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Call Kurtis Investigates: The Home Repair Honesty Test

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WEST SACRAMENTO (CBS13) -- With another scorching summer around the corner, you don't have to look any further than your mailbox for a swarm of deals and specials to get your air conditioner back in tip-top shape.

But as consumers ready their homes to stay cool in the hot summer months, an undercover Call Kurtis investigation has learned some companies aren't always completely honest about what repairs need to be done.

It's no secret many companies offer those tuneup deals at a bargain price -- hoping to gain new customers and build their business. But how many of those companies try to sell you something you really don't need at all?

The Complaints

"I was steamed," said 77-year-old James Grossi.

Grossi admitted he's no expert, but he knew something was wrong when he was told he needed to replace his entire furnace during a $65 regular tuneup inspection, he said.

Amy Rose, 27, cannot fully use or feel her hand after undergoing surgery at Gonzalez's Rocklin-based Advanced Medical Spa, she told CBS13's Kurtis Ming.

"He was telling me this is a crack," the senior said, showing CBS13's Kurtis Ming the top part of his furnace.

The solution was a whole new unit, at a cost of around $7,000, he said.

"I was thinking I could do without heat in the winter time," Grossi joked.

"He scared you to think you'd burn the place down?" Ming asked.

"Yeah," Grossi said.

But a second opinion from another heating and air company found there was no crack at all -- it was just a seam in the sheet metal, he said.

His furnace was just fine, according to Grossi.

"We had a shyster here trying to gouge us," he said.

The Plan

CBS13 installed hidden cameras and undercover gear in a house, to conduct a test.

We ask two veteran air conditioning repairmen to independently inspect the air conditioner.

The first -- Rob Barnett, from Barnett Heating and Air in Rio Linda.

"Do you see anything wrong at all that would need to be fixed?" asked Ming.

"Absolutely not," Barnett said.

Bill Horbaly from Sacramento's Bonney Plumbing, Heating & Air also inspected the unit.

"It's got a clean bill of health," he told CBS13.

Now our experts trip the breaker.

"It's about as easy of a service call as we'd ever have," Barnett said.

The Honesty Test

CBS13 hired three air conditioning companies based on their seasonal specials advertised for inspections or tuneups.

The homeowner has allowed us use of his home, where a CBS13 producer will greet the servicemen.

During each appointment, our producer tells the technician we don't know of anything wrong with the unit.

"I just thought I'd get it checked up and everything," our producer tells a serviceman, "before it gets too hot, you know?"

All three companies we hire realize right away the system isn't turning on.

"It's not a good sign," one serviceman tells the producer.

Each company heads to the breaker box, zeroing in on the breaker being off.

Attorney Michelle Jenni represents 12 patients injured by Gonzalez, she said, and conducted the August 1 deposition. (CBS13 Animation; Photos courtesy Michelle Jenni, Hope Moon)

"Sometimes it's a trip," one repairman explained.

"The whole time it was off," said another.

With a flip of the switch, all three get the A/C running. But will they tell us we've got other problems?

"If they're honest, they'll just tell [our producer], it's a basic service call," said Barnett, "reset the breaker, and you're good to go."

After inspecting the unit, the technician from All Year Heating and Air tells our undercover producer exactly that.

"That's good news," our producer tells him.

Big Mountain Heating & Air's technician tells us the unit is functioning fine, but he has a suggestion: a start capacitor.

He said the $357 installation of this device will help the unit start up and extend its life.

But no high pressure tactics here.

Now to Aldrin, the technician from Alley and Co. Heating and Air who tells our producer we need that same device. He calls it a kickstart.

"You think we need this kickstart thing now?" our producer asked.

"Yeah," the Alley and Co. technician tells us. "If it comes 100 degrees, I guarantee it's going to pop the fuse."

Without the $397 installation, he guaranteed our unit will stop working this summer on hot days.

"It needs it right now," he said.

The Truth

Attorney Michelle Jenni represents 12 patients injured by Gonzalez, she said, and conducted the August 1 deposition. (CBS13 Animation; Photos courtesy Michelle Jenni, Hope Moon)

Horbaly said the device could extend the life of the unit, but it wasn't a necessity.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, [the Alley and Co. technician] is maybe a 6 or 7 on unreasonable recommendations," he said.

"It's pretty manipulative and quite a bit of exaggeration," he tells CBS13.

Consumer investigator Kurtis Ming asks the technician directly.

"Hey Aldrin, I'm Kurtis Ming from channel 13," he said. "What are you saying is wrong with this machine here?"

"It's basically -- right now, it's over-amping," the Alley and Co. technician replied.

But when Adrin tries to explain the problem to us, he softens his pitch.

"To be honest, you don't really, really need it, but it's best for the unit to make it last longer," he said.

"You told us we needed it," Ming said.

"Yeah," he replied.

"Now you're saying we don't need it," Ming said. "Aldrin, are you trying to rip us off?"

"No," he said, then admitting there's sometimes pressure from above to sell more, and there's more in it for him.

"Yes, we do get commissions," he said.

"So if you sell us more, you make more money?" asked Kurtis.

"Yes, definitely," Aldrin replies.

While he insists the kickstart could help, he agreed there's nothing wrong with our A/C unit.

"It's running right, it's cooling the house, cooling really good," he said.

The Better Business Bureau has seen a pattern of complaints about Alley and Co., telling customers they need unnecessary work, according to President Gary Almond of the Northeast California BBB.

"There's obviously an issue here," he said. "It is wrong -- plain wrong -- to mislead about the condition of their unit in an effort to sell them something they do not need."

Grossi didn't listen to what his repairman told him, and saved $7,000.

"It's worked perfect," he said.

He learned you can't always trust what you're told, he said.

"Get a second opinion no matter what," he said.

The experts CBS13 consulted stress routine inspections are key to keeping your unit working properly, and these seasonal deals are not just opportunities to upsell you.

Alley and Co. did not return our repeated requests for comment.

Picking a Reputable Company

There are several steps consumers can take to find reputable repairmen.

Ask your friends and family who they use and trust, then check the companies out with the Better Business Bureau. Lastly, always make sure they're properly licensed with the Contractors State License Board.

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