Times are tough, money's tight and everyone's looking for a bargain — even when it comes to home repairs.
It's a situation ripe for bending the rules. County officials are seeing an uptick in the number of unlicensed contractors operating in Pinellas. They've fined unlicensed contractors hundreds of thousands of dollars and placed liens against their property.
But when it comes to collecting the money, they don't.
"They just sort of sit there," said Rodney Fischer, executive director of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board. "Periodically, we get one paid when someone transfers the property."
Since Jan. 1, 2004, the county has filed 1,200 liens against unlicensed contractors. Of those, 112 — about 9.3 percent — have been paid. Pinellas is owed about $685,000 in unpaid liens.
"It's really aggravating to me," Fischer said. "There's a hundred different things we could use the funds for."
Under state law, the county is limited to fining a contractor $500 per incident for not having a license. If the offender does not pay the fine, the county can place a lien on his property. But the filing fee alone for a foreclosure action is $400, not including staff time or other costs. Those expenses can be added in, but if the property is mortgaged or homesteaded or otherwise protected, then the county would also lose that money.
"There are ways around us,'' Fischer said.
The county could also seek criminal charges against the contractor for not having a license. But, in practice, that seldom happens unless a homeowner is damaged in some way.
If someone is determined to evade the law, the county has few teeth to force compliance.
Fischer said some in the construction industry are advocating changes in state law to make it harder for contractors to operate without a license. One idea is to increase the fines. Another is to fine the homeowner who uses an unlicensed contractor.
It's an issue that is growing with the bad economy.
"I've never seen as much unlicensed activity as I do now," he said.
There are several reasons for that. Some contractors can't afford the licenses or the required insurance. Some financially strapped homeowners take the lowest price they can get.
But failing to check for a license or overlooking the lack of one can backfire if the contractor simply disappears without doing the work or if he does bad work. Generally, Fischer said, an unlicensed contractor also lacks the necessary permits and the liability and workers compensation insurance that's required.
Some homeowners get a "rude awakening," he said, when they find they're liable for people who are injured. And if the injury was connected to the unlicensed activity, the homeowner's insurance policy might not pay the claim.
Even contractors who appear to be licensed might not be.
That's what happened to Paul Gonnelli Jr. of Tarpon Springs when he had his roof replaced earlier this year. The contractor, Robert McCarty of Oldsmar, gave him a great price — $13,000 to replace a tile roof. Gonnelli said that was about $3,000 less than other contractors would have charged.
McCarty, who had patched Gonnelli's roof and had done work in the neighborhood, had been working under a license issued to a company on the east coast. The company's name and license number were at the top of the contract Gonnelli signed.
But Gonnelli's checks totalling about $10,500 were written to McCarty, not the company. That made McCarty an unlicensed contractor.
Now the two are disputing the quality of the work, the cost and other items. McCarty was fined by the licensing board for working without a license. He also lost his job with the company. And a criminal investigation is under way.
McCarty, who has been fined for two jobs over the last several months, denied he had done anything wrong other than having the checks made out to him personally. He said he asked that they be written to him so he could buy supplies and make the work go faster.
"It was the biggest mistake I ever made," McCarty said Friday.
Gonnelli, 82, said he regrets the whole deal.
"I thought I'd be helping him out and I thought that I'd be helping myself out, too," Gonnelli said. "I just thought I was getting a bargain. It shows you, the cheapest thing isn't the best thing to do."
Next time, Gonnelli said, he plans to do his homework by researching the contractor and checking references.
Fischer said homeowners should always check with his agency. They can go on the website, pcclb.com, to see if a contractor is licensed. They can also come down to the board's office, 12600 Belcher Road, Suite 102, to check the files for complaints.
The thinner the file, the better, he said. "If I have trouble bringing the file to you, we have a problem."
Anne Lindberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8450.