Beware of unlicensed contractors

Published Aug. 28, 1996|Updated Sept. 16, 2005

Today's column on contractors is the eighth in Action's three-week series of tips to help you become a better educated consumer. Thursday we will deal with employment opportunities and scams.

Although there are capable, honest contractors in Florida, there also are incompetent builders and con artists. One reason they can stay in business is that new residents moving to Florida do not check references or complaint records on builders and do not file their own complaints when they are ripped off.

Before hiring a contractor, protect yourself by following these steps:

1. Start with recommendations from neighbors, friends and co-workers who have dealt with a company for several years.

2. Run the most promising names past your local Consumer Protection agency and the Better Business Bureau to see if any complaints have been filed against them.

3. Your local building department can tell you whether the contractor you plan to hire is required to have a license and where and how to check on that license.

The law says you can be fined up to $5,000 and/or spend a year in jail if you hire an unlicensed contractor.

Unlicensed contractors cannot acquire permits from the local building department, so unlicensed jobs go uninspected for code violations.

Most unlicensed contractors cannot get business liability and Worker's Compensation insurance. Because homeowners insurance policies seldom include this coverage where the work of a tradesman is invited, an injured workman could sue you.

4. Ask under whose name the company is licensed.

The law permits a licensed contractor to qualify additional unlicensed businesses. Once qualified with the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, the unlicensed contractor may pull permits for that company.

Qualified contractors do not necessarily supervise all the work of the companies they qualify.

5. Find out how long the company has been in business at its current address and under its current name. Ask the owner whether he/she has ever declared bankruptcy under another name.

6. Do not base your choice on price alone. "He who pays with peanuts gets monkeys" applies here.

Contractors who undercut competitors' prices by not obtaining permits, skimping on workers and materials, working 14-hour days and not doing follow-up service work may use your money to pay for materials on a previous job. If they go belly-up, it could be your belly that's exposed.

Always get a second opinion before agreeing to expensive repair or replacement work.

7. Read the contract!

On large projects (house construction or remodeling), have your attorney review the contract before signing it.

8. Check to be sure permits have been pulled.

9. Unless the work can be completed in one day, pay the contractor in draws, withholding final payment until you are satisfied with the work. If a permit was pulled, be sure the work is inspected and approved by the issuing authority for compliance with building codes before making the final payment.

10. Unpaid subcontractors can put liens on your property even though you may have paid the contractor. The policy behind lien laws is to protect laborers and material suppliers.

There is no foolproof way to protect yourself from these liens, but you can minimize your risks by following these steps and learning all you can about your contractor.

+ Get a written contract with everything spelled out.

+ Make sure start and completion dates are included.

+ Control the draw schedule.

+ Make sure a notice of commencement has been filed and posted on the site.

+ Subcontractors and suppliers must send you a "Notice to Owner" by registered mail within 45 days of beginning their work or delivering their materials. If they don't, they may forfeit any future right to put a lien on your property.

Have the contractor provide you with a legal "Release of Lien" for those subcontractors and suppliers each time you give him a draw.

11. If you are satisfied with a company, tell everyone you know. If you're not, complain to your Consumer Affairs office, the Construction Industry Licensing Board (904) 727-6530, local building officials and the Better Business Bureau.

If you have a question for Action, or your attempts to resolve a consumer complaint have failed, write: Times Action, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or call your Action number, 893-8171, or, outside of Pinellas, (800) 333-7505, ext. 8171, to leave a recorded request for Action.