Unlicensed Contractors: How to Protect Yourself and Your Home

Today’s headlines include a bizarre story about a couple who were disgruntled with work performed by a “handyman” a couple of months ago.  They kidnapped him and forced him to perform repair work on their “mansion” in Morgan Hill, CA.  http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504083_162-57557330-504083/handyman-kidnapped-forced-to-do-home-repairs-say-calif-cops/ Obviously, that is an extreme overreaction and is the wrong way to handle a dispute, no matter what the circumstances are.  But the episode calls attention to the issue of how angry homeowners can become when their expectations for repair or construction services are not met.  There are many situations where work is done incorrectly, incompletely, and without permits.

Recently the Contractors State License Board conducted a 2-day sting operation in 10 cities throughout the state of California in order to identify construction contractors operating without a license.  Many unlicensed contractors took the bait and there were 92 arrests.  This indicates how widespread the problem is.  (More information is available in the article that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on October 20, 2012 http://www.sfgate.com/default/article/Unlicensed-contractor-sting-nets-92-3965938.php )

There is no recourse if a handyman or unlicensed contractor walks off the job and leaves you in the lurch.  If you don’t want to be driven over the edge, there are simple steps you can take.

In California, any home improvement project that costs more than $500 requires the service provider to have a contractor’s license.  Handyman jobs of less than $500 do not require a license, and there is little, if any, consumer protection for the homeowner who hires a handyman.  Unlicensed contractors are more than just scofflaws.  They can be a threat to public health and safety.  In doing a kitchen remodel in our own home we discovered shoddy workmanship hidden in the walls behind the drywall.  It was probably done by a “do-it-yourself” prior owner or an unlicensed contractor.  The problems included the lack of a header beam to support the roof over a sliding glass door and joists (horizontal structural supports) that had been cut through.   What should have been holding up the walls, and supporting our 2nd floor, just came off when we removed the gyp board!  We were not only shocked, but also grateful that we discovered the problem before an earthquake or other disruption caused the roof to cave in on us.

When you have repair work or new construction done, you should have confidence that it is done properly and that you are safe in your environment.  There is no cost savings that is worth risking your life, your family, or your home.  It is absolutely critical that you check the contractor’s credentials before you sign a contract or allow them to start work.  Unlicensed contractors typically underbid licensed contractors to attract unsuspecting homeowners.  Some of them may even have a license number listed on their bid, references, or examples of past work done, but that still doesn’t make them legitimate.  Take a few minutes to double-check the information that they give you.

Checking a state contractor’s license is easy.  Go to your state’s Department of Consumer Affairs website.  In California it is www.dca.ca.gov.  Click on “License Verification” from the menu.  That takes you to a page listing all of the service providers that are licensed by the state, including architects, engineers and contractors.  You can check the licenses of all of the people working on your home from that page.  You can search by the name of the person who presented the bid, or the business name.

The website provides not only the status of their license (if they have one), but also lists employees, plus bonding and workers compensation coverage.  It also lists how long they have been licensed.  This is important, as it may indicate their experience level.  It is worthwhile to call the bonding agency listed to make sure that their bond is current and whether there are any outstanding claims on their bond.  The minimum contractor’s bond required in California is $12,500.  That is not a lot of money to remedy a construction defect and if there is a prior claim pending, there may be no protection left for your job.

Check the contractor’s business location (address of record) and phone number associated with their license.  Is there a place of operations, or are they just operating out of a truck with a cell phone?  Obviously, if they have a workplace, they are less likely to disappear if you have questions or complaints about the work.  Get references and check them.  Visit completed projects if possible and talk to the owners.  Ask if they are satisfied, and if they would hire that contractor again.

There is a lot of other information available on the Contractors State License Board section of the Dept. of Consumer Affairs website.  There are guidelines and pamphlets, frequently asked questions and links to all of the County and City Building Departments in the state.  If you are starting a home improvement project, exploring the site would be well worth your time and perhaps will save you from a dangerous or costly construction problem in the future.

We were lucky; we discovered the defect in our home before it harmed people or property.  We won’t be hunting down any unlicensed handyman for revenge or restitution.  We hired a licensed and experienced General Contractor to do the remediation work and are satisfied that the problem is resolved.  Before your next home improvement project, take the time to verify qualifications and hire a licensed contractor.  Even if you pay a few more dollars now than you would for someone unlicensed, your peace of mind and safety are worth much more in the long run.

Lorianna Kastrop

Vice President, The Kastrop Group, Inc. Architects

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