By Betty Berry, Tuesday, July 19, 2011  Q: My home is in need of some repairs, but I have heard some horrible stories about contractors taking advantage of seniors and hesitate to hire someone. How can I avoid becoming a victim?

A: We’ve all heard some stories, but in most day-to-day dealings, the majority of contractors do an honest job. There are, however, rip-off deals or impossible-to-refuse offers that make you forget the warning “buyer beware.”

Home improvement projects and repairs are expensive, and thought and time should go into the selection of a contractor. Interview several contractors, ask for and check references and, if possible, inspect a previous job.

You should always pick the contractor — the contractor should not seek you out. A contractor who goes door-to-door telling you he is working the neighborhood should be a red-flag alert.

Make sure the contractor is licensed, bonded and insured. Check with the Contractors’ Licensing Board to see if any complaints have been filed. More than one recent complaint should put you on notice of possible trouble.

Before deciding on a specific contractor, get several estimates. A legitimate contractor will provide a free job estimate that is easy to understand and specific about materials to be used and labor to be performed.

Once you decide on a contractor, request a written contract. It should include the services to be performed, costs, guarantees, warranties, and start and completion dates. Ask to see copies of professional licenses, insurance documents and some form of personal identification.

Before starting the project, make sure the contractor pulls the proper permits and secures a performance bond.

Never pay up front. Provide a down payment and pay the balance in installments. Final payment should not be made until the job is completed to your satisfaction or, if an inspection is required, after the inspector has completed a review.

Always request a release of lien from the contractor when the project is done.

Don’t hesitate to ask questions. An honest contractor will be willing to provide information. If the contractor you select won’t provide answers, look for one who will.

Q: In reading some literature on Medicare hospital coverage, I came across something called “benefit period” that I didn’t fully understand. Could you provide a simple explanation?

A: A benefit period is a way of measuring use of hospital and skilled nursing facility services. It is important to know what constitutes a benefit period because there are certain limits to the coverage you can receive during a benefit period.

If you exceed the limits, you could be responsible for co-pays or full costs for continuation of those services.

The entire period you are treated in the hospital and/or skilled nursing facility for a spell of illness is known as a benefit period. It begins the first day you go into a hospital or skilled nursing facility and ends when you haven’t received any inpatient hospital care or skilled care in a skilled nursing facility for 60 consecutive days. The 60-day period begins on the day you are discharged.

If you go back into a hospital or skilled nursing facility after one benefit period has ended, a new benefit period begins and your benefits will be restarted.

There are no limits to the number of benefit periods you can have, but for each benefit period, you will be responsible for the Medicare Part A deductible.

Betty Berry is a senior advocate for Senior Concerns. The advocates are at the Goebel Senior Adult Center, 1385 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks, CA 91362; phone 495-6250 or email (please include your telephone number). You are invited to submit questions on senior issues.

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