Creative Consumer: Beware of These Home Renovations

Spring starts this week, and that means flowers are coming out -- and so are unlicensed contractors. I've warned folks about unlicensed contractors countless times, but the Montgomery County, Md., Office of Consumer Protection says there's a whole new reason to beware.

"An increasing number of unlicensed home improvement contractors also have criminal histories," Director Eric Friedman said. "It can be potentially dangerous to hire unlicensed contractors."

Montgomery County has obtained an arrest warrant for an unlicensed contractor named Cesar Suazo Rivera, for instance. The warrant charges him with abandoning jobs and felony theft. Investigators say Rivera received a check for $82,500 to start a home improvement job, then never showed up to do the work.

Scarier still, Rivera is also wanted in neighboring Virginia for attempted abduction and malicious wounding, incidents that occurred while he was allegedly practicing his profession without a license.

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Here's the flip side. Did you know you could be arrested for using an unlicensed contractor? It's possible. In states that require licensing, hiring an unlicensed contractor is illegal.

Did you know an unlicensed contractor who gets hurt on your property could sue you -- and win? Unlicensed contractors are unlikely to carry proper insurance, so it has happened. These are the extremes. But even the typical experience with an unlicensed contractor can be devastating.

Elease W. saved for two years to build a ground floor bathroom in her home because she has arthritis and stairs are hard for her. She paid a contractor $10,000 to do the work. Two years later it still hasn't been done right. For months, Elease and her daughters felt like prisoners in their home. The contractor left gaping holes in the walls, so they didn't dare leave. The water pipes were built outside the structure where they froze in the winter. The foundation was unstable and the siding immediately started peeling off. Of course the family didn't check out the contractor until after everything went wrong. It turned out he was unlicensed and had a complaint record a mile long.

Paul H. needed a new roof. He got a couple of different estimates, but felt he couldn't afford them. Then he spotted an ad in one of those free neighborhood newspapers. The ad promised the lowest roofing rates in town.

Paul hired the man to reroof his home for $5,000. The man demanded full payment in advance. The man climbed around on Paul's roof for a few minutes, then said he was going to get supplies. He never returned. When I investigated, I learned the phone number in the ad actually belonged to an answering service. The address the man gave Paul didn't even exist. And there were no licensed contractors by that name listed with the state.

Licenses are generally required for any work that affects the structural or electrical integrity of the building. I've done a couple of different undercover investigations in which we invited unlicensed contractors to give us estimates for roofing work.

First, it was easy to find unlicensed contractors. We spotted their ads in local newspapers and found their business cards at home improvement stores. Unlicensed contractors tend to use the cheapest possible means to market themselves.

When we confronted them we heard every excuse. One man said he couldn't afford a contractor's license, even though the state where he worked charges only $300. Another man said he was working "under" somebody else's license. That's illegal. Only bonafide employees are allowed to work under the umbrella of a licensed contractor. A third showed us a contractor's license for another state. That doesn't count. The contractor must be licensed in the state in which the work is to be done. Several men presented us with occupancy licenses, which are just business permits that anybody can buy. They don't make a contractor legal.

If unlicensed contractors stiff you, you have next to no recourse. There's no license that the state can yank to threaten their livelihood. If you complain about them, they'll just change the names under which they do business. You can't tap in to their insurance policies because they don't have insurance. Even suing an unlicensed contractor -- and winning -- is often futile, because unlicensed contractors don't have deep pockets.

To Be a Savvy Consumer

Know the signs:

Unlicensed contractors often go door to door, claiming they "just finished a job down the street."

They may rush you and say if you act now, you'll get a special price.

Unlicensed contractors either neglect to pull construction permits or they ask you to do it for them. If you do, you are assuming liability for the project, including their mistakes.

Some states require contractors to list their license numbers on their vehicles, their estimates and their advertising. If a contractor has not done so, it may be a bad sign.

If you see a license number in an ad, and it has a different number of letters, numerals and digits than all the other ads, it may be a fake license number.

Be wary if a contractor provides only a P.O. box or pager number. That may mean he doesn't have roots in the community and plans to move on as soon as people start to complain.

Unlicensed contractors often ask for a lot of money up front. Try not to pay any money in advance. If you must, keep the amount minimal.

Do Your Homework

Find out what the licensing requirements are for contractors in your state. Shockingly, some states do not require that contractors be licensed. Also check with your county. If you live in an area where contractors do not have to be licensed, you're going to have to be extra vigilant about who you hire.

Try to find your contractor through word of mouth. A satisfied friend or neighbor is a much better source than a free newspaper.

Ask to see the contractor's actual paper license. Unlicensed contractors often put fake license numbers in their advertisements.

Get the contractor's full name, company name and license number and double check all three with the county and state departments that license contractors.

Also ask those departments if the contractor has a history of complaints.

Don't be fooled by "occupancy permits" or business licenses. These pieces of paper are worthless. Any business owner can get one. When I say "licensed contractor," I'm talking about people who has proved their skill in the field and been awarded a specialty license just for contractors. Hint: Ask the contractor if he had to take a test to get his license. In most places, he should have.

If the contractor is licensed in another state but not the one where the work is to be done, that's no protection. Some states do have reciprocal agreements, where a contractor with a license in one state can be "fast tracked" to get a license in another. Until he goes through that process, don't do business with him.

Also make sure the contractor is licensed to perform the type of work that you need. A licensed electrician cannot do plumbing work, for example.

If you hire a general contractor, make sure the specialists he hires -- such as plumbers and electricians -- are licensed too.

How to Complain

If you learn your contractor is unlicensed, contact the county and state departments that license legitimate contractors. They can advise you and possibly pursue criminal charges against the unlicensed con man.