Beware Home-Repair Gyps (Mar, 1957)

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Beware Home-Repair Gyps

By Harry Kursh

ONE Sunday last spring I decided that the outside of my house needed painting and figured the job would cost about $750.1 looked in my New York newspaper and saw a huge display advertisement hailing a new “paint” discovery.

I immediately filled out the coupon asking a representative from the company to call for an estimate and in less than 48 hours a salesman pulled up to my front door in a slick new car. He was immaculately dressed and carried a bulging briefcase.

He explained in glowing terms the details of the “incredible mastic paint” which, he said, contained asbestos fibers and mica flakes which would be “air blasted” onto my house.

“It won’t warp or peel,” he said. “It will protect your house permanently against fire, water damage, drafts, moisture, termites and eliminate the need for painting for at least ten years.”

“How about an estimate?” I asked.

“It’ll cost you about $1,500,” he said.

I whistled in surprise.

“Look,” he said, “If you’re really serious about this I can bring the price down one-third. My boss is anxious to get in this area. You have a nice house. Just let us use it as a model to snow future prospects.”

“That sounds fine,” I nodded, as he shoved a stack of papers under my nose. “But wait a minute. I can’t sign that fast. I’d like to see a house done with mastic paint.”

“Oh, the only houses we’ve done thus far are on the West coast,” he shrugged. “We’re just breaking into the East and you’re one of our first contacts.”

“Well, I’ll think about it and let you know,” I told him. I wanted time to check his company with the Better Business Bureau.

A week later I got a letter from the New York Better Business Bureau warning me that if I signed to have my house mastic-painted I’d better get a lawyer and face the fact that I had gotten the short end of an outrageous swindle by a fly-by-night outfit whose guarantee was worthless. Later, I also learned that there was nothing new or amazing about mastic paint. It had been used for years but largely by industry to cover concrete block and brick walls I and has to be carefully applied after \ costly preparation. When applied to ‘ wood siding, like my home and most other homes, it would begin to flake and powder in the first rain and actually cause the wood to deteriorate rapidly.

I reported the results of my investigation to the New York newspaper and the gyp company’s ads were barred from their columns. Unfortunately, however, countless thousands of home owners are still being rooked by the same mastic paint racket and thousands more by dozens of variations of home repair gyps.

“There’s hardly a product or a service offered the home-owner today,” says the Wall Street Journal in a recent home-repair business survey, “that some shady operator somewhere hasn’t taken up. Almost any repair job, from $50 to $5,-000, may attract a repair gyp.”

Says Victor H. Nyborg, president of the Association of Better Business Bureaus: “Americans this year are spending an unprecedented amount on home improvement and the gyps are getting their share of it.” According to Mr. Nyborg, before the year is out phonies knocking on your door will rake in some $500,000,000. And this is only a conservative estimate.

The most rampant racket is the one that almost hooked me—the “model home” angle. If it isn’t “mastic paint,” it is one of a thousand ingenious variations. Consider the one they pulled recently on a New Jersey home-owner. A salesman knocked at the door and announced that he was from a new company in New York.

“We’d like to do business in this area with a new aluminum siding,” said the salesman. “And we’ve selected your house as a model. We’ll give you a whole new siding job free if you’ll let us take pictures of your house and use it for advertising purposes.”

Free! Who can resist such a deal? This home-owner signed up promptly and got his job done just as promptly— plus a bill for $1,960! He!s now paying off that note at the rate of $67.93 a month because what he didn’t know when the salesman shoved a batch of papers under his nose to sign was that one of them was a bank loan authorizing the new siding job.

Another angle to the “model home” trap turned up a few months ago in Memphis, Tenn. A gyp outfit there convinced dozens of home-owners in a single community that their homes had been carefully selected for a package “model” deal.

It included the installation—at cost—of a combination garbage disposal-dishwasher unit and a free supply of soap for three years. The bargain price? Just $230. Few could resist. After the gyp outfit “went out of business,” the bargain package turned out to be valued at under $100.

Right now law enforcement officers and Better Business Bureaus from coast-to-coast are desperately trying to alert all Americans—home-owners as well as city folk in apartment houses—against the ravages of the “switch” game. In this neat little art the technique is simple: advertise an irresistible bargain and then when the sucker is ready to buy, switch! Get him to buy something more expensive. The switch artist uses everything from outright lies to persuasive appeals to vanity. He invariably operates early in the working day when he can be reasonably sure the woman of the house is alone. The product advertised —called the “bait”—is usually a genuine bargain but, as they say in the racket, “It’s nailed to the floor.”

If you’re smart enough to spot a “bait” advertisement you can forestall a switch by insisting on the original bargain, although you may have to fight like hell to get it. In most cases if you persist in wanting the bargain the salesman will curtly announce that it will be delivered to you. But that’s the last you’ll hear of it or of him.

One of the biggest baits today is the lure of astonishing bargains in storm doors and windows. It’s not unusual for a switch outfit to offer storm windows at $7.77 each plus a free storm door and free installation. But when the salesman calls the line might go something like this: “Shucks, mister, we didn’t know you had such a nice home. These windows are all right for the price but they really belong in a much cheaper home. Of course, if you insist on having these I feel it’s only fair to tell you that you’ll have to brush them up once a week with steel wool to keep them from getting rusty and losing their shine.” Before the salesman’s through he’s got the sucker convinced that storm windows costing three times as much are just as good a “bargain.” They rarely, if ever, are.

A growing menace in the use of repair services is the gyp who poses as a phony inspector. Take, for instance, the phony who walked in on a Providence, R. I., housewife and said he was from the home heating and fuel “Safety Department.” He meant from his own company but he made it sound official. The innocent housewife let him “check” the condition of her furnace and in a little while the “inspector” was up from the basement with a look of distress on his face.

“Madam, it’s a lucky thing I came around when I did. The furnace of yours is in dangerous condition. Could have blown up any minute.”

“What shall I do?” the shocked housewife asked.

“You’ll have to shut it down. And I warn you not to start it up again.”

Luckily, the inspector knew a repairman who would come over immediately in an emergency. In a few minutes the repairman—actually a confederate from his here-today-gone-tomorrow outfit—was at the house with a pickup truck full of tools and spare parts. Before the hour was up the housewife had signed on the dotted line for nearly $250 worth of repairs and new parts.

Special targets for the gyp kings are home-owners who have, or had, FHA-insured loans for home repairs and improvements. The fakers come around as FHA inspectors, saying they merely want to check up on the condition of your property. They spring the gag that if you’ve had FHA assistance you’re obligated to keep your home in good condition. Naturally, they always find something wrong and they always know the right man who could fix things up in a hurry at a bargain price. The FHA constantly warns that it has no such inspectors but that doesn’t faze the gyps who rake in fast profits from one town after another.

In Kerrville and Corpus Christi, Texas, scores of home-owners got stung by a couple of sharpies who “inspected” their homes for termite and insect infestation and succeeded in selling them worthless exterminating chemicals.

Of course, not every bargain is bait for the switch gyp. Most merchants are reputable. Most repair contractors and servicemen are honest. But if this causes you to let your guard down, you’re playing with fire.

What can you do to protect yourself? First, make sure you alert the women of your household. Then follow this advice I have compiled from such sources as the FTC, the FHA and Better Business Bureaus: 1. Never deal with an individual or firm whose reputation is not known to you.

2. Never sign a contract, sales slip, or certification of “satisfactory completion” of a job without reading what you sign, especially the fine print.

3. Remember that an FHA-insured loan for home improvement or repairs is no guarantee or protection.

4. Never deal with a salesman who tries to talk you out of an advertised bargain.

5. If the merits of a product sound too good to believe, check up before you buy.

6. Beware offers from pitchmen who want to use your home as a “model.”

7. Unless you are sure of the outfit you’re dealing with, always get more than one estimate on a home-repair job.

8. Don’t be won over by long-term guarantees.

9. If anyone comes posing as an inspector of any kind, ask for absolute identification.

Stick to these rules and chances are the gyp artists will have to ring someone else’s doorbell. If you have any doubt at all about the caller at your door, you can’t lose by saying, “No, thanks!” •

5 comments
  1. Neil Russell says: January 8, 20096:15 pm

    What a stereotypical urban legend this article is! The idea that homeowners are just a bunch of idiots waiting to be fleeced by a sideshow barker is just silly, it was then and it is now.
    From the other side of the fence, I’ve spent years trying to overcome the stereotype by doing in-home sales for home improvement products and I always try my darndest to demonstrate the products honestly and to answer all the questions a homeowner has about the project. I also always look professional and drive (gasp) a nice car, I suppose it would make things better to have an old beater and wear bib overalls. That would give the customer confidence wouldn’t it? What the author doesn’t seem to grasp is that the salesman isn’t the installer, and if he is, then there’s a risk involved in dealing with a one-man band. A real company is going to have management, a sales force, warehouse people, and installers. Not to mention insurance and licenses that the small companies usually don’t offer (not all, I’m generalizing here but not as bad as the author).
    Are there crooks out there? You bet! But they usually don’t last too long in a market and after they’ve tried taking in a few people, they move on or just vanish. Any company worth a toot is going to have pictures of jobs they’ve completed and letters of recommendation from prior customers. Not only that they will have a list of customers for the homeowner to call and just see what kind of work was done and whether or not the customer was satisfied.
    The reliance on the Better Business Bureau is something consumers should take with a grain of salt, yes they can tell you if a company has had complaints, but only if those complaints haven’t been remedied. It’s not always the best recommendation. Don’t take my word for it, check with the BBB.
    Does a salesman try to get the client to sign on the first meeting? Of course. Because they are pushy and greedy? No, because if they’ve presented their product to a well-informed customer and met all the customer’s requirements, then it’s only reasonable that they earn the customer’s business.
    With our company, we never push, it’s entirely up to the customer, but we do offer sales pricing if they want to get started right away. I’ve had to explain to more than one customer that I can offer them a percentage off the sticker price because it saves the time of coming back to see them a second or third time. I could be all over the southern part of the state, my territory covered a radius of 250 miles, and if they decided to buy later I’d have to detour and go back to see them. That could cost me a sale somewhere else, so naturally it’s worth a percentage to save my time and gas. It’s just simple business.
    I don’t do the model home concept but I’ve worked for companies that do and yes, it’s valid. If you buy siding or windows, or shutters, or gutters and are happy with the work, why wouldn’t you allow the company to use you to advertise particularly if it saves you some money? Usually all that’s asked is for the customer to put a sign in the yard, allow pictures to be taken for advertisements, and to refer back to the customer later. The ironic part is that today we still ask the customer for those things, but it all just becomes part of what adds to the company integrity.
    The home improvement business is too competitive these days to screw people over, scams like “free siding, just pay for installation” and other old tin men tricks are unnecessary and just plain wrong.
    I do think it’s funny that the product the article starts out with is that same old lighthouse paint crap that has of late made the rounds as “liquid vinyl” and if the author had thought about it; if a product is that good, why isn’t it for sale at the local hardware store? Simple, because it’s no good.
    I know it’s silly to take issue with a 50 year old article, but I get aggravated with people that don’t seem to get the idea that sales is a profession like any other, except that most other professions rely on salespeople to make their money no matter the product or service.

  2. blast says: January 10, 20091:10 am

    Fair enough, Neil, but I hope that my wife and I never, EVER again meet a man at our home who believes as you seem to that “it’s only reasonable that they earn the customer’s business” or that they “can offer them a percentage off the sticker price because it saves the time of coming back” – as if a follow up telephone call would be utterly useless.

    I call our first and only in-home sales experience – we were new homeowners – the “Night of the R______t Salesman” – like a horror movie, as in one of the worst nights of my life – and that household water softener pusher ruined it for you and every other to come (as in “No Soliciting” sign).

    This man – I won’t dignify him with the “gentle” prefix – wanted a sale sooooo bad. Ultimately, he couldn’t offer us anything meaningful – like brochures to select a model with (“those cost money”) or the benefit of a few hours’ thought. “Think it over” was not in his vocabulary – as if I would spend $5,000 at the drop of a hat! Why, it even came with “a free supply of soap for three years” – who knew that had been going on so long? He kept escalating the pressure. He even popped on out to his car to “consult with his superior” to try to get us a better price. What a LIAR. After he’d left (with a blank order form) I looked him up on the web (all we had was dial-up back then…). He was the district sales manager. I’m sure he had the authority to set prices however he pleased to make a sale.

    So don’t tell me “stereotypical” or “urban legend”. There are plenty of people (foolish, or careless) out there waiting to be taken, and plenty of people (slick and polished, or here today and gone tomorrow) to take advantage of them. The BBB and the authorities still put out warnings for scam artists. Not much has changed in 50 years in door to door sales.

  3. Dave says: March 31, 20093:10 am

    But where can I get some of this ‘mastic paint’?

  4. Cordless Tool Batteries says: August 21, 20091:39 pm

    @Dave – lol

    Seriously, these unscrupulous practices are world wide. We had a window salesman call when we asked for a quote to get new double glazed windows for the front of our house. He showed us the pretty samples on offer, then measured up and got his price list out. For 2 windows the list price was nearly $13000! Being a person with some nous, I just looked at him. 50% came off that price within 2 mins. I still just looked. He said “How much do you want to pay? I said 50% of the %50. He made the usual phone call to his manager and the out come was I got the 2 main windows plus one smaller window for $3500, saving me $9500! As a rule of thumb, expect to pay 25-30% of an original price. And keep quiet so the salesman can talk himself into your deal.

  5. Andrew L. Ayers says: May 8, 201012:54 am

    We’ve had two major pieces of work done on our house in the past year; last year, a portion of our fence blew down (we replaced the entire fence with block), and last December we had the windows and doors replaced, and added extra insulation. In both cases, we not only got the best price, but we were able to hire the best teams. We did this in a fairly simple manner: First, we came up with a plan of what we wanted, exactly. We also came up with backup plans in the event we couldn’t get exactly what we wanted. We then called around for estimates, and we did interviews.

    When we interviewed for the fence, we had the contractor come out, and my wife told him what we were looking for. If he couldn’t answer things right, or seemed drunk (several were!), or seemed like he didn’t know what he was doing (in one case, my wife had to show the individual how to use a tape measure – !!!), he was “outta there”. If he “little-ladied” my wife about decisions or ideas, or anything – my wife don’t take that – goodbye! We had some trouble finding someone, then my wife hit upon a great idea: Call up a concrete block manufacturing company, and ask them who -they- would recommend for such a job…

    It worked perfectly; the contractor (Toro Construction – Phoenix) was able to implement our ideas perfectly, and quickly, too! Once we had the down payment paid, his workers came out, and inside of one day, had all the old concrete panel fencing demolished and removed, and footers poured with rebar for the new block fence around our house – amazing doesn’t begin to describe it. The next day, they returned, and installed all the block and caps. On the third day, they had our ironwork panels and gates installed. It turned out perfectly, exactly as we had dreamed and “napkin-scratched”. If you want to see more about the fence, check out my website.

    We did the same thing when we had our doors, windows, and attic insulation installed; this process took longer, and we weren’t able to get the custom back doors we wanted (no one could fabricate them), but because we had a fallback plan, we did get doors we love. Installation took some time due to personal issues as well as waiting for the factory to build and ship the parts, but it all did come together, and it wasn’t any real hassle (I will say that blown-in insulation is a dirty and nasty process; we’re still cleaning our garage from the dust generated – but this was expected). Our house is much better insulated, we are saving money, and we got a nice deduction on our taxes this year. We also recommend this contractor to all who will listen (Acme Works – Phoenix).

    We have found that, by taking time and talking to people, that you can generally find wonderful individuals who love their work, and make your investment of cash worthwhile in a great product. We also learned that there are more than a few incompetent individuals out there attempting to sell something without having the slightest clue as to what they are doing (one contractor wrote out his estimate in chicken-scratch on the back of an old soiled envelope – sure, buddy).

    Use some common sense, and beware.

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