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Two agencies make sure contractors pass muster

Home improvement contractor not living up to his end of the deal? Haunted by visions of your new roof caving in before you even sign on the dotted line?

According to figures compiled by the state's Department of Business and Professional Regulations, 53 complaints of unlicensed contractors operating in Pinellas County were made last year.

Two government agencies are making it easier to check contractors' backgrounds and prosecute frauds.

Cheryl Goodman-Lord, director of the Pinellas County Department of Consumer Protection, said her agency annually processes hundreds of complaints about contractors. "Home improvement complaints have been the No. 1 of top 10 complaints," Goodman-Lord said.

Goodman-Lord's department is the only county-run agency in the state that has the power to investigate and prosecute cases in court. The office of the state attorney has assigned a special prosecutor to work out of Consumer Protection to handle economic crimes.

She encourages consumers to call the department if they suspect a contractor of foul play.

But she said the best form of protection is to "use your common sense." Almost every type of home repair and improvement work requires the contractor to hold a specific license.

While it may be music to your ears to have your electrician tell you he will throw in a little plumbing work on the side for half the price, discounts may not always be in your best interest. "It's not an inexpensive venture and people tend to go for the cheapest way out. But you need to do your homework," Goodman-Lord said.

Here's what she suggests:

+ Verify that the contractor has a valid license and is in good standing by calling either the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board (727) 536-4720 or the state's Department of Business and Professional Regulation (850) 487-2252 or (850) 487-1395.

+ Get two or three estimates from different contractors and compare them before you agree to a final deal.

+ Read your contract before you sign it. Make sure to ask questions about the materials listed, prices and payment schedule beforehand.

+ Don't give a contractor the final payment until you are satisfied the work is done and he signs a final agreement stating that the job is complete and no further compensation is due for workers or equipment used on the job.

The Department of Business and Professional Regulation recently added a new feature to its Web site that lets consumers check contractors' backgrounds.

Consumers can now verify the validity of a contractor's license and find out if complaints about a contractor's work have been lodged with the state. For information on a particular contractor, consumers can log onto the state site at www.state.fl.us/dbpr, click on "License Search" and enter the contractor's name. Citizens can check on contractors with the automated service or with an agent at the number listed above.

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