Unlicensed Contractors Can Cause Heartache

By<a href="http://abcnews.go.com/sections/GMA/GoodMorningAmerica/gma991222_hunter_mailform.html">Greg Hunter</a> via via logo

Feb. 20, 2004 -- Sallie and Bruce Lloyd hired contractor Jon Wright four years ago to do work on their Freeport, N.Y. home, a move they have since come to regret. Deeply.

After spending $28,000, the bathroom in their Long Island home did not look anything like what they had requested, from the ceiling rafters, to the non-waterproof sheetrock on the walls. In a lawsuit, they claim that Wright, of Wright Contracting in Freeport, bungled the job.

"He's a scoundrel and a thief," Sallie Lloyd said. "His work is shoddy and he can't be trusted for one minute."

At the time that the work was done, Wright was licensed, but Lloyd says the contractor hired plumbers and electricians who were not licensed, and that he did not bother to get permits. Plus, while doing the job, workers fell through the ceiling — not once, but twice.

"They had no clue what they were doing," said Sallie Lloyd. "And so they made bad mistakes — mistakes that nearly burned down our house, that nearly electrocuted us."

Wright has denied doing anything wrong.

One of the most common consumer complaints is home improvement contractors who turn out to be masters of disaster. In fact, complaints about home improvement contractors went up 13 percent in 2002, according to the Consumer Federation of America. The difference between a good contractor and a bad one often comes down to whether or not they have a license.

In Hicksville, N.Y., Rose Elias says she paid so-called contractor Steve Galindo of G & B Contracting (formerly SCG Contracting) in Wantagh, N.Y., and his partner nearly $30,000 last year for home improvements they never finished.

She took photos of their handiwork, which included leaving a 220-volt, live wire exposed in her home.

"That's my bathtub that they left undone," Elias said, flipping through pictures. "Those are also wires that they left exposed. Water leak damage right there. That's where the toilet is supposed to sit, they left it open. The sewer, the smell, coming through there."Elias says that after Galindo received nearly $30,000 from her, he took off so fast that his tools were left behind.

Five homeowners have filed complaints against Galindo with the Nassau County Office of Consumer Affairs in the past six years. Wright, the Lloyds' contractor, has had 11 complaints lodged against him with the same office.

Both men have been charged again and again with violating laws protecting consumers. They have racked up thousands of dollars in fines, and lost their contractors' licenses.

But that doesn't mean they are not still trying to do business.

Officials: Showing Up Was a Crime

As part of a joint effort with the Nassau County, N.Y., Office of Consumer Affairs to look into illegal contractors, Good Morning America set up a "ripoff house." Producers set up hidden cameras, placed high and low, then invited contractors with a history of problems to do work at the house.

The hidden cameras caught illegal contractors in the act, bidding on the jobs. Both Wright and Galindo came to the house.

"When they showed up at the house, they were committing a crime," said Nassau County Consumer Affairs Commissioner Roger Bogsted. He said that because the two former contractors' work had been so bad in the past, they had lost their contractors' license and were currently banned from doing business in Nassau County.

"When you hire an unlicensed contractor, you're really playing Russian roulette with your home," Bogsted said. "These people are preying upon unsuspecting consumers. They're ripping them off. They're damaging their homes. They're taking their life's dreams."

After Wright arrived at the house set up by Good Morning America, he was eager to do the job.

"If we're going to do business, then we'll do business. It's going to be $1,000," Wright told one Good Morning America producer. He was ready to renovate, even though he has not had a contractors' license in almost three years.

A Licensed Contractor?

When Good Morning America Consumer Correspondent Greg Hunter identified himself as a reporter and asked Wright whether he had a contractor's license, though, the contractor said he did.

"Yes, I do," Wright said.

When asked again whether he had the authority to work as a contractor, Wright insisted that he had the appropriate license.

"Well according to them I do, and I'm not going to stop making my living because people want to play games," Wright said.

Asked about the people who had complained about him, Wright said he had nothing to say.

"I say nothing else," Wright said. "You can speak to my attorney."

Galindo also showed up at the Good Morning America house, where Hunter showed him photos from Elias' home.

"This is a big set-up and everything like that," Galindo said. "I don't appreciate this."

When asked what he would say to Elias, Galindo walked out of the house.

Nassau County officials say they are looking into the two cases, and may impose additional fines of $5,000 to $10,000 on Galindo and Wright in an effort to get them to stop working without a license.

Tips for Homeowners

1. First and foremost, check to see if your contractor has a license. The lion's share of complaints are about unlicensed people.

2. If your contractor hires subcontractors, make sure they are licensed -- the plumber, the electrician and so forth. If they're licensed they get permits, which means someone from the city or county will check and see the work is done correctly.

3. Watch out for big upfront fees. If contractors ask for a lot of money up front, it could mean they don't have very good credit.

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