractor and supplier, for a lien release or lien waiver.

What types of insurance do you carry?

Contractors should have personal liability, worker's compensation, and property damage coverage. Ask for copies of insurance certificates, and make sure they're current. Avoid doing business with contractors who don't carry the appropriate insurance. Otherwise, you'll be held liable for any injuries and damages that occur during the project

Tips to Avoid Being Scammed

from the CSLB web site

  • Watch out for door-to-door solicitations—especially when they want to start work immediately
  • Be aware that your contractor must notify you of your right to cancel within three days of signing a contract
  • Be a good neighbor and report any suspicious home improvement activity if your neighbor is elderly or otherwise vulnerable and g et free information from the CSLB

“10 Tips for Making Sure Your Contractor Measures Up.”

If you or a neighbor have hired or been solicited by someone fitting the description of these traveling criminals, please contact the Contractors State License Board in Southern California at (562) 466-6017 or in Northern California at (916) 255-2924.

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Howard Bell

Greening San Francisco: Mt. Lake is Designated a Toxic Site

The Board of Supervisors is looking at one of the last remaining natural lakes in San Francisco. Its a spring fed lake covering almost four acres near MacArthur Tunnel as you head towards the Golden Gate Bridge.

Because the lake is so close to highway 101, the run off is loaded with heavy metals and Petroleum byproducts. These highway storm drains pipe directly into the lake from 101.

The procedure to revive the lake and save it from further contamination would be to divert the storm drains and somehow capture the toxic run off and to dredge the lake to remove the years of nasty sediment. Mountain Lake is now an official toxic clean up site.

A hearing will take place to determine the extent of the damage and establish a time line to re-mediate a natural resource....We hope it will soon be part of the flyway and we'll see ducks and other birds on their way to warmer climates inhabiting the four acre clean water lake.

A hearing was demanded by Supervisor Alito-Pier to determine who bears responsibility for the clean up. Is it Cal-Trans problem to divert the run off storm drains or the Presidio Trust and always its the money. Help Supervisor Alioto-Pier push the issue to completion by signaling your strong interest in a clean-up.

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San Francisco Goes Green in a Big Way

San Francisco Climate Action Plan has ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals: a 20 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2012. To meet these, each person who lives or works in San Francisco will need to cut almost 2 tons of carbon dioxide annually. The city program has set a mid-term goal of 10% by 2010.

Rather than dissect the forward of the plan which is now available on line, I wanted to tip my hat some of the organizations and business people who are on the active edge of creating a clean and healthy place to live.

1.Climate Action: The goal is to reduce carbon emission by 20% below the 1990's levels by 2012. This is a catch-all approach that will include low fuel/electric and bio fuel transportation. It will also include a pilot project to create a carbon tax and require all business to reduce carbon emission as much as possible.

a. Consider joining the Bicycle Coalition with more than 8000 members they are actively making our city more livable by promoting toxic free sustainable transportation. They do some wonderful things such as partnering with the YMCA for after school bike safety programs for middle school children. They also have a seniors program helping to create safer walkways and intersections.

b. Business Leaders: The city will need to capture the interest of the business community to adopt a carbon neutral way of doing business. Consider joining the Certified Green Building Professionals. Build It Green offers an intensive green building training program for key stakeholders including builders, architects, contractors, affordable housing advocates, real estate professionals.

In keeping with shameless plugs for those forward looking business leaders that are already on board, I had a conversation with kevin Wiley, co-founder and President of CitiScape Property Management Group. Kevin has a designated green Team, headed by Danielle Pittman whose job it is to reduce the carbon footprint using energy conservation, recycling, waste reduction, introducing green product implementations, and encouraging awareness. CitiScape is bringing a green awareness to its HOA's as it spreads the word. I think it would be a powerful thrust for the Mayor's program if all boards and HOA's require their business contacts be green and carbon neutral.

2. Renewable & Efficient Energy: The strategies include a voter improved solar panel subsidy that will effectively cut in half the cost of solar panels for homeowners. The idea is to double solar use, create hundreds of new green jobs and to begin to develop market efficiencies to reduce cost. Two programs of some note are:

a. PG&E Rebates: The utilities have some interest in seeing lower energy usage and are offering rebates for appliances and heating systems. has some useful articles on rebates and ways to cut your energy costs

b. San Francisco Public Utilities Commission rebates: They have two interesting programs designed to conserve water and save money. Apartment owners should pay special attention to this as water prices will double and triple in San Francisco to help you save water. They offer rebates on low flow toilets and washer and dryers.

c. They also offer a program where a water efficiency expert will come to your home or business and offer a free evaluation to help you conserve water and save money.

3. Clean Transportation: According to the 2008 SF Environmental proposal 51% of our CO2 emissions is transportation. I think the city has done a good job here. I would like to see more bicycle stalls and more electric and bio fuel buses. But, this city is a already a leader in clean air.

4. Green Building: Recent signature projects in San Francisco include Laguna Honda Hospital, which will save the City over $7 million in energy costs in the first 10 years of operation, as well as the major renovation of the California Academy of Sciences campus in Golden Gate Park. This is an amazing structure. Its the roof that i find incredible. Here is some description from Wired magazine which is really inspired. "It is a living roof: More than a lawn overhead, 1.7 million native plants insulate the roof, capture rainwater, and provide a 2.5-acre habitat for butter flies, hummingbirds, and other critters. And that nifty thatch is framed by 60,000 photo voltaic cells along the roof's perimeter."

5. Urban Forest: The city hopes to Plant and maintain 25,000 new trees in San Francisco by 2012, offsetting 2,500,000 pounds of CO2 annually. Each year, the City offers residents the Green Christmas program. There are two programs of note for friends of a tree canopy in the city.

a. Christmas Tree Planting: For $99, residents can buy a living Christmas tree for their homes. After the holidays, the City picks up and re-plants the tree in an area of the City that needed greening. This amounts to an offset of 400 pounds of CO2 annually.

b. Join Friends of the Urban forest. Each year, they help communities plant over 1,500 trees. Friends of the Urban Forest obtains permits, removes sidewalk concrete, supplies tools and materials and selects, purchases and delivers the trees. On planting day, volunteers work side-by-side with residents. After the work is done, everyone celebrates over a community lunch.

6. Zero Waste: This is our recycle program which has been city wide for many years. San Francisco is even pulling food waste for mulch out of apartment buildings (those green containers). The city has been doing a good job here and so have most San Franciscans. If you havent been recycling here are some tips on the best ways to begin:

a. Sunset Scavenger Organics program reclaims organic food waste. About 90 percent of the compost made from the food scraps from San Franciscans is applied to local vineyards. The balance goes to small farms and landscape supply yards, returning nutrients to farms. 300 tons of food scraps and yard trimming are collected each day.

7. Environmental Justice: Development of urban farms, community gardens, and schoolyard gardens to teach adults and children about the nutritional benefits of growing and eating fresh produce. The poorer districts of our city have less tree plantings and less nutritional guides in the form of schoolyard gardens. Mayor Newsom wants to place a focus on this. For example, the $99 Christmas tree program replants the Christmas trees in areas that have a lower tree population, affording these neighborhoods the same carbon reduction benefits of other neighborhoods.

** There really is an official city tree: a 100-foot Monterey Cypress, located in front of McLaren Lodge at Kennedy Drive, near Fell Street in Golden Gate Park. Special thanks to the sfgov site for the photo.

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Howard bell


Muni Plans to go to Chinatown

Knitting the City Together
The SF Muni Transportation Board voted unanimously to create a new line that would extend to Chinatown. The plan calls for four brand new stations connecting Chinatown to fourth and king.

The new stations will be:
1. Fourth and King
2. Moscone Center
3. Union Square
4. China town

Much of the new Muni will be underground. This might be the beginning of a plan adopted by many European countries to limit or ban cars from downtown or central areas. Of course, before you do this you have to provide good alternate transportation or you will kill the local business.

Get this: The whole tunnel is less than 2 miles long and the cost is expected to come in at 1.3 billion. By the time it starts in 2010 Im sure that will not be the number.
Im happy that Chinatown gets better integrated into other parts of the city, the shopping district has really suffered since the collapse of the Embarcadero freeway. But North Beach, our colorful bohemia will likely become even more of a financial district appendage. The Washbag just closed. Are we losing our San Francisco character....Im afraid so.

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The SF Rent Board Rent Increase and Security Deposit Interest for 2008

Allowable Rent Increase Set at 2%

As per the San Francisco Rent Ordinance, many residential properties may increase the rents, effective March 1, 2008, to February 28, 2009 by 2%. You may also bank this amount. Currently the increase is set at 1.5%.

There is no limit on the amount of rent a landlord may first charge the tenant when renting a vacant unit. Thats why an owner buy out may look very good. Especially if the unit was significantly below market. An owner can recoup this very fast at todays rates in this city

Allowable Security Deposit Increase Set at 5.2%

In addition the yearly interest owed on security deposits (which applies to all units rent control or no) stayed the same as last year at 5.2%.

These rates can be "banked" or they can be held by the owner. There is no law requiring the owners use of these funds other than they must be returned at the end of the tenancy. Many owners bank the increases unless the tenant makes a request for the interest earned. Then the owner must return interest earned money promptly.

This is different from the end of tenancy return of the deposit itself. Here an owner has 21 days to return the deposit to a departing tenant. The deposit must be returned whole less any legitimate damages to the unit beyond wear and tear. Remember to retain receipts and foreword a copy with the reduced deposit for any damages done to your property.

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Howard for


Trading Safety for Solar : Mayor Newsoms Proposal to Green San Francisco

The mayor has a proposal to make San Francisco the solar capital of America. There are some dark spots to this idea.

On Dec 11 of '07 the Mayors office issued a press release initiated a yet to be voter approved program to create the largest urban solar incentive program of any city in the US.

The program would offer companies and resident’s government-funded loans and rebates to offset the costs of installing solar panels, city officials said

The Mayors press release goes on to say: San Francisco's proposal must be approved by voters and legislators. Businesses would be eligible for rebates of up to $10,000. Residents would receive $3,000 to $5,000 off the cost of installing solar panels depending on whether they use a local contractor and are working on property in a neighborhood near a power plant.

The city would underwrite the cost of the loans, which commercial and residential owners would be expected to pay back through annual tax assessments on their properties. Basically, the loans would be amortized over a ten year period and then be paid back to the city.

The city is looking to half the cost of solar, offer the owner a low rate loan and be the greenest city in the land.

The only sticking point is that the program will be created via a voter-approved ballot measure to re-purpose $50 million in general obligation bonds originally designed for the “Seismic Safety Loan Program” to a solar and other renewable energy loan program. Im certainly not opposed to solar, but Im not sure i would trade off seismic safety for it. Supervisor Aaron Peskin says using seismic safety bonds for the solar program "robs Peter to pay Paul."

Something to think about…..A progressive green city and new green jobs and the creation of a big market for solar panels that may create the market efficiencies the Mayor is looking for, but at the expense of life and death issues?

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San Francisco Carries The Torch: Olympics 2008

We are the only North American city designated to carry the torch for the 2008 Olympics. Want to be the one to pass the torch? Read on.....

Mayor Gavin Newsom invited all North Americans to submit an application to become a torchbearer for the San Francisco leg of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Torch Relay. Online applications are currently being accepted through the website All applications must be received by February 3.

How to Be the Torch Bearer for the 2008 Olympics

Anyone interested in becoming a part of the Olympic tradition is now eligible to write a 200-word essay, detailing their qualifications to hoist the flame through the streets of San Francisco.

Because San Francisco is the only city in North America to participate in the international torch relay, applicants from all over the continent are eligible to participate. Hurry up San Francisco, we need one of our own to carry the day. Just imagine the fun we could have!

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Prop A passes: Whats It Do To San Francisco Property Taxes

Proposition A: A bond measure authorizing the city to borrow $185 million for construction, rebuilding and improvements to park and recreation facilities, was approved by nearly 72 percent of voters.

The bond funds will be divided into $117.4 million for 12 neighborhood parks and $33.5 million for potential projects at nine waterfront parks. The remainder will be allocated for park restrooms, athletic fields, nature trails, forestry and other park and recreation projects.

Fiscal Impact: Proponents argued the money is needed to repair or replace deteriorating facilities, and to make safety and aesthetic improvements and earthquake retrofits, and that there would be no increase in property taxes to repay the bonds.

According to the Neighborhood Parks Council,
the bond will hold property taxes stable. Prop. A bonds are only to be sold as old bonds are repaid, thus “keeping the property tax impact from general obligation bonds approximately the same over time,” via the City Controller.

Following is a list of parks to receive substantial repair based on need for repair, density of use and needed earthquake upgrades.

  • Chinese Recreation Center
  • Mission Playground
  • Palega Playground
  • Cayuga Playground
  • McCoppin Square
  • Sunset Playground
  • Fulton Playground, Mission Dolores Park
  • Cabrillo Playground, Glen Canyon Park
  • Lafayette Park
  • Kimbell Playground.
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Howard bell


Energy Savers: Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs

The Savings
These are those florescent twists that actually use as much as 70% less energy than a regular light bulb. PG&E suggests that replacing just one 75 watt bulb can save as much as $13.00 annually.

PG&E Rebates
We understand that PG&E is subsidizing the costs of these new energy savers and the can be found at many hardware stores for less than a dollar. Brownies, on Polk Street has them.
There are rebates to the trade from PG&E. The goal is to completely replace the older bulbs and PG&E is pushing hard. We just wish they would keep it simple.

CFLs contain a very small amount of mercury. No mercury is released when the bulbs are in use. However, CFLs are made of glass tubing and can break.
What Do I Do When They Are Burned Out
Consider them toxic waste as you would batteries or auto oil. You can go to
to check by zip code where your nearest waste disposal is located.
What If It Breaks
Put on a pair of gloves and put the pieces ina bag. Do not throw them into the garbage. PG&E suggests sweeping up the area, but we think that you could spread small amounts of mercury to other parts of the house. Best to wipe them with damp paper towels and dispose of them along with the bulb.

Bulb manufacturers will eventually replace the mercury with a less toxic compound, but for now just follow good safe precautions

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Howard Bell


Is Renting Your Unit a New Skill

Leasing the Unit: Its Pure sales

Many owners are not comfortable with the rental process because they are not comfortable with sales. Getting the lease is pure sales technique. Once you have made the unit rent ready and placed advertising, you are ready to meet and interview prospective tenants.

The Telephone Sale

Many owners will now have to play the role of landlord ans they begin to realize the extent of the real estate downturn. Here is a discussion of some of the basic techniques used to rent your apartment or home faster. The telephone is often your first contact and You need to generate interest on contact. Sales people will tell you that you only have a few seconds to capture someone's interest.

Getting the appointment
The reason a potential renter calls is to find out about the rental. The obvious reason that you are picking up the telephone is to get the viewing appointment. You are not merely providing information. You should have a few goals in mind as you pick up the telephone: try to qualify the caller to see if they are a fit and then create enough interest to get the viewing appointment.

How to Generate Enthusiasm and get the Appointment

Role play: Make believe you are the caller and imagine what the most common questions are. Have a good response that exhibits confidence and enthusiasm. Practice!

Bond: Dont just stick to the facts. You want to draw out the caller. Consider some positive and interesting ways to describe the unit's or neighborhood. Write them done as catchy phrases and be ready to use them.

Know The Caller: In order to generate interest with the caller you must try to have some contact conversation. Find ways to develop common interest. It can be as simple as having been where they are from or sports. Anything, to help create a feeling of friendliness. Become the master of the five minute relationship.

Know Your Unit: This is an important because you need to create interest and should be prepared and enthusiastic. Create kind of interest that makes the caller want to know more and see the unit. This is pure sales technique

Sell Enthusiasm: After you have given the caller the basics ENGAGE them, be ready to be enthusiastic about its good points. Gain real interest and GET that appointment

  1. If your caller is married be excited about the school or community center that offers classes for two year olds etc. Is there a park nearby?
  2. If the caller is single or more upscale be prepared to talk about the restaurants or easy transportation to theater or museums. Create interest.
  3. Is it top floor or is it quiet or does it have good light? Is it near a Gym? Find the EMOTIONAL qualities of your unit
  4. Renters seem to love hardwood floors, light, views, quiet. Emphasize without appearing to sell.

Resources for Owners of Rental Property

  1. Fair Housing
  3. SF rent Board
  4. SFAA
  5. Small Property Owners Institute
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Howard Bell