Need cash? Slap a magnet sign on your truck and say you’re a roofer. Forget the roof. This is Texas

Apr 16, 2021

What happens after a monster storm? Storm chasers show up from who knows where and charm desperate homeowners in need of a new roof out of that first insurance check. Then it’s goodbye forever.

Texas is the only storm-prone state along the Gulf Coast that doesn’t make storm-chasing roofers touch a stitch of paperwork. This is embarrassing for Texas, and especially the governor and our Legislature, both of whom could easily fix this longstanding problem. Their inaction allows crimes to flourish.

Unlike hair cutters and plumbers and tow truck companies, no roofers’ license is required. No certification is demanded. There’s not even a state-sponsored website that offers a list of names, addresses and phone numbers of known honest, reliable roofers.

This type of theft happens every day of the year in Texas, and now there’s at least one guy saying enough is enough.

State Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, has introduced Senate Bill 1481, which calls for a registration system for roofing companies who do post-storm work. For a minimal fee, these storm chasers would get listed on a state website.

The senator says, “You hand somebody $10,000, and you’re not able to look up whether or not they’re registered in the state and have a contact number.”

It’s notable that he mentions $10,000 because I spoke this week with Joe Dickens of Arlington, who gave his roofing company that amount. Then the roofers said goodbye forever. No roof for him.

“He took the money and ran off, OK?” Dickens says of former House of Tomorrow roofing company owner Jorge Garcia.

Dickens is still bitter about being a victim in a huge scheme involving more than 100 homeowners in Dallas, Arlington and Forth Worth. Victims lost a total of $500,000 in lost insurance claims.

For both Dickens and for me this matter is highly personal. We both discovered that storm-chasing roofers often behave as if they are members of a crime syndicate. In fact, my roofing experience changed my life.

The first roofer I hired after a hailstorm 15 years ago got confused and roofed the house behind me instead of mine. He tried to make my shocked neighbor pay anyway.

The second roofer I hired fixed my roof, but then declared bankruptcy, leaving almost a hundred other customers roofless. He was convicted of theft and served prison time.

After that experience, I studied what went wrong and what I could do to prevent it. This is why I created a consumer rights movement called Watchdog Nation that shows us how to protect ourselves. I was my own test case, and that’s how that experience changed my life.

Ever since, I’ve watched storm-chasers pulling off their cons and nothing is done. This is considered normal in Texas, and it was reflected in an eye-opening video posted the other day by the Texas Department of Insurance. The video, called “Winter storm webinar,” is available on YouTube. It was supposed to be a primer on how to handle insurance claims like busted water pipes caused by the February storms.

But something surprising happened in this video. Members of the public hijacked the discussion away from burst pipes to pleas for advice on how to find honest roofers.

The hashtags for the video are #insurance #storm #disaster. But they should be changed to #roofers #scams #disaster. Here are the public’s questions, and the insurance department’s answers.

Do contractors have to be licensed in Texas? (No.)

Is there a way to see if a contractor has been involved in fraud? (Nothing official.)

Is it OK to ask to see their driver’s license? (Brilliant idea.)

Is there a place I can get information about my contractor for my piece of mind? (Check search engines to background the roofer.)

Is there a directory we can use to find good contractors? (Again, nothing official.)

How can we stop unsolicited phone calls and roofers coming to my door? (The calls are illegal, and little can be done. For door-knockers, TDI says ask to see their solicitor’s permit. If they don’t have one, call the cops.)

How can I do a criminal background check on a contractor and his staff? (Try a for-pay website.)

You can see from these questions what concerns the public. All of this could be solved with Sen. Johnson’s Senate Bill 1481, and its companion in House Bill 2777.

The bills require re-roofers (those repairing existing roofs) to register their company’s name with contact information. Any bad behavior would be reported. Violators could face a $500 civil penalty.

But the same lawmaker who killed the roofers bill in 2019 has told the state’s roofers association that he vows to do it again.

Rep. Ramon Romero Jr., D-Fort Worth, stomped on the bill two years ago like it was a snake that tried to bite him.

Romero would not talk to The Watchdog this week. But in 2019 when I profiled his stomping, he told me one reason he objected was because the bill’s author was not a contractor. “It really needs to be a contractor,” he said. (Did I mention Romero is a contractor?)

Truth is anybody can introduce a bill. But thanks to Romero, two years ago, the bill lost a 99-33 House vote. Since then, more Texans have been ripped off. I blame him.

Sarah Burns, who runs the Roofing Contractors Association of Texas, told me, Romero has “already made it abundantly clear that he intends to do the same in this session.”

Before talking to me, Burns said she was on the phone with a San Antonio homeowner.

“They hired the cheap guy,” she said, “and now they’ve got a $40,000 metal roof, and it leaks all over the place. They’re going to have to move out.”

If you’re wondering why this registry is such a problem, it plays into the notion, pushed hard by Gov. Greg Abbott and others, that we shouldn’t do anything that hurts business. And how about consumers? Meh.

“I understand we like Texas,” Burns says. “The reason we’re here is because we don’t want government in our business. But, unfortunately, this is a situation with no recourse for consumers.”

Johnson says his bill has a chance this year because the October 2019 Dallas tornado drew added attention to the crime spree. His bill awaits a hearing in the Senate Business & Commerce Committee. (Want to help? Call chairman Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, and say “Let’s move on SB 1481.” His office is 512-463-0109.)

The similar House Bill 2777 could use your help, too. It’s stuck in the House Business & Industry Committee, where chairman Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, released a statement to The Watchdog, saying: “In terms of this specific measure, I have not reviewed it, but I support efforts to reform the roofing industry to better protect consumers.” (Want to help? Promote HB 2777 for a hearing. Turner’s office is: 512-463-0574.)

Remember our victim, Dickens? Other victims were not as fortunate as the Arlington homeowner who lost $10,000. NBC5 did a report on his plight. That changed everything.

“You’re not going to believe this,” he says. “After that, a roofing company contacted me. There was a good Samaritan. He donated my roof. Who that individual was I have no idea, but I would love to sit down, shake his hand and have a cup of coffee with him.”

What an embarrassment. It takes an unknown angel to make up for what the Texas Legislature won’t do for its own people.