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Before long, those colorful leaves on the ground will be replaced by snow.
If you choose to hire a contractor to plow your driveway this winter, make sure you get your money’s worth and the level of service you expect.
Tops on the list of what to consider: ensure the company you choose will actually clear your driveway. That might seem obvious, but in late 2010, dozens of customers of Extreme Snowplowing were stuck with snow-blocked driveways after a big storm showed up and the company’s trucks didn’t. Another contractor, Terry Lyn Jarvis, was sentenced to five years’ probation earlier this year for taking $21,000 from more than 100 customers and not plowing as promised.
Such incidents are a reminder that while lots of contractors promote snow-removal services, it pays to hunt for a reputable one by checking their track records and policies.
The Better Business Bureau receives complaints each winter about some companies in the snowplowing business, said Peggy Penders, a spokeswoman for the BBB of Upstate New York. The complaints sometimes involve a company that doesn’t provide service, can’t be reached by phone, or causes damage to a property.
Picking the right contractor starts with doing some homework, Penders said. Ask friends or family members for names of companies they have had a good experience with. You can also research a company’s history at www.bbb.org to see if there is a track record or any complaints about its service.
Some contractors will jump from one market to another and change names; the BBB can help track the background of an operator through individual listings on the BBB website, Penders said.
The state Attorney General’s office suggests obtaining several quotes from candidates to clear your driveway, to gauge the range of prices, and recommends against picking a contractor based solely on the lowest price. If the quote is very low, the contractor could run out of money before winter ends (think of their gasoline bills these days), or may be unable to afford to repair a vehicle that breaks down.
If the community where you live requires a snowplow contractor to be licensed, use one with such a license and ask to see proof of it. Similarly, only hire a contractor who is insured and can prove it.
Peter Militello, owner of Militello Landscaping and Snowplowing in Buffalo, says prospective customers should ask a contractor about the territory it covers with its trucks. He says he restricts his own West Side-based business to certain parts of the city to keep the service manageable.
Militello criticizes operators who sign up customers far from their base of operations, saying those operators can’t possibly expect to serve city customers promptly when heavy snow falls and traffic is slowed. “They’re going to take care of their own neighborhood before they come down here,” he said, adding he only takes on additional customers if they are in a neighborhood he already serves.
“If you start going too far, nobody’s going to be happy,” he said.
Keith Plekan, who co-owns K.A.P. Landscaping and Snowplowing in Cheektowaga with his brother, Kyle, said consumers should look for contractors whose trucks are properly identified with state Department of Transportation numbers and the company’s name. “If you’re proud of what you do, your name should be on the truck,” he said.
Once you find a contractor you like, there are details to work out. If you don’t resolve those ahead of time, you could face more costs or complications once the snow flies.
“The Better Business Bureau always recommends you have a signed contract, and look at the details,” Penders said.
Clarify whether the service is limited to a certain number of visits per season, and what price you will pay beyond that number to have your driveway cleared.
Another question to get answered is how much snow must fall before the contractor will come to clear it. Militello’s minimum is three inches, which he says is common among many contractors.
Have the contractor visit your property in the fall to check it out, especially if your driveway has an unusual layout or your property has landscaping to be mindful of, experts say. Plekan said he finds those visits beneficial, as well, to determine how his trucks will remove snow in a way that will keep both the customer and their neighbors happy.
Plekan said the customer and the contractor also should discuss their expectations of the service, so both parties are on the same page before winter.
Plekan said communication with customers is important for a contractor. He says the phones at his business are “always on,” and if there is a problem, like a truck breakdown, he notifies customers and works out a solution. K.A.P.’s trucks are typically out plowing between midnight and 8 a.m. “You’ll seldom see us, but you’ll hear us,” he said.
If you need to have your snow cleared by a certain time in order to drive to work, have that written into your contract. If the driveway is still blocked by the time you have to leave, you are not truly getting your money’s worth.
The Attorney General’s Office suggests taking steps that will help you locate the contractor in case the service goes awry. Make sure the contract contains the operator’s name, address – not a post office box number – and phone number. Also ask to see the contractor’s driver’s license, and copy down the address and identification number. Record the license plate number of the vehicle that plows your driveway, too.
The payment schedule is another important issue to resolve. Both the BBB and Attorney General’s office recommend paying in installments – perhaps two or three – rather than one, up-front lump sum.
Some contractors might insist on being paid in advance. “Only do that if you know and trust the business owner,” Penders said. If you do pay the full bill at once, she recommends using a credit card, to give yourself more protection if problems surface, or a check, if that a credit card is an option. Do not pay in cash.
If the mild winter last season seemed to favor the contractors, in the form of little need for plowing, Plekan says the situation has been reversed in other winters, with trucks constantly on the go.
“In the end, it all evens out,” he said.

mglynn@buffnews.com