State and county officials are warning residents to take precautions when hiring contractors to repair damage caused by Hurricane Sandy.

These disasters provide ripe opportunities for scam artists to take advantage of anxious homeowners and distressed businesses that need repairs done fast.

“We know from past experience that fly-by-night contractors who are incompetent, dishonest or both will descend upon storm-affected areas in the coming days and weeks, seeking to capitalize on those whose homes have been damaged or destroyed,” Gov. Chris Christie said in a statement.

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Property losses are still being evaluated but experts said it could set new records for damage in New Jersey. In the wake of the storm, there will be a gold rush of local and out-of-state contractors eager to make money, said John G. Rechner, director of Cape May County’s Department of Consumer Affairs.

“People are in desperate need and they’re stuck,” Rechner said.

Unscrupulous contractors will be eager to take advantage of distressed property owners, either by gouging them on the price, performing slipshod work or walking away with the customer’s money altogether, he said.

“It’s going to be a mess,” he said. “I’m having a meeting with the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office to explain to the divisional detectives what we have to look for.”

Contractors, even out-of-state ones, must be licensed to perform work in New Jersey. This helps to ensure accountability, he said.

Rechner said the biggest red flag for homeowners is any request to get paid up front. It is reasonable for a contractor to ask for a partial payment before beginning work, he said, but he recommends an advance of no more than one-third of the cost of the job.

“We recommend they put up one-third up front with a signed contract listing everything that will get done,” he said. “You have to be very detailed: not just ‘four windows’ but what brand of windows, the size and price.”

The contract should state the start and completion dates, the price and materials to be used and contingencies if materials are not available right away.

“If the windows will take three more weeks to arrive, that should be an addendum to the contract,” he said.

Performing contracting work without a license is a fourth-degree crime in New Jersey, Rechner said.

Ocean City contractor and City Councilman Tony Wilson of Wilson’s Plumbing & Heating suggested people turn to local contractors first, if possible. Out-of-state firms are less likely to respond quickly if a problem crops up once the repairs are finished.

“Use a local contractor. Quite frankly, you want to make sure you’re getting what you pay for,” he said. “You want to make sure these guys will be around long after the repairs are done.”

Wilson said he has not yet seen any out-of-state contractors during his travels around Cape May and Atlantic counties.

“We know it’s only a matter of time,” he said.

Wilson said most of his post-hurricane repair jobs have involved water heaters and other major appliances that were destroyed by the flood.

“We call them major appliances because they’re major expenses,” he said.

But a contractor who skimps on quality parts is more likely to saddle customers with needless costly repairs later, he said.

“Check with your friends and neighbors for referrals. Or just call your chamber of commerce,” he said. “See if they’re members of that.”

Membership in these professional associations often are a sign of accountability and stability, Wilson said.

“We’re going to be busy for quite some time. Not everyone has come back to see the damage yet,” he said.

North Wildwood resident Linda Biles called a contractor after returning home Tuesday and realizing heat wasn’t coming through some of the registers.

She suspected the ductwork beneath her Ninth Avenue house had become fouled by the flood.

She called a contractor she knew and trusted, Shore Guys Heating & Air of Lower Township, which arrived to inspect the house on Wednesday.

“Compared to what damage everyone else had, I’ll take it,” she said. “We were just so grateful we didn’t have any water in the house.”

Biles said she is feeling lucky about her situation.

“I feel so bad for people in other parts, when you see the damage in Sea Isle City or Long Beach Island. We kind of dodged a bullet here,” she said.

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