Anyone who knows how to use a hammer, it seems, has acquired a new specialty: earthquake repair. Across the Los Angeles Basin, at roadsides and on chain-link fences, contractors are posting signs touting their skills. "Quick Earthquake Repair!" shouts a hand-painted sign in Granada Hills. "Quake Aid Contractors," reads another.
In their zeal for work, builders and would-be builders have been leaving flyers in mailboxes and on windshields, and shoving them inside tents where families slept outside damaged homes. Handymen have 800 numbers.
"You're not even awake, and they just attack you," said Nancy Spitz of Northridge, who camped for several days with her family outside a home that lost two chimneys, a block wall and part of its roof in the quake. "They don't let you sleep."
Amid the tumultuous shaking, the Northridge quake has unleashed a residential construction boom not seen in this basin since its citrus groves were cleared for tract homes decades ago. The promise of work, millions upon millions of dollars of it, is drawing licensed and unlicensed contractors, day laborers and handymen from other counties and states to this newfound land of opportunity.
An incomplete tally by building inspectors in Los Angeles and Santa Monica suggests the magnitude of the residential reconstruction job ahead: nearly 6,500 single-family homes have been declared seriously damaged or unsafe for occupancy in Los Angeles. The repair tab for homes, condominiums and apartments exceeds $2 billion.
In neighborhoods spared severe damage, the quake tumbled chimneys and toppled block walls that need to be rebuilt or replaced. Los Angeles is issuing 150 building permits daily, five times the usual number, a pace certain to quicken when homeowners receive insurance money and loans to finance major repairs.
With so much work up for grabs in Los Angeles, unqualified builders--and outright con artists--are transforming themselves into "contractors" for the cost of printing flyers or business cards. Authorities say homeowners who have lost much in the quake stand to lose more if they are not careful about whom they hire.
Although authorities say most of California's estimated 580,000 licensed and unlicensed contractors do satisfactory work, officials have logged about 300 complaints about gouging on prices for everything from chimney and roof repair to water heater and sewer line replacements. Opportunistic builders who advertised free estimates are charging for them.
Usually, the Contractors State License Board receives 300 to 500 complaints a year from the San Fernando Valley, where the quake was centered. But Larry Chaffee, assistant regional director of the board, said based on past disasters, he expects a threefold jump in complaints from the Valley and elsewhere in the quake zone--despite efforts to limit problems with high-profile police sweeps and a hot line that consumers can call.
Florida's Hurricane Andrew and the Bay Area's Loma Prieta quake left swaths of destruction that attracted thousands of workers, creating an atmosphere of confusion that led to scattered abuse.
Officials in Florida are still receiving complaints about contractor incompetence and fraud, nearly two years after the hurricane damaged or destroyed 87,000 homes. They estimate that at least 5% of those homeowners were ripped-off, paying contractors an average of $31,000 for work not done or done poorly. Many defrauded South Florida homeowners have been forced to pay for repairs twice, hiring new contractors to complete the work when building officials ordered substandard repairs removed.
In Los Angeles, officials say they are prepared to do the same when substandard work is discovered. Although too swamped with safety inspections to check construction, the city is developing a computerized list of quake-damaged properties that inspectors will match against building permits later on to check for illegal work, said Dave Kiem, principal building inspector for the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety. Homeowners will be ordered to tear out work that does not meet code, he said.
County officials are compiling a virtual catalogue of complaints from earthquake victims who say they were pressured to pay steep prices for immediate repairs. Two-thirds of the complaints were about plumbers, some of whom were accused of selling water heaters for as much as $1,000. The allegations are under investigation by the Los Angeles city attorney's office, and no charges have yet been filed.
Santa Monica Deputy City Atty. Kimery Shelton said anxious homeowners are most vulnerable to the hard sell: "They want (work) done immediately rather than sleep on the street."
Take the case of Woodland Hills homeowner Helen Holmes. Warned by a contractor that her chimney could collapse with "the next aftershock," she paid $1,500 to have it removed. Her relief turned to anger, she said, when neighbors told her they had paid a different contractor $700 for similar work.