Chimney repair and chimney cleaning scams are on the rise. Since most people know nothing about chimneys, this is a particularly easy way for scammers to cheat unsuspecting homeowners.
Here’s how chimney repair and cleaning scams work:
The scammer contacts you (via email, phone, etc.) and offers you a special on chimney cleaning for a ridiculously low price, such as $39.95. If you’ve just moved into a new home, they may say that the previous residents (and mention their names to add credibility) used their company.
Once they get to your home, they inspect your chimney and tell you that there is structural damage, or that you need new chimney caps (also known as spark arresters). They may even bring in dead birds or pieces of concrete that they claim fell down the chimney.
These con artists usually focus on concerns about carbon monoxide poisoning. They often claim that it’s really lucky you caught the leak now, since it could be fatal.
In fact, carbon monoxide leakage in chimneys is quite rare. There are instruments that prove carbon monoxide leakage — if you hear this claim, make sure they prove it to you.
Another common scam is for the con artists to claim you need a new liner. Liners are made of clay, cast concrete or metal to contain the fire and direct it upwards — and they are expensive.
Unfortunately, these scammers often claim good liners need to be replaced. Or even worse, they install new liners in the wrong size or only line part of the chimney, which can be very dangerous.
Perhaps the icing on the cake for scammers is that many people are predisposed to trust chimney sweeps because people loved the Dick Van Dyke character in “Mary Poppins.” This may make it even easier for scammers to con unsuspecting homeowners.
How do you protect yourself? Here are some tips from the National Chimney Sweep Guild and the Chimney Safety Institute of America:
- Don’t fall for low prices. A legitimate company probably won’t take a ladder off the truck for $39. An inspection will probably cost about $75, and a chimney cleaning should go for at least $150 and take at least an hour.
- Always ask for — and check — references.
- Don’t let anyone pressure you into fast action. Shop around and get two or three bids before you make your decision regarding which company to use.
- Check to make sure the company is licensed and doesn’t have a lot of complaints. Not all areas require licensing, but many do. It may be worthwhile to consider if the chimney sweep is certified by the Chimney Safety Institute of America.
- Make sure the company has up-to-date liability insurance.
- In some localities, the fire department may inspect chimneys for free. It never hurts to find out.
How often does your chimney actually need to be cleaned?
This depends on many factors, including how much you use your fireplace. Experts say that if you only use your fireplace once a week or for a few hours at a time during the winter, you can go two or three years without a cleaning. The Chimney Safety Institute of America recommends annual inspections.
One way to tell that your chimney needs cleaning is if soot rains down when you open or close your damper. You can also measure to see if you have one-eighth of an inch of creosote buildup.