Unscrupulous roofing and masonry contractors have been known to intentionally damage chimneys during free inspections or small jobs, hoping homeowners would hire them for big-ticket repairs.
Lilia McGonigle of Ringwood believes she’s another possible victim.
McGonigle keeps a close eye on the roof of her home. Because it’s flat and not pitched, she and her husband go up every week or two, whatever the weather, to make sure no debris is collecting there.
The home’s gutters have leaf guards with small mesh holes to let the rain in and keep debris out — closed gutters — but there was an area that consistently overflowed when it rained.
McGonigle said she called a gutter-cleaning company for an estimate, but the company said it couldn’t help because the gutters were of the closed variety.
On July 1, McGonigle said, she and her husband were up on the roof for their routine maintenance check.
“We know the condition of our roof practically on a daily basis,” she said. “We inspected the roof and we decided that the gutter on one troubled area needs to be cleaned.” She decided to call A-Plus Roofing of Totowa, a company that advertised in a local flier and offered free estimates for gutter cleaning.
“On arrival, the two men said their estimate for cleaning the gutters on the whole roof is $100. I quickly agreed on this price but questioned the fact that another company told me that closed gutters cannot be open for cleaning,” she said. “They said, ‘Oh yes, they can be cleaned. Just give us your garden hose.’ ” She said she gave the men the hose and they went onto the roof.
After about 10 minutes, she said, she heard “extreme bangs, blows on the roof, the entire living room was shaking.” McGonigle said she went outside to see what was happening.
“The next thing I know, the top part of the chimney was hanging off and the guy was holding it in his arms telling me the chimney, now, needs to be repaired,” she said.
McGonigle told the men to stop working and she called police. An officer arrived and took statements from McGonigle and the two workers.
According to the police report, one worker said they noticed the damage when they were on the roof. The officer seemed to side with the workers, saying in the report the damage “could not have been caused by the workers and it appeared to be a natural occurrence.”
Exactly how the officer made that determination, given that he didn’t witness the actions of the workers on the roof, is unclear. Calls to Ringwood Borough Police Department by Bamboozled didn’t give any more clarity, and the officer’s lieutenant simply said, “That’s what the officer determined.”
While McGonigle admits the chimney wasn’t new, she said it was patched several years before when she got a new roof, and it was fine the day before when she and her husband inspected the area.
“It left me flabbergasted,” she said. “I felt violated.”
We took a closer look at the company.
A Plus Roofing has the proper home improvement contractor (HIC) registration with the state and it has no consumer complaints, but its state business charter was revoked for not filing annual reports for two consecutive years, public records show.
Before giving the company a call, we reached out to two industry trade organizations to ask about the situation.
A rep from the National Rain Gutter Contractor Association said a job like the one McGonigle described shouldn’t really involve banging noises unless the worker is trying to knock the side of the gutter to loosen up debris. But usually, a worker might use a scoop to take out stuck debris rather than bang on it, he said.
The National Roofing Contractor Association (nrca.net) said covered gutters come in several shapes and sizes, but none would require banging to open.
We then called the company and spoke to office manager Nancy Atshan. She said the company has never had a problem or disputes with a customer, and they’ve received the Angie’s List Super Service award for the past two years.
Atshan said she remembered the case, and that the workers said the damage was already there when they started the job.
We asked if something they were doing in the regular course of gutter cleaning might have caused the banging McGonigle said she heard.
“The only thing I can think of is the guys walking on the roof,” she said.
We asked why, if the workers saw the damage right away, they didn’t notify the homeowner immediately. She said she’d ask the workers, but she never called back with their response.
We also asked about the revoked business charter, and Atshan said she wasn’t aware of it, but she knew the company was up-to-date with its license. She said she would call the state to take care of that oversight right away.
So exactly what happened to McGonigle’s chimney? Perhaps it coincidentally broke overnight, or perhaps a worker accidentally bumped into it, or perhaps something else happened. We’ll never know.
We’ve heard too many homeowner stories about damage that was discovered by contractors — maybe the damage was there already or maybe it was caused by workers, accidentally or intentionally.
To avoid any conflict or question about how damage may have occurred, take photos of your chimney before anyone gets close. If you’re unable to climb a ladder, ask a friend or neighbor to do it for you.
If McGonigle had done so — and who’d think that was necessary? — the mystery would be solved. In the meantime, she’s trying to move on and she’s actively looking for another contractor to fix her chimney.
A WORD TO CONSUMERS
If you’re thinking about having any work done on your home, you want to make sure to hire a reputable contractor.
Start by asking the contractor for his or her state registration number, which always starts with “13VH.” Then contact the Division of Consumer Affairs (973-273-8090 or njconsumeraffairs.gov) to see if the registration is valid and to see if there are any complaints against the company.
Before you sign a contract, make sure it’s by the book. By state law, contracts for jobs of more than $500 must include the legal name and business address of the contractor, the start date, a completion date, a description of the work to be done and the total price.
The paperwork must also show the contractor’s registration number, and the contractor must give you a copy of his commercial general liability insurance policy and the telephone number of the insurance company.
Never pay for a job upfront. It’s customary to pay a deposit worth one-third before the job starts, another third halfway through and the final third upon completion.