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Outsmart the “Lady Upcharge”

Remodel woes illustrationBy Erin Arvedlund, Staff Writer, Philadelphia Inquirer

The “lady upcharge.”

Ever face it when negotiating prices? It’s when repairmen and contractors charge women more—in this case, for home-improvement projects.

Mount Airy resident Mary Harris, a social worker and local real estate developer, says she was quoted a 30 percent “lady upcharge” for almost everything when she first went into the business with her brother-in-law.

“I’m a dyed-in-the-wool feminist, but scalawags smell an opportunity with women,” Harris says.

Her brother-in-law began phoning the contractors and working out the prices for their real estate projects. But with time and experience, Harris learned some priceless lessons. Now, she contracts out the jobs herself.

“I call around and get several estimates from contractors, and I usually meet with them in a neutral location. If you have a really nice house, don’t invite them there. They’re profiling you to see how much they can charge,” she says. Meet at a coffee shop or a public place instead.

Enter into a repair or improvement project with a written contract, a start and finish date, and a three-day right-to-cancel notice, she says. Sign a contract that includes all costs and supplies.

Hold back 15 percent of the total payment until you’re completely satisfied, says Gabe Canuso, a local developer in Philadelphia and builder of the Oxford Mills residences.

He recommends watching YouTube videos online to see what’s required.

“You can learn what will need replacing” and help educate yourself, Canuso says.

Information equals power—and dollars—according to a 2013 study by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. It looked at a different upcharge situation women face frequently: car repairs.

The study showed that female callers were typically quoted about 10 percent higher rates if they said they knew “nothing” about what car repairs should cost.

So equip yourself with knowledge. The National Center for the Prevention of Home Improvement Fraud has some great advice.

Among the center’s tips:

  1. Hire only contractors with business cards and references. Contractors should provide names and phone numbers of those references.
  2. Do not pay for the whole job up front; you may never see your contractor again. No reputable contractor will ask for most or all of an agreed-upon payment immediately. Most legitimate contractors bill only after a job is done to your satisfaction.
  3. Prepay no more than 10 percent of the job total. That’s the legal maximum in some states, and enough to establish that you’re a serious customer so the contractor can work you into his schedule—the only valid purpose of an advance payment. As to materials and rentals, the contractor’s suppliers will provide them; don’t fork over a large down payment for materials.
  4. Define and set up payment terms in conjunction with completed stages of the job. If a contractor makes a mistake or says he needs more money from you, it’s his responsibility to fix the error. Make sure your contract says so.
  5. Sign a completion certificate only when all work has been finished.
  6. Do not pay cash. Pay your contractor by check or credit card, so you have documentation and recourse should you need it.
  7. Ask your insurance agent to ascertain what coverage your homeowner’s policy might provide during and after the project. Ask your agent to look at the contractor’s insurance policy, as well, to ensure there are no coverage gaps.
  8. Does the contractor have enough liability coverage? If not, get liability and lien waivers to protect yourself. Why? Even if you pay a contractor in full, if he does not pay subcontractors or suppliers, they can file liens against your property.

Finally, it’s OK to ask for help from the men in your life—and to offer the women who are important to you some assistance. “If you have an aunt, or mother or sister, check in on them about their home. When you see something broken, offer to help find someone to fix it,” Harris says.

Help other ladies avoid that upcharge.

For information about how to select a home-improvement contractor or to report a fraudulent contractor:

Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General at 800-441-2555,

New Jersey consumer-affairs hotline at (973) 504-6200 or visit the state’s Division of Consumer Affairs website,